The Reluctant Hero: The People’s DG

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A candid conversation with Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah.

NST

For Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, the very idea that people have the innate curiosity to learn about the person behind the remarkable persona, whose familiar face is streamed into the homes of ordinary Malaysians day after day, seems incomprehensible.

For most evenings in the past few months, anxious Malaysians have been tuning in from all over the nation to watch the live telecast of the Covid-19 briefing, delivered by Dr Noor Hisham, who calmly details the latest developments in Malaysia’s fight to contain the coronavirus.

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In doing so, switching effortlessly between English and Bahasa, Dr Noor Hisham has become the country’s public face in this fight: a reassuring voice in the midst of our collective panic; an anchor in the gathering storm.

In the next few months, he would prove to be one of the most effective public health officials in the world, with lessons for nations struggling to emerge from lockdowns.

For the mild-mannered doctor, the accolades and adoration that poured in from Malaysians and the world at large befuddles him. Ensconced within the officious bastion of Putrajaya, the federal administrative capital of Malaysia, Dr Noor Hisham sits across me looking slightly perturbed when I mention the Brand Laureate Awards: the “Certificate of Recognition and Appreciation” and the “Outstanding Brand Leadership Award 2020” which he received on July 17.

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Waving his hands dismissively, he replies simply: “The award isn’t for me; it’s an acknowledgement to the collective team effort.”

He’s also been cited as one of the three leading doctors in the fight to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus worldwide, along with the US government’s infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci and New Zealand’s director-general of Health, Ashley Bloomfield.

“I don’t know how they picked me, actually,” he remarks, looking bewildered. “Suddenly I heard my name mentioned.”

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Pausing a moment, he goes on to add: “I didn’t make the decisions. The accolade should go to the Prime Minister, not me.”

Leaning forward, he asks pointedly: “Should you recognise me or the PM? He made the right decisions!”

But you gave the right advice, I argue. It seems slightly surreal to me that I’m seated here sparring with the director-general of Health on why he deserves the badge of honour as one of the nation’s most beloved personalities in recent times.

His role, he insists, was only to advise. “I’m not the prime minister,” he maintains. “I simply advise the prime minister and the government of the day. So here, the PM listens to me and the Ministry of Health.”

That sort of self-deprecation is a minor motif in the doctor’s otherwise animated conversation.

“I’ve always acknowledged that he listens, and he trusts us. If he didn’t trust us, he wouldn’t have implemented, right or not?”

The question is of course, rhetorical. He shrugs his shoulders and smiles slightly.

Covid Connection

He doesn’t seem to enjoy small talk and cannot do it, though he will discuss his work for hours. His offhand, low-key manner makes him seem less self-aware than he actually is.

“What do you want to know?” he had asked pointedly when he entered the room minutes earlier. He glances briefly at his wristwatch and looks at me intently.

“I don’t have much time,” he murmurs. His usual daily media conference is scheduled in less than an hour. Impeccably dressed in a suit and tie, the 57-year-old doctor sits down reluctantly opposite me with a pained expression on his face. For the extremely private man, one-to-one interviews aren’t really his cup of tea.

It’s one thing to step into the role that seems tailor-made for him — that of a physician who’s in charge of averting a natural disaster. His reassuring stance in public and reliance on verified data and credible sources to make informed decisions have earned him widespread admiration for demonstrating that effective disease containment is possible.

People like Dr Noor Hisham, who, up until now have been pretty much backstage players, have been thrust into the spotlight due to the void created in today’s mistrustful world.

Still, it’s quite another thing to sit down and be subjected to an interview. Something he had managed to evade until today.

No one, perhaps, is better suited to being a doctor and less suited to being a “celebrity” of sorts.

It’s not a title that he’s comfortable with. “I’m just an adviser!” he protests vehemently.

He is nevertheless grateful for the trust bestowed but reveals that wasn’t always the case at the beginning. People were initially doubtful that a Malaysian would be able to handle this storm.

It’s the colonial mindset, he quips, that causes people to believe that only a Mat Salleh would be able to lead the country out of this pandemic.

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“Netizens were asking: ‘Is this the guy that was going to save us?’. They texted me and I apologised for disappointing them!” he recalls wryly.

It wasn’t long before the doctor earned the trust of the rakyat; and he eventually led what has been hailed as one of the most successful responses to Covid-19 in the world.

