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Sunday, 22 June 2014

Giving his all for humankind

Mercy Malaysia president Datuk Dr Ahmad Faizal Perdaus' compassion for the world's unfortunates burns strong even after more than a decade with the humanitarian organisation.

“OH look, those men look handsome in their traditional garb. They must be from Oman or Yemen. All they are missing are their curved knives ...” 

Mercy Malaysia president Datuk Dr Ahmad Faizal Perdaus suddenly breaks off mid-sentence to point out two men walking past the coffee shop in Kota Damansara where we are having this interview.

In a heartbeat, his tone becomes serious again as he describes the international humanitarian organisation’s plans for sustainable funding. The excitement in his voice, however, is hard to miss, and for a moment you get a glimpse of the passionate humanitarian who has travelled far and wide to disaster and conflict areas to help and comfort victims.

As he shares later, “I wish sometimes I was not president, so that I can go out to the field on missions. Anyone will tell you fieldwork is many times more fulfilling than day-to-day management of an organisation or in the office.

“But we cannot deny that report writing, connecting with stakeholders and raising funds are just as important. Without that, we will not be able to have our relief missions and do our humanitarian work.” 

It has been almost five years since Dr Faizal took over the reins of Mercy Malaysia from Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood. And while some might buckle under the pressure of replacing Dr Jemilah who was an icon in Mercy Malaysia, the consultant specialist (Internal Medicine) at KPJ Johor Specialist Hospital has been taking the role in his stride. 

Taking Dr Jemilah’s advice that he chart his own course to heart, Dr Faizal has tried to make his mark in taking the humanitarian organisation to another level by giving it sustainability. 

Now with more than 7,000 volunters and operations in over 13 countries, Mercy Malaysia continues to serve millions of people around the world. 

“We are currently working on opening an office in London by the end of the year to enhance our sponsorship profile in the UK and Europe,” he says. 

To ensure Mercy remains independent and impartial, Dr Faizal spearheaded two sustainable funding programmes to get people’s continuous financial support: the Employees’ Salary Deduction Scheme, and Seringgit Sehari (RM1 a Day). 

> How has it been since you took the helm of Mercy Malaysia in 2009?

Mercy Malaysia started as a small idea, which has become very big. There are many factors that helped propel Mercy Malaysia to where it is today and most of them are external. A big factor is that Malaysian society at that time was ready for something like this. Mercy Malaysia was not the first humanitarian group here, nor were we the first Malaysians to do this sort of work.

It was just the right time, there was readiness and appropriate mindset change happening in society, especially among the professional segment of Malaysian society, which helped Mercy Malaysia grow.

Going forward, what we found is that we have been, in the last 10 to 12 years, the base centre in humanitarian work in Malaysia. Basically, it is because we did the right things, but also because we were helped by events. They were unfortunate events like the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, for one, but they helped propel Malaysia to another level.

Our board then made a conscious decision to change from a voluntary organisation in Malaysia to a professional organisation doing humanitarian work internationally.

It’s an important paradigm shift. It would have been very easy to remain a Malaysian aid organisation, but we decided to become an international aid organisation, retaining our Malaysian values but at the same time adhering to international standards. 

We were resolved to be as good as, if not as big as, the major humanitarian organisations.
So although there were other older and bigger aid organisations in the region, we became a leading humanitarian organisation in a short space of time. 

Asean also asked us to lead the humanitarian engagement in disaster preparedness in the region.
This means we cannot turn back, slow down or change direction. We have to remain at the top of our game regardless of challenges, external or internal.

> What is the biggest challenge for Mercy Malaysia now?

We have four main key strategic areas: sustainable funding and fund-raising; human capital development; effective stakeholder engagement; and maintaining and enhancing operational excellence. 

Sustainable funding is the biggest challenge and there are three main aspects to that: to ensure that we have continuous funding regardless of whether there is a natural disaster or crisis to respond to. It is important to enable us to respond promptly to any emergency, and to respond to need, and to respond at the right time.

To enable us to do that, we need a sustainable funding mechanism to allow us to operate at a minimal level and at least to allow us to start an emergency response and non-emergency long-term chronic crisis as well as do long-term responses and work such as rehabilitation and reconstruction. 

This is something that major humanitarian organisations measure themselves by – whether they are able to respond to long-term emergencies.

