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Standing on the shoulders of ‘giants’

The writer (left) with Brother Robert. He is thankful to his former teacher for emphasising the importance of proper sentence construction and diction as that helped him as a debater and lecturer, in later years.

The writer (left) with Brother Robert. He is thankful to his former teacher for emphasising the importance of proper sentence construction and diction as that helped him as a debater and lecturer, in later years.

IT is said that “the mediocre teacher tells, the good teacher explains, the superior teacher demonstrates, the great teacher inspires ”.

I am blessed because I have had many great teachers. I truly stand on the shoulders of “giants”. I was an average student but my teachers inspired me to scale heights, I never dreamt possible – I was taught that hard work and perseverance would enable great achievements.

I would like to share my memories of three of my teachers. My school principal was Rev Brother Robert O ‘Sullivan, a member of the La Salle brothers.

Brother Robert as we called him became the principal of St Andrews School, Muar (now SMK St Andrew) in 1954 and served for 25 years.

He taught us English and emphasised the importance of clear hand writing, proper sentence construction and diction.

This laid the foundation for elocution skills, which served me well as a debater in secondary school and college and as a lecturer in university and during academic meetings locally and internationally.

Brother Robert was also a strict disciplinarian – he never “spared the rod and spoilt the child” – in the small town I grew up in, parents chose to enrol their children in the school, confident that their children would grow up to be good citizens – and most of us did.

He brooked no nonsense. My naughty schoolmates had a nickname for him – white Ghost – he would quietly walk around the school dressed in the flowing white robe of his Order.

The cover of the book on Prof Danaraj and Dr Menon (right). Both men are held in high esteem and continue to influence the writer, a cardiologist.

A swift whack from Brother’s cane would correct the misdemeanours of students fooling around at the back of the class.

These days I have often wished that Brother Robert was still alive whenever I read about discipline problems in schools.

Under Brother Robert’s leadership, St Andrews had one of the best academic programmes in the country, laying the foundation for many of its students who became professionals in many fields locally and internationally.

Besides academia, extra-curricular activities were encouraged – there were woodwork classes every Sunday – this helped me develop a passion for wooden furniture.

There was also an active scouts movement and an athletics programme produced many good athletes, among them sprinter Cyril Gaudart, who went on to national fame.

After retiring from St Andrews, Brother Robert moved to Malacca and continued his work supervising the setting up and running of a boys’ home for underprivileged children.

Brother Robert died in 2001 and in May 2005, a three-storey school canteen-cum-multimedia building was built with government funds and donations from the school’s parent-teacher association and old boys. It was completed and named Bangunan Brother Robert.

I had many good teachers in medical school. Dr Ashoka Menon is in his seventies, continues to work hard and inspire.

A humble, soft spoken man, he is a brilliant diagnostician. .

Dr Menon practises and expounds the virtues of a simple life with minimal attachments to materialism.

Compassion for his patients shows when he is treating them. Dr Menon works from his heart – the epitome of the good doctor and professional who is passionate about his work.

Medicine is a demanding profession – both emotionally and physically. In spite of his age, Dr Menon is totally committed when he takes on a case, even in the wee hours of the morning, putting to shame doctors far younger than him. Watching him inspires us to improve our work ethos.

Financial remuneration was never a primary goal for this man. In the sixth decade of my life, I continue to learn from this teacher who first taught me as a third year medical student; he is now a senior colleague and a good friend, whom I greatly respect both for his profound professional knowledge as well as his life values. We also share a love for classical Indian carnatic music.

My medical class was blessed to have had another exemplary human being. Though he passed away more than a decade ago, he continues to be a role model and polices our conscience as we go about our daily work – Prof Tan Sri T J Danaraj or TJD as he was fondly known.

He is still a legend, especially among the older generation of doctors in Malaysia.

He was the foundation dean of Malaysia’s first medical school and teaching hospital (University Hospital), now known as Universiti Malaya Medical Centre.

Universiti Malaya’s (UM) medical school building was a labour of love for TJD.

Many stories abound including one about him nursing a sore neck with a neck collar, and turning up at the building site at 4am to ensure that the workers poured the correct concrete mix.

TJD also took a great interest in his medical students. We feared him and loved him in equal measure.

We feared him for the disciplinarian that he was and the high standards he expected of us; loved him because we all knew that within that stern façade was a man who had our best interests at heart.

TJD was a brilliant clinician and a gifted, inspiring teacher. He was from the era before new technology – where ultrasound and CT scanners made a doctor’s life easier.

His generation relied solely on the eyes, ears and hands to make a diagnosis – Medicine was certainly an art in his time, and he taught us just that.

This was particularly useful for doctors who were posted to rural areas where sophisticated equipment was not available.

One of his favourite quotes that he drummed into us was “Medicine is a lifelong course”.

Throughout our lives, as knowledge in medicine progresses, we have to continue to update our knowledge and skills, to serve our patients well.

Just as he did, he expected us to devote our time and lives selflessly to Medicine and our patients.

He also emphasised the importance of showing compassion and respect to our patients; the medical student or junior doctor who referred to a patient by his bed number rather than his name was literally crucified.

To quote him: “Medicine to which we are devoted is a special calling and a privilege granted to us by society. It is a glorious opportunity to enjoy work that is forever intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying yet providing social status and reasonable financial rewards.”

It is to his credit that the UM’s medical faculty in its heyday was one of the best medical schools in the region.

It gave TJD immense pride to know that his students went onto to be leaders in medicine within Malaysia as well as in many countries around the world.

Among them were the many deans of the medical schools in UM and UKM.

In our later years several of us went on to teach at our alma mater, Universiti Malaya and also at other medical schools that opened up in our country.

We tried to emulate TJD’s teaching style to varying degrees of success.

Like him, we took pride in developing and maintaining our clinical skills and passing them to the next generation of doctors. Even after he retired, TJD’s love of teaching brought him back to the medical school – he was Emeritus Professor at UM.

He taught for free – this made a deep impression on many of us – he felt and I believe in his philosophy that the transfer of skills and knowledge in medicine for a fee, is a prostitution of Medicine.

In addition to teaching us Medicine, he taught us how to live and the importance of family time – very difficult when you are juggling a medical career.

Prof Danaraj’s life and work is chronicled in the book: TJ Danaraj: Doctor and Teacher extraordinaire, written by his wife Prof H O Wong.

Many of his ex students have also penned their thoughts about him in this book.

I borrow a quote from an unknown author who said “A little piece of you remains behind, held in gratitude within my heart”.

Next to my parents, I am what I am today because of all my teachers – I hold them all in high regard and gratitude within my heart.

Education , Teachers Day