“This was a new virus,” he explains, and with rare candour, he goes on to elaborate: “With a new virus…you don’t really understand its behaviour. It’s just like when you embark on a new relationship with someone. You wouldn’t know that person for such a short period of time!”

You can’t stop him from talking at length about the coronavirus. After all, it’s been the mainstay in his life for quite a while. As he runs through the chronology of the pandemic that hit the shores of our country, it’s evident that the remarkable success that Malaysia has seen so far is a mixed bag of relief and frustration for him.

The fight, he points out, is far from over.

“We’re still fighting a war,” reminds Dr Noor Hisham. “Now our problem is when the numbers go down, people let down their guard. You see, when we succeed, it breeds complacency and that in turn can breed failure. It’s a vicious circle. We want to do prevention; now the onus is on the public to comply.”

Serving the Nation

His work in containing the virus is far from over. “I really don’t have much of a life these days,” he confesses candidly, adding that he takes his role to heart. He has always been imbued with a driving sense of duty.

“It’s a privilege to serve,” he remarks. “You can have the opportunity to serve and lead and more importantly, the whole government listens to you to do things right.”

Dr Noor Hisham has been the director-general of Health since 2013, but during this epochal natural disaster, as a leading member of the federal government’s coronavirus task force, he reluctantly stepped into the limelight and unwittingly became a veritable folk hero.

“In doing our jobs as best we can, most of the time you don’t normally see us, because there aren’t many major outbreaks,” he explains, adding: “We are doing things like policy-making and serving from behind-the-scenes.”

Being a surgeon, he can treat one patient at a time, he points out. But being an administrator and making the right policy, he can avert a national disaster.

“Now is the time to serve the country,” he says simply.

He also admits the pressure can be punishing. “I’ve lost eight kilos!” he exclaims with a wry smile, before adding dismissively: “But the fasting month also contributed to that.”

The affable doctor who has a Masters in Surgery and Medical doctorate degree from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, joined the civil service as a medical officer way back in August 1988.

He specialised in endocrine surgery and trained in various universities in Adelaide and Sydney, Australia. His work has been published in many local and international journals and he has also written chapters on endocrine surgery in textbooks.

But he readily admits that medicine wasn’t his first choice. “I wanted to be a religious officer or a mufti!” he reveals to my surprise.

Seriously? I blurt. “Yes, seriously!” he replies, smiling.

A search for his identity and the meaning of life back when he was 14 led him to religion. “When I was in Form 2, I started thinking about the purpose of my existence. I focussed on religious studies to get to know myself on a deeper level and find answers to those existential questions,” he recalls.

Humble Beginnings

The existential crisis could be attributed to his tumultuous childhood. “You were born in Sungai Pelek,” I read from my careful research of him.

“That’s what they say,” he replies with a shrug. Where was he born, then? “I don’t know,” is his short reply.

“I was adopted by a Chinese Muslim family in Sungai Pelek. I only found out that I was adopted when I was 46,” he explains.

He was halfway around the world when he found out the truth. “It’s not a secret, really. Among our surgeons, they know the story lah,” he says dispassionately.

He had attended the World Congress of Surgery in Montreal where he was introduced to someone by his surgeon friend. “I remembered that one of my uncles had migrated to Australia. I have family pictures, I knew the names but I had lost touch with them for more than 30 years,” he recounts.

The man shared the same original surname ‘Yew’ and, after talking to him at length, Dr Noor Hisham deduced that this stranger was his cousin.

The man, however, did not know of him at all. “We called his parents and they spoke to me. Eventually, they flew down to Putrajaya to see me. It was then that they broke the news that I was adopted when I was just a few months old,” he says with remarkable candour. Ever the pragmatist, he points out that he wouldn’t be where he is today if he didn’t go through those experiences.

“My adopted parents were separated, and I was raised by a single mother. We had to stand on our own. I learnt to be resourceful and independent from young,” he tells me.

Forced by poverty, he was eventually put in the care of the principal at Kolej Islam Klang where he continued his upper secondary studies.

“I took an avid interest in religious studies, but the head of the religious studies called me up and told me to read medicine instead. He said that there were enough people studying religion but not enough studying medicine!”

He acquiesced and did as he was told. “I wanted to help people at the end of the day, and I realised that medicine was a way to do just that,” he shares quietly.

