by Dr Helmy Haja Mydin. First published in The New Straits Times 2 November 2015

I was recently given the honour of representing Malaysia at the World Health Summit as one of twenty ‘Young Physician Leaders’ from across the globe. With the support of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia, I was hosted by the InterAcademy Medical Panel, a network of the world’s medical academies and medical sections of academies of science and engineering that is committed to improving health world-wide. Besides enjoying the novelty of fresh air and blue skies in Berlin, I spent a few days interacting with colleagues and newfound friends, all of whom were gathered to learn from each other’s thoughts and experiences.

As part of the programme, we participated in a workshop to hone leadership skills. This was led by Dr Jo Boufford, who was the first woman President of New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation. She shared pertinent lessons from her long years of helping shape healthcare policy – from being director of The King’s Fund in London, representing the United States on the Executive Board of the World Health Organisation, to her current role as President of the New York Academy of Medicine.

Another impressive female leader that I was exposed to during my stay was the Chancellor, Angela Merkel. A physicist from the former East Germany, she has risen above many obstacles and prejudices to become leader of one of the world’s most powerful nations, a position she has held since 2005. Her apparent lack of ego and analytical approach to matters is a sharp contrast to the bluster that tends to be associated with a typical politician.

Personally, I feel that her leadership skills have been further burnished by her management of the Syrian refugee crisis. Many leaders in developed countries have been happy to deplore the struggles and daily dalliance with death that these refugees face. However, Chancellor Merkel has been walking the talk – Germany is on course to accept more than 800 000 refugees by the end of 2015.

More importantly, this acceptance of refugees is backed up by a media campaign to explain the rationale behind these compassionate moves. A national framework for integration is also being constructed – one that involves initiatives such as education for children and re-training opportunities for adults. Refugees run the risk of being
marginalised by society unless there are active policies to assist them in moving up the socioeconomic strata.

Chancellor Merkel’s move may not be wholly altruistic – there is a school of thought that believes that the arrival of Syrian refugees may help reverse the burden of an aging society. But her stand has been politically challenging. She has not only had to address members of the opposition, but also convince her coalition partners that helping a group of starved foreigners from a war-torn country is not only the humane thing to do, but something that can be done in a sustainable manner.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the current President of the European Commission, once famously said that “We (politicians) all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.” It is an affirmation of Chancellor Merkel’s leadership qualities that she is willing to risk political capital to push forward agenda and policies that need to be protected from the baying howls of self-interest.

The leaders that I have always admired are those who skilfully and intelligently champion a cause because of its righteousness, despite the challenges in doing so. Closer to home, one is hopeful that as the new Parliamentary session gains momentum, we will see our leaders championing causes that are truly virtuous and devoid of vested interests. This would include addressing (and coming to a sound, justified conclusion) the ban on electronic cigarettes, the Rohingya refugees fleeing the genocide in Myanmar and addressing issues that affect the state of our economy.

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Dr Helmy Haja Mydin is a consultant respiratory physician at Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur and a Founding Associate of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.

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