We also need to develop systems and processes internally to have a more sustainable operation. 

We also need to have our funding come in more systematically instead of reactively. Generally, Malaysians don’t have an issue donating when a disaster occurs in a place that we feel a kinship to or when our heartstrings are pulled. It really depends on where the conflict is and whether Malaysians can relate to the conflict. There is a difference in response from the Malaysian public between a conflict in the Central Africa Republic and a bomb dropped in Palestine, for example. There was a big difference between an earthquake in Aceh and an earthquake in Haiti. In the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008, even without asking, the Chinese Embassy in Malaysia received RM62mil in direct donation.

So what we need is to change people’s mindset, but advocacy needs funding.

> Who will you not take money from?

We have not found any reason not to accept any money from any corporations that have come forward to help us or become our partner. 

Luckily, we have not yet encountered any corporations in Malaysia committing in or abetting in gross or open violation of human rights. Although I have to concede we are not as stringent as our brothers and sisters in the West who also look at the partners of and the areas the corporations are working in before accepting their donation. 

> Mercy proposed for a rolling fund for humanitarian work to be included in our 2012 Budget. Was it approved?

We have voiced it twice. What we are proposing is for Malaysia if it really wants to be a serious player in providing humanitarian relief and aid. And the Government doesn’t have to put aside a big allocation. As Mercy Malaysia showed, you don’t have to be big to be good. If Malaysia works on this principle, they can start small, and the revolving fund can grow from year to year if they are not fully disbursed.

> When it first started, Mercy Malaysia used to be criticised for focusing too much on humanitarian work in other countries and not enough in Malaysia. Has that perception changed?

The perception has always been there and is still there. But it is wrong as we do a lot of work locally and run many programmes here. We have been doing relief work in Malaysia from Day One and, in fact, some of our donors have specified that they want to fund only local programmes. The difference is that we don’t get a lot of publicity on them. I suppose it is because they are not so sexy or interesting. Last year, for example, we actually deployed more personnel locally to provide humanitarian aid during the floods here compared to the higher-profiled Typhoon Haiyan relief work, which got more press. 

> How do you want Mercy Malaysia to grow further? What sort of projects do you hope to start, where and why?

We don’t intend to stay at the same level. One thing that we need to work on is to get ourselves out there – project our work better, especially to potential funders. We are still not good at selling ourselves. 

Outside Malaysia, because we are small but effective, we are more welcomed by certain conflict areas like Rakhine, Myanmar. We are one of the aid organisations allowed to stay while other foreign aid relief and humanitarian agencies were asked to leave.

We have worked in Kandahar without being targeted by the government or insurgent groups. That means they do not seen us a threat.

> Are Malaysian youths interested in volunteering? Do you think they are aware and concerned about the troubles in the world?

I must say that over the last 11 years I’ve been in Mercy, it has been positive the way the youths have responded not just to Mercy but also to other humanitarian organisations. And you can see our youths now are more mature and savvy. They know what they want and what they are getting into. 

> Is it easy to stay neutral when doing relief work?

There is political pressure outside and inside. But Mercy Malaysia adheres to the international code of conduct and humanitarian principles that specify that we will act independently, with impartiality and neutrality, and giving the humanitarian imperative its prime position.

We do it as independently as possible without everyone telling us what we do. We will give aid to anyone who needs it and give priority to the one who needs it most. 

Ideally, Mercy Malaysia should want to aspire to become an organisation that not only can operate on the basis of these humanitarian principles but also be able to advocate them vocally, internationally.

Of course there are three things that need to happen first: Mercy Malaysia needs a certain critical mass, it has to have independence of funding so that it will not be bound to anyone and, finally, our internal capacity to do this in a positive and productive way.

The political obstacles are minimal and only affect us sometimes because our country’s political maturity is still evolving.

As for domestic pressure, we have been very firm – we are non-political and non-partisan. And our organisation’s constitution prohibits us from getting involved in any political activities. 

We are very clear and firm about that and we even tell our volunteers and staff to leave their political affiliations at the door.

And if there is an emergency like flood in any state or any village, we will not look at who is running the state government and their political affiliations before providing humanitarian aid to them.

> Recently, DPM Tan Sri Muhyddin Yassin said local agencies involved in disaster management are not ready to handle large-scale disasters. Do you agree that our agencies still have a lot to do to prepare for the management of large-scale disasters?