He found very few obstacles in the pursuit of being a doctor. “When you come from nothing, you’d think it’s difficult to read medicine. But the path is open. If you have good results you can do anything. It’s all up to you.”

Journey Onwards

You had two adopted families then, I comment.

“I have many families who ‘adopted’ me,” he answers with a smile. “Malay, Indian, Chinese — they all cared for me. I mixed around freely and have friends of different races and from all walks of life. I love the elderly and I find that I learn a lot from them.” Half a beat later, he quips with a laugh: “In that way, I have very good PR!”

With a cheeky grin, he says in Tamil: “Naan kunjum kunjum pesuven (I speak a little)”

Chuckling, he relates that when he was a houseman at University Hospital, most of the Indian patients would insist on seeing him because he could carry a conversation in Tamil.

A huge part of his support comes from his own family. The father-of-six tells me that his children sometimes contribute to his speeches and puts in the additional pantun or two.

“They help make my speeches livelier,” he shares, chuckling before adding softly: “My only wish is that they lead meaningful lives and contribute back to the nation. I’m very proud of them.”

He maintains that surgery has remained a passion of his to this day. While other civil servants would clock off after a day’s work and head to the golf course for a round or two, he would return to his operating theatre (OT).

“I enjoy being back in my ‘natural’ environment where I can teach the junior doctors how to operate a bit and breathe in the OT air,” he says half-wistfully.

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“You’re asking me what I like to do when I’m not here?” he waves his hand around the meeting room. “Operations. Of course! I’d do it for free. Some people do it for money. I don’t. If there’s an interesting case, I’ll do it!” he exclaims, smiling.

The lanky doctor was an avid sportsman (he was a school runner and played football during university days) and enjoys scuba diving and underwater photography.

“I don’t do it anymore,” he says regretfully. “I don’t have the time!”

The time, he tells me, has been channelled towards handling the pandemic. His commitment in serving the nation remains steadfast and he is laser-focused now on managing the virus to avoid any backsliding after the lifting of restrictions.

“Back in Kolej Islam, we have this tagline: Fastaqim Kama Umirta,” he says. “In a nutshell, you have to persevere in what you’ve been instructed to do. Perseverance is importance,” he notes sagely.

It’s something he’s learnt over the years and during his training as a surgeon. “We used to joke during our training in HUKL about how hard we had to work,” he recalls. “You have to stand operating from 7am to 8pm. You end at 8 and you still cannot go back. You still have to take care of the patient. You only clock out at 10 or 11pm at night.” It’s this kind of backbreaking work that built his work ethics which he practices to this day.

“The first intention is to serve. Serve the people, help the people. It’s not about us. It’s about how we serve. For the people from the people,” he says simply.

He recommends a book for me to read. “It’s called Servant Leadership by Robert K. Greenleaf. This explains my philosophy perfectly,” he says, smiling.

“An important aspect of a surgeon’s life is an up-to-date logbook,” he adds mildly, almost as an afterthought. “For me, my social media platforms are logbooks of milestones of sorts.”

Dr Noor Hisham meticulously maintains his social media platforms by himself. He reads every comment and takes note of every issue that’s brought to his attention. “He brings the feedback to meetings and does his own postings to educate, teach and record the successes and issues that his team faces. There is much more that’s being done behind the scenes, but Datuk DG (as he’s known to his team) puts up pertinent issues regularly,” I’m told later by one of his team members. “No one manages his sites?” I ask incredulously. “No. Datuk DG takes his role very personally and very seriously,” he replies.

We all share him; as this person who talks to us every day. The interesting thing is he is delivering, for the most part, not so great news: the number of active cases in Malaysia, the growing clusters, the number of deaths and the numbers of those who recovered. But somehow, the way he does it and the level of empathy he shows make him seem like he’s the right person for us at this time.

Already dubbed the “People’s DG”, Dr Noor Hisham’s pledge of togetherness for a healthier Malaysia has generated much goodwill and excitement. He has fired up the hopes and imagination of people both nationwide and worldwide.

Right now, time is ticking. He glances at his watch again. “I have to go soon,” he announces soberly. The self-effacing doctor rises to his feet and walks briskly out of the door to his press conference. He has to do what he’s been tasked to do. It’s almost 5pm and time once again to step up to the podium and reassure Malaysians nationwide that the country’s fight against the pandemic is ongoing and that the health of the nation is safe within the doctor’s fine hands. – NST