Sunday, 9 August 2009

Mercy’s angel spreads her wings-farewell Dr. Jemilah

Do you ever get that feeling sometimes when you want to hold on to something even though you know you should really let it go, because it needs to be let go in order to continue to grow, continue to fly? I'm feeling like that, upon receiving an SMS from her in Geneva telling me the good news of her appointment to the UN, to be posted to New York.

The selfish me wants to just talk her out of it, because I will lose one of my personal heroes and a mentor I have always looked up to, because of her bravery and passion in whatever she does. That the country will have lost a gem of an icon and an outstanding Malaysian who more than lives and breathes the term "towering Malaysian" is second to my selfishness.

The faithful, adoring niece in me, however, knows that her place lies way beyond our shores, that she was meant for much greater things. That she should really be in a place where her talent, passion and expertise will be much more appreciated.

It breaks my heart to see our country continuously losing all our best people. I guess it is true that we never know what we have until we lose it. I hope we learn from this and just like it was in the case of Michael Jackson and Yasmin Ahmad, also learn to acknowledge talent and help talent to grow and flourish DURING a person's lifetime. All the tears and the tributes in the world once you've lost them won't mean a thing.

Aunt Jim, you will always be my hero, my angel, my Mother Theresa, you've even been even my Florence Nightingale on many occasions. It is with a heavy heart that your loving niece lets go, but I wish you all the success you deserve and every time I look up to the skies, I will know in my heart that you have taken that golden flight, that journey, the next step.

Farewell, Angel. Love you with all my heart. ;.-(

The Star Online

Sunday August 9, 2009

Mercy’s angel spreads her wings


EVEN before Mercy Malaysia, Dr Jemilah Mahmood was always passionate about giving back to society.

“Whenever people came to her for money for this cause or that, she was always digging into her purse. She would give out RM50, RM100, RM200 until she had no money left.

“She’s that kind of person, always wanting to do something for others,” says her close friend Farah Hamzah, who describes Dr Jemilah as “very intense” and very attached to the issues that she pursues.

“If she believes in something, she is relentless. And she ups the ante all the time,” adds Farah.

Dr Jemilah: ‘I love Mercy too much and I didn’t want it to be Dr Jemilah. It has to be more than that. I want it to sustain itself and outlive me.’

And Malaysians are seeing that side of Dr Jemilah.

She gave “birth” to Mercy Malaysia 10 years ago, and along with a team of able doctors, nurses and ever-ready volunteers nurtured the organisation into what it is today – a respected world-class relief organisation.

Whenever a crisis struck the region – be it a tsunami, earthquake, a cyclone, war or military conflict – Mercy Malaysia jumped on board the first plane and headed out to help the victims.

In countries like Myanmar, Sudan, Sri Lanka and North Korea, where a number of international aid organisations are perceived to have an agenda and are not welcomed even during times of humanitarian crisis, Mercy Malaysia got in – at times before everyone else and in some places, like Sri Lanka, with unlimited access to the afflicted areas.

And now Dr Jemilah is upping the ante again by leaving Mercy and heading off to New York to take on a position as Chief of the Humanitarian Response branch for the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA).

Succession plan

Some, like her good friend Farah who is an appointed Mercy Malaysia exco member, believes that Dr Jemilah has simply outgrown Mercy.

Dr Jemilah herself discloses that the Mercy succession plan has been in the pipeline for at least five years because she knew from the start that she was going to leave her “baby” after 10 years.

“I knew if I stayed longer, I might put the organisation at risk in the sense that you have this ‘founder syndrome’.

“The founder feels they own the organisation and people cannot differentiate the founder from the organisation, and Mercy Malaysia gets drowned somewhere in between.

“I love Mercy too much and I didn’t want it to be Dr Jemilah. It has to be more than that. I want it to sustain itself and outlive me,” she says.

And it is precisely Mercy Malaysia’s achievements on the international front that have made it so easy for Dr Jemilah to walk away.

The turning point came last year.