There is a lot to do still but, generally, I believe that there has been a vast improvement with regard to the National Security Council Malaysia (MKN) and its partner agencies. If you look at the last 10 years or so, there was less coordination and readiness. Now we actually have protocols, guidelines and systems in place, which become operational the moment a disaster strikes in Malaysia, for local agencies, partnering NGOs and the private sector to come together to deal with any emergency. 

There are also disaster-preparedness and disaster risk reduction work coordinated by the MKN now. 
But you also need to look at it realistically. You can argue that our learning curve has been gentle because our country is not prone to major natural disasters, as we are thankfully sheltered from the Pacific Ring of Fire. You can see the progress made in Indonesia and Philippines, which are prone to natural disasters.

We need to look at two areas, in my opinion, if we want to make a leap of improvement – the focus of resources especially funding into human resource development, not just into hardware, especially in the human capital development and training in local agencies.

Second is to increase the empowerment of communities to deal with natural disasters. 

> Is there now more urgency because of climate change?

Malaysia is lucky to be sheltered from these major national disasters but the downside is that it is a challenge as we are less aware. We think we don’t have to do as much to prepare for natural disasters. We don’t see typhoons coming to us, or earthquakes happening. Who is to say that it will remain the case with climate change? 

If there is a big volcanic eruption in Indonesia resembling the Krakatoa eruption or earthquake that causes a tsunami, we will be affected as well.

But these are things that we think will never happen to us when actually they can. 

There is a lack of responsible action and pro-activity among government and major corporate players to increase awareness and preparedness to climate change.

There is also a lack of awareness and apathy among Malaysians on the issue of climate change and our responsibility to the country and the world, which is different in societies in the developed world where they are concerned not only about their own house or town but the entire globe. 

If we look at it from a wide-angle perspective, we can see that it is something that will affect us too – for example, the loss of the ice caps in Antarctica will also affect us in future. 

> How do you de-stress and keep yourself motivated? 

That is the most difficult question so far. 

I enjoy what I am doing, so I feel fulfilled. I am not getting any money out of it but it is also de-stressing to get away from my day job.

It is also an important responsibility, I think, in a benevolent, gift-from-above kind of way. It is a responsibility that I take as a gift from the Almighty.

I count myself lucky to have been able to do this despite the challenges. I think I have to thank him for giving me the opportunity and to thank the people in Mercy and our sponsors and supporters to allow us to continue contributing.

The funny thing about this work is that while a lot have to be given by anyone in this line of work, be they in a management position or voluntary position, they have to give more than they get. 

The moment you want to get more from what you give, it is the end – you need to leave. And it has ended for many, while for some they needed to take a break because the work is hard.

Luckily, that time has not come for me yet. 

And at this point in time, there are still loose ends. When I started to take over the leadership of Mercy Malaysia, there were several objectives that we undertook to ensure that the organisation remains not just excellent but also sustainable.

> Do you have a fitness regime?

Around 30 minutes of exercises every day to keep healthy.

> Do you have time for personal interests and recreation?

No, once in while I try to catch a movie but in the last five years, 80% of the movies I’ve watched were on the plane when I was going to a meeting for Mercy Malaysia. I don’t really have time to go to the cinema or even watch anything these days.

> What was the last movie you saw?

I can’t remember. Last time when I went to the cinema, it was for the children, so it’s usually for something that they want to watch. Now they are older, it is a bit more difficult. We usually cannot agree on what to watch.

> How do you balance family, work and humanitarian work?

Very difficult but fortunately somehow I manage. 

(Mercy Malaysia’s adviser for Communications and Fundraising, Megawati Md Rashidi chips in: “We feel guilty that we are taking his time away from his family.”)

> Which mission experience has left the biggest mark on you?

It will be unfair for me to choose, (as) there have been so many experiences and all of them are memorable for different reasons. I suppose the first one will always be special – June 2003, a flood relief mission to Sri Lanka. That was 11 years ago but I still remember it as if it was yesterday.

> I hear you don’t have a Twitter or Facebook account. Don’t you feel left out?

I don’t even have time to answer my email or text messages. I’m overloaded with information, that is one of the challenges of modern life. I’ll be on Twitter and Facebook if I can have an assistant to just manage my Twitter and Facebook accounts, but Mercy Malaysia cannot afford such luxury.

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