Stepping (far) out of your comfort zone
It is difficult not to be captivated by the candour and charisma of Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood, obstetrician and gynaecologist turned humanitarian crusader, founder of Mercy Malaysia (Mercy), recipient of Bahrain’s prestigious Isa Award for Services to Humanity 2013, and head of the World Humanitarian Summit secretariat at the United Nations office for coordination of humanitarian affairs
Dr Jim, as she is fondly known, shares with The Leaderonomics Show her experiences, thoughts and struggles, and reveals how spending more than a decade in Mercy really propelled her into a leadership role.
“You are only a leader when you actually have followers who believe in the cause,” she shares.
The growing up years
Dr Jim developed a philanthropic spirit while growing up with parents whose doors were always open to people from all walks of life, and who always had food on the table for guests.
She reminisces how her mother made her, at the tender age of 13, embark on solo trips by train to Singapore during the school holidays to hand deliver money to underprivileged relatives.
“I was entrusted with money to ensure that the children had schoolbooks, shoes, etc. Being the youngest child and a rebel, I thought that my mother was just trying to get rid of me,” she recalls.
May 13, 1969 was another defining moment in Dr Jim’s life.
Her father, who was a respected member of the community, passed away when she was 11. She recalled chicken, vegetable and rice sellers sending food to her house during the curfew.
“He would pack little bags of food and make us walk along those large monsoon drains to avoid detection to distribute food to different houses, especially those without families.”
After completing her medical degree, doing a postgraduate degree, becoming an academic and going into private practice, Dr Jim became tired and disillusioned by the profession.
She realised that she could offer services in times of crisis to fulfil her heart’s desire, but soon grasped the many challenges of being a full-time doctor and part-time humanitarian.
“The tipping point was the tsunami, where I had to decide when to take the dive and risk this huge career change,” she recollects.
She founded Mercy in 1999 in response to the conflict in Kosovo, south-eastern Europe. “Being deeply affected by the war, my then five-year-old son urged me to help these people.”
With the encouragement of her strongest supporter husband Datuk Dr Ashar Abdullah, she started writing to organisations in Malaysia conveying her intention, without getting much positive response. “Maybe they thought I was crazy to want to go to a war zone!” she quips.
She eventually applied to join Doctors Without Borders, but was inspired by Dr Ashar to start her own humanitarian drive instead of “just being one Malaysian doctor in a French organisation”.
The birth of Mercy
With their personal savings as seed capital, Mercy was born.
Although Mercy was something new to Malaysians, help was forthcoming from the public as Dr Jim was a well-loved medical specialist with a strong client base.
“Mercy is a unique local organisation. When we travel overseas for missions, people are amazed that my volunteers assimilate so well. We eat sambal together and converse in Bahasa Malaysia regardless of race or religion, as it is like a secret code which nobody else understands,” she gushes.
That was Dr Jim’s biggest joy – seeing real unity and people coming together through Mercy.
Admitting to having tackled negative, sensitive and controversial remarks, Dr Jim overcame them with the strong support system at home that believed in her vision.
“Some people will continuously try to block you. With my strong conviction in doing something I sincerely believe in, even if I fail, I fail beautifully,” she says.
Throughout her 10 years of running Mercy, the word “impossible” was never in her vocabulary. “Nothing is a challenge if we look at everything as ‘half empty and half full’,” she stresses.
With no training in management and finance necessary to run an organisation, she believes in asking for help from family, friends and the corporate sector.
Her biggest wake-up call for a continuity plan came in 2004 when somewhere in strife-torn Iraq, Dr Jim was shot. That got the strong-willed woman thinking, what if she had died then?
She muses, “I brought the whole team together and pondered on ‘Life after Jim’. Would the organisation just collapse?”
Starting out as an organisation where volunteers paid for their own airfare going to war zones and disaster areas, she realised that as Mercy grew, they had to be more professional. Hence, the need to develop a strong framework.
“Establishing a solid foundation and organisation structure in order for Mercy to outlive me was one of the biggest decisions I ever made,” she says.
She subsequently gave herself a timeline to step down.
When asked whether it was hard to eventually let go, she replies, “It wasn’t difficult, because it was never about me. It has always been about setting a platform for the nation.”
Now heading the World Humanitarian Summit secretariat at the UN office for coordination of humanitarian affairs to prepare for the first ever WHS 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey, she endeavours to spend the two years engaging all stakeholders especially affected people, local and national NGOs, private sector, diaspora and youth. Presenting bold ideas and recommendations to reshape aid for the next century and influencing policies and turning them into action before leaving is her goal.
Calling herself “an international civil servant”, she likens UN to a huge ship that cannot be manoeuvred quickly, but one that has the whole opportunity to look at global policies.
Dr Jim’s 9 nuggets of advice for youngsters
Strive to be far better than me!
1. Be sincere, convinced and passionate in what you do.
2. Vision without planning is hallucination. Chase your dreams!
3. Network. In order for the pieces to fit, make time to understand the environment, connect with people, and build friends and alliances.
4. Having enemies is inevitable. For every 10 friends, just hope you have only one enemy.
5. Surround yourself with people who tell you when you’re wrong. Having no one to give constructive feedback would bring about a leader’s downfall.
6. Being hurt due to trusting people you shouldn’t trust along the way is inevitable.
7. Treat error as a learning opportunity. An error doesn’t become a mistake ‘til it’s repeated twice.
8. Be humble and courageous to say “I’m sorry”. Do not think you are infallible.
9. It’s not about you – it’s about the cause and the purpose.
Leaving a legacy
Founded as a platform for all Malaysians to come together to do good for others, irrespective of race, religion or colour, she divulges, “Mercy was for me to live my idea that the common vision and purpose is about global solidarity – about growing people and yourself in the process.”
Development is not only about infrastructure, economics, or a better gross domestic product; as human capital development and global compassion have to be in the equation.
“We live in a world where whatever happens in Country A does affect Country B. You become a developed nation only when you are able to give,” she concludes.
At the end of the day, this true embodiment of inspiration sees Mercy as her gift for her beloved Malaysia.
For more interesting interviews with diverse leaders on The Leaderonomics Show, visit https://www.youtube.com/user/leaderonomicsmedia. For The Leaderonomics Show articles, visit www.leaderonomics.com
Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 20 December 2014