Dr Jemilah was in Geneva waiting for a friend to pick her up near the Broken Chair monument on Place des Nations. A group of Sudanese women were gathered around there after a meeting and one of them came up to ask if she was from Malaysia – probably guessing from the way she tied her headscarf.

When Dr Jemilah replied that she was, to her surprise the woman then asked if she knew Mercy Malaysia.

“I froze. I said ‘yes. Why?’ She said ‘I am from El Geneina in West Darfur and now we don’t have to be afraid to give birth because Mercy Malaysia has built a reproductive health centre. They also trained our midwives and doctors so no one has to die in childbirth.”

Dr Jemilah was doubly shocked when the woman then asked if she knew Mercy’s Dr Jemilah.

“I panicked because I was wondering how I was going to answer that. And the woman fished out her call card and she was from a Sudanese local organisation so I fished out mine.

“When she saw my card, she couldn’t believe it. There was an uproar and she started screaming in Arabic and a lot of people started crowding around me,” she says.

At this point, Dr Jemilah was “rescued” by her friend who was honking from the car. So Dr Jemilah excused herself and got in.

“Gosh, would you imagine in your life that you get someone who doesn’t know you from Adam and is one of your beneficiaries who comes up and tells you a story about the impact of your work?” she ponders, still pretty much in awe of the experience.

Then two months later, Dr Jemilah was at a conference in Bangkok when a man came up to her and asked if she remembered him. She didn’t, but it turned out that he was a colonel from Pakistan who was now the defence attache in Bangkok. He remembered her from the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and told her how much he appreciated Mercy Malaysia’s volunteers working through the cold of winter in the mountains of Bagh to provide health care for the victims.

“He asked me if I knew what happened when I left. I said ‘no’. He said when Mercy left, the people took a piece of rubble from their homes and built a monument. And he said your organisation’s name is on it!

“At that point I said to myself ‘why am I hanging on?’ Leave when you know you have done your job and have people to carry on and groom them to succeed.

“A succession plan is only successful if you will let go,” she says.

And let go she did, handing over the mantle to Dr Ahmad Faizal Mohd Perdaus.

Why him?

Dr Jemilah says Dr Faizal is a good speaker and excellent communicator and has been vice-president for two terms.

“He’s very smart. I’ve known him for many years. He was my student. He’s a doctor and has been on missions so he has had the experience. He is a mix of all this. He’s ideal,” she says.

She says she told Dr Faisal not to ever try to walk in her shoes but to chart his own course.

“I foresee Mercy becoming a better organisation when I depart because, as it is, Mercy is a very emotive organisation. It is full of emotion and passion and I am, by nature, like that. I believe when I am not there, it becomes more calm, very strong and solid and nothing can shake it after that. I am very optimistic. I have great faith in the people I am leaving behind.”

So she advised Dr Faisal not to be afraid to make his own mistakes and learn from them as he steers Mercy in a new direction.

“I said you can change the process, hardware, software, structure, logo and anything else but just don’t ever change the values and principles the organisation is built on, which is a platform for people to do good and putting Malaysia on the world map to show that we can do things differently and better.”

Dr Jemilah has also told the team not to feel any pressure that she is going to watch and feel disappointed with them.

“I won’t because I understand what transition is all about. In any organisation, when there is a transition there is a slight dip and then it comes back. They should expect that.”

Softie at heart

While she might look like a tough cookie, Dr Jemilah admits that she cries all the time when she comes across painful situations and that even watching a video of the situation brings her to tears.

But this only makes her stronger.

“If you can’t cry, you can’t feel that it is so painful to watch and see. I cry and say to myself ‘No point crying. You gotta do something about it.’ I am not tough. I am a real softie but pushed to a corner I can be quite a tiger,” she admits.

On her new UN job, Dr Jemilah says it would include planning, monitoring and administering the UNFPA’s emergency response fund in its work in conflict, post conflict and natural disaster situations as well as prepare for present and future threats, among other things.

Dr Jemilah who is a gynaecologist says the work would also focus on reproductive and gender issues during humanitarian crises, adding that “even in war and conflict there are women who want to give birth.”

