BANGKOK, Nov 3 — Malaysia’s medical charity pioneer Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood hopes the Asean Prize she received here today can inspire a new generation of people in the region to continue and expand humanitarian and disaster relief efforts wherever it is required in the world.
The energetic 59-year-old who jetted in to the Thai capital last night to accept the award during the opening ceremony of the 35th Asean Summit is widely considered the region’s humanitarian icon, for her 20-year-long efforts that have put a South-east Asian face to voluntary rescue work in disaster-hit zones — both natural and man-made — worldwide.
The ever-pragmatic Dr Jemilah said she is grateful for the recognition and the US$20,000 (RM83,310) prize money sponsored by Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek, which she will donate to two organisations: the Malaysian Red Crescent Society and the newly-established Surin Pitsuwan Foundation, which aims to foster new torch bearers for interfaith, conflict resolution and disaster relief works.
“I am very grateful for this recognition. I feel this award can inspire more people in Malaysia and Asean to enter the humanitarian field,” the Geneva-based doctor told Malaysian journalists after the award ceremony.
The rugby-obsessed Dr Jemilah very nearly did not make the ceremony.
She was in Japan with her family for the Rugby World Cup and had got a ticket to watch the finals when she was informed that she was this year’s Asean Prize winner. She is the first Malaysian to win the award.
The ever-busy Dr Jemilah will be flying out tonight, this time heading to Mozambique to survey the continuation of disaster relief efforts following the devastating Typhoon Idai that killed 1,300 people and displaced 2.2 million others across the southeast African country and its two neighbours Zimbabwe and Malawi last March.
But after 15 years abroad and two terms as the under secretary-general of partnership at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Dr Jemilah is longing to return to her home region and focus her energies on a more personal endeavour.
“If I die tomorrow, who’s going to take over from me?” she asked matter-of-factly.
The founding chairman of the Singapore-based Surin Pitsuwan Foundation — named after the former Thai foreign minister and former Asean secretary-general from 2008 to 2012 — is hoping to teach, inspire and inculcate the spirit of service to humanity among South-east Asians.
Surin’s eldest son Fuadi Pitsuwan was also present at the Asean Prize award ceremony said the foundation’s three core focuses were education, diplomacy and disaster relief work. The 34-year-old is also the foundation’s founding director.
Dr Jemilah said the foundation had been a project she had long discussed with Surin before his sudden death from heart failure two years ago at age 68.
Describing him as an intellectual and a “visionary” who had firmly believed in Asean regional peace, harmony and its shared prosperity, Dr Jemilah said she still felt his loss keenly and hoped the foundation would be able to birth a new generation of leaders in humanitarian and disaster relief work.
“We live in a peaceful region with many economic opportunities, but there are also many disaster risks.
“If we as Asean citizens don’t do our part to prevent disasters and conflicts, it will be a problem,” she said.
She added that she hoped for Asean to show the world the way forward in resolving interfaith conflict and disaster relief management.
Asked her opinion of Malaysia’s interracial and interfaith tensions, Dr Jemilah said the issues were less of a conflict than a “communication problem”.