In the last 10 years, she says, she has witnessed “too much pain” of women having been sexually abused or having no access to healthcare sometimes because of difficult circumstances, like in Afghanistan where people basically hide their women.

So she is excited about the prospect of “this woman in a tudung going to a difficult Muslim country and challenging the system and all these men.”

Naive maybe, but Dr Jemilah is among those who are “terribly optimistic” that global peace and development are achieveable and what it needs are agents of change in the world to bring about the shift.

“I want to be a change agent. Maybe I am born for that. I want to shake things up and move things and push. I never say die and I never say no. If we have a defeatist attitude, we’ll never achieve anything,” she says.

Dr Jemilah says she is lucky that her husband, Dr Ashar Abdullah, is her number one fan.

“He really feels that I can shake and change the world. He pushes me all the time and says ‘Go. You can go for that. That’s too small for you. You can go higher and do more good.”

Stressing that she is just a normal person who is “just very, very steadfast”, Dr Jemilah says the humanitarian cause is something that really drives her.

“I just feel right now that I can do more. Mercy can do only so much but Jemilah can do more. I want to use whatever strength and whatever talent I have globally.

“Whether I succeed or not is a different matter but I want to continue to try to change the world and not give up.”

Friday, 7 August 2009

to dance with abandonment... and live as though heaven is on earth.

Ok, today's entry may sound rather random, but yeah...feeling a bit random right now sitting in front of the ol' iMac looking for inspiration to write a Merdeka piece for The Star.

I found this really inspiring quote from Michael Jackson on the joy of dancing, how sacred dance was to him, and "the eternal dance of Creation". I can't tell you how it's so wonderful to completely lose yourself for a few minutes when you dance or sing or paint or just completely lose or abandon yourself completely. I experience it when I listen to classical Javanese Gending music, I find my thoughts completely leave me and I'm able to almost "detach" my body from my thoughts for a few minutes. When I put on my dancing Kain and Sampur, all I wanna do is to glide along with the music and dance for as long as the music plays, lost completely in the beautiful music. It's absolutely therapeutic, and I completely recommend it to anyone who has never experienced the liberation of self-abandonment. Sigh. Why am I feeling so...random...maybe I need to put on my dancing Kain again, been too long.

"Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on. On
many an occasion, when I am dancing, I have felt touched by something sacred.
In those moments, I felt my spirit soar and become one with everything that
exists. I become the stars and the moon. I become the lover and the beloved. I
become the victor and the vanquished. I become the master and the slave. I
become the singer and the song. I become the knower and the known. I keep on
dancing and then, it is the eternal dance of creation. The creator and the
creation merge into one wholeness of joy. I keep on dancing until there is
only. . .the dance."

Michael Jackson

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Yasmin's Malaysia in the united colours of cinema by Dato' Johan Jaafar

NST Online bsmallJOHAN JAAFAR/small/B BRYasmin's Malaysia in the united colours of cinema

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Written by one of my heroes, my old friend from my early days as a budding theatre actor doing plays with the boys of Dewan Bahasa, my old Teh-Tarik-at-Benteng kaki, Dato' Johan Jaafar.

Yasmin's Malaysia in the united colours of cinema


IT could have been a scene from one of her movies. Old and young, people of different races, filling the floor of the hospital in Damansara where she drew her last breath last Saturday night. Some were sobbing, others huddled together and consoling each other. Many were red-eyed. Sadness and loss filled the air. For a couple of days after she was taken to the hospital, her family members, friends, even strangers, stood vigil hoping for a miracle. Some had never met her in person. They had only seen her movies and TV advertisements. They were drawn to her for her ingenuity, frankness and above all, unpretentiousness. She made commercials she believed in and movies that were almost personal statements of her faith and conviction.

Yasmin Ahmad left us all distraught. She went away too soon, too early. She was in her prime. She was supposed to have many more fruitful and creative years ahead of her. We were expecting her to churn out many more great movies and loads of stylish TV commercials. After all, Yasmin had given us interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking yet memorable, mostly evergreen works for many years.

She started a movement, "Yasminism", single-handedly, to mean not only her tryst with cinematic excellence but a cause associated with it. You know what to expect when you watch a Yasmin movie or TV advertisement -- they are about how our people ought to be -- as one, united and very much Malaysian. Yasmin's works are made of these -- Malaysian at heart and in spirit. Yasmin's Malaysia is thoroughly rooted, not merely attempts at aggrandising the hopes and aspirations of our people like some politicians do.

She was a contrarian among her contemporaries. It is not that they do not believe in films that portray multiracialism, just that many are more comfortable harping on tested formulas. They would rather make movies about their own kind.

Nothing inherently wrong with that. P. Ramlee made largely Malay movies but he captured non-Malay audiences, too, in his glory days. His attempts at multiracialism came late professionally. Perhaps it is better to play safe than invite controversy.

Yasmin's middle name was never Controversy. She was a film-maker first and a propagandist last. She made movies to attract audiences. I am sure she did not want to be Michelangelo Antonioni with his dense and notoriously difficult films. She would rather make movies that touched the hearts of millions. She wanted to make movies in the tradition of Majid Majidi -- the famed Iranian film-maker who celebrated simplicity and warmth in human beings. She was said to be inspired by Majidi whose Children of Heaven and The Colour of Paradise "praised the glory of God". I am sure she had other Iranian directors as her reference. Iranian films are noted for their identity contestation and fearless experimentation. The likes of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, his wife Marzieh Meshkini, his daughter Samira and contemporaries Jafar Panahi, Abbas Kiarostami, Parviz Sayyad and Dariush Mehrjui have all made waves in Iran and outside. Many won international film awards.

Yasmin also made movies about little people, their trials and tribulations, but mostly about hope and aspiration. But unlike many of her brethren, Yasmin dared to be different. She walked a cinematic minefield trying to tell stories deemed sensitive by most. The Iranians deal in a predictable mono-cultural society. Yasmin had to grapple with a society steeped in racial sensitivities and emotional baggage. Yasmin's cinematic domain can be contentious, even dangerous. Sepet was a difficult film to make. A story of love between Ah Long and Orked is not meant to be easy. Undeterred, Yasmin made it into a cinematic feast, visually arresting, emotionally fulfilling and intellectually challenging.

Just take her Muallaf and the controversy surrounding its making. Even the title elicits caution. But Yasmin was determined to tell the story of two Malay sisters and a 30-year-old Catholic school teacher like it was -- without fear or favour.

Yasmin's Gubra, Mukhsin and her latest film Talentime are all about the audacity of spirit and the power of determination, yet anchored in the belief that the subject matters transcend race and creed. We must salute Yasmin for taking a risk meandering through the uncharted territories of race relations in the country.

But why shouldn't she? It is ironic that, despite the protestations that we have been living harmoniously since time immemorial and that we celebrate our differences, we are in fact drifting apart. We live in our own racial enclaves, barricading ourselves from others, most of us, that is. Our values are being pigeonholed by our prejudices and suspicion. We are supposed to be one, but not yet.

Listening to Yasmin narrating her ideas is like watching her movies. My colleagues and I at Media Prima had the honour of watching her tell those stories. She would act them out, replete with dialogue, her voice changed to emphasise, her hands expressively making a point. She made us see the world through the lens of her camera. We were working on some "unity films" before her untimely demise. The story of three lost boys from an orphanage was among our favourites.

Like her, we believed a story like that could help bring our people closer. She had a track record to justify that. True, Yasmin can change very little the residues of racial stereotyping in this country. But she tried hard. She made Tan Hong Ming in Love effortlessly for she saw in the characters the innocence and sincerity in children. Hong Ming and the Malay girl in the advertisement are as close as we get to the celebration of oneness. Just watch her Petronas advertisements, simply awesome -- hey, where were we when we saw them?

Yasmin wanted to show Malaysians as Malaysians -- in the united colours of cinema. Let's keep her idealism alive. Let's remember her as, to quote Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, one of the champions of "One Malaysia", the concept the prime minister is pushing forth for the nation. Let us pass on the torch of hope for a truly united Malaysia.

She couldn't have asked for more.