Malaysian dentist dedicates her life to helping women and underprivileged children

  • Family
  • Tuesday, 07 Jun 2022

YWCA Penang's women and men empowerment session through the Y Kitchen started by Dr Marina (in blue). Photo: YWCA Penang

Juggling her career as a dentist with family responsibilities hasn’t detracted from Datuk Dr Marina Lalitha David’s lifelong commitment towards helping the less fortunate.

The 66-year-old dental surgeon from Penang has dedicated her life towards advocating for women empowerment and underprivileged children.

Dr Marina says that she was inspired by her mother who was always helping people, doing fundraising and cooking for the less fortunate.

“Growing up, my younger brother and I saw that she was always so full of joy and would ask her why she woke up so early in the morning just to cook and do all those things to help others. And she would reply, ‘We need to bless others because we’re so blessed. There are many people in need so whenever there’s a worthy cause, let’s do our part,” she recalls.

Dr Marina grew up in a middle class family. Her father worked with the Malayan Railways (now Keretapi Tanah Melayu) as a guard and her mother was educated as a nurse, but became a housewife after getting married.

'We can’t change the world but we can do what we’re able to within our community,' says Dr Marina. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong'We can’t change the world but we can do what we’re able to within our community,' says Dr Marina. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

“My father worked with the Malayan Railways, just as my grandfather and great grandfather before him. My great grandfather and grandfather came to Malaysia from South India during the British occupation. They were coolies (labourers) who helped build the railway tracks. But my father was educated to become a guard. He had beautiful handwriting and people in the past loved such artistry,” she recounts.

“My mother, who was born in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan, was a brilliant woman. She was very active in sports – especially running – and won many trophies. Although she was educated as a nurse, her parents believed that girls during that time shouldn’t work and arranged for her to get married.

“She was sent to KL and married off to my father. Although my parents had a good marriage, my mother was initially unhappy because she was forced to give up her career to marry someone she didn’t know,” reveals Dr Marina.

“She said that she would make sure that we, her children, would have the choice to marry who we wanted,” she adds.

Dr Marina says that her family background made her who she is today.

“My parents were good role models and they emphasised the importance of a good education."

“They worked very hard to give my brother and I a good life. My father worked day and night and whether rain or shine, he would walk along the railway track half an hour to reach his working place daily. My mother would sew clothes and do embroidery. She also took orders for cakes, and gave tuition to earn an income. And we would help her at home,” recalls Dr Marina.

“Because we weren’t rich, it made me more empathetic towards the plight of the less fortunate."

Advocating for women, children

YWCA Penang's 100 years celebration in 2009. Photo: YWCA PenangYWCA Penang's 100 years celebration in 2009. Photo: YWCA PenangShe first ventured into volunteer work when she returned to Malaysia after graduating from university in Manipal, India, in 1983. While waiting for responses to her job applications, she volunteered at a UNHCR refugee camp in Sungei Besi, Kuala Lumpur.

“It felt good to do something to help these people. We also trained some of them to become our assistants. There were two of us dentists and we worked alongside doctors who were also volunteers,” she says.

She then received her government posting to Muar, Johor, where she worked for two years.

Marina got married to her husband (whom she met while studying in India) in 1984, and moved to Penang where he was working as an orthopedic surgeon at the Penang General Hospital.

It was here that Dr Marina’s volunteer efforts in advocating for women’s empowerment and underprivileged children took flight. She is currently involved with YWCA Penang (president), and previously with YWCA Malaysia (national president), Penang State Government’s Youth and Sports, and Women, Family and Community Development councils, Penang Women’s Development Cooperation, Women’s Institute of Management, Prison Ministry Penang, Community AIDS Service Penang, and other organisations.

“I joined several NGOs and started getting involved in helping people,” she says, adding that she found her involvement with YWCA Penang one of the most interesting because it was about empowering women.

Teaching life skills

“At the YWCA, we reach out to and help lower income women. We started baking classes to teach different forms of baking so that they could use the skill to supplement their income. We have held a lot of classes for cooking, handicraft making, flower arrangement, embroidery and even etiquette classes as well as how to carry yourself properly and build up your confidence. This is because in the early years, we used to get a lot of women from abusive homes,” she explains.

“After that, many other NGOs were set up to focus on helping victims of abuse. We also realised there were hundreds of women who needed help in other ways and our focus changed to empowering women with life skills,” she says.

They also ran a kindergarten for the B40 community.

“During my time, education was free for from Standard One to Form Five, but even now, kindergarten isn’t free. And there were many parents from lower-income groups who couldn’t afford to send their children to daycare or kindergarten,” she says.

Dr Marina recalls how they had to go from door-to-door in the low income flats to reach out to these families in the early years.

“We would find children by themselves at home, just sitting and staring blankly. They didn’t even have a TV,” she recounts.

“As strangers, we had to gain the parents' trust, reassure them that we were there to help, and persuade them to send their children to the kindergarten. We told them we wanted to help give their children an education, completely free-of-charge. We’d arrange the transportation as well as provide school uniforms, books and meals,” she says.

“When the children came, we could see the excitement in their eyes. They were so excited to learn. They come to us when they were four years old, and when they were six, we’d have a graduation for them,” she says.

“We can’t change the world but we can do what we’re able to within our community,” she adds.

Breaking the chain of poverty

YWCA Penang's annual kindergarten concert for the children in 2012. Photo: YWCA PenangYWCA Penang's annual kindergarten concert for the children in 2012. Photo: YWCA Penang

One of the most memorable experiences she's had is helping a girl who came for an interview as a kindergarten teacher years ago. Dr Marina found out she studied medicine in Medan, Indonesia. She was a good student but in her second year, her father was no longer able to pay for her school fees.

The college allowed her to sit for the exams and she passed her final year. But she wasn’t able to get her graduation certificate because she hadn’t paid her school fees. She needed RM50,000 so Dr Marina decided to do something to help her.

“I told her, even if we gave her the kindergarten teacher job, she wouldn’t be able to earn enough to pay off her debts by end of the year because she would only get RM800 monthly for a half day’s work. It would take her six years if she didn’t spend what she earned. But everything would have lapsed by then.

“I understood what it’s like to go through having no money for studies and not being able to achieve your dreams. I shared about her plight on Facebook. I urged that those who’ve been blessed contribute money to help her. If just six people including myself contributed RM1,000 each, we’d be able to meet her target already," says Dr Marina.

"My friends responded asking for a bank account number so that they could contribute. Then I contacted the girl and because we couldn’t TT the money, we had to go to the school to pay for it personally, so I flew there to do it for her. Then I asked her to write thank you notes to each of the persons who sponsored her,” she says.

This was just one of the many stories she has.

“We try to help those who come to us even though it’s not really in our ‘job scope’,” she adds.

“We were like a halfway house. We help women kickstart and rebuild their lives. But after they’re able to, they’ve to move on and find their place in society so that we can make space for the next person. In this way, we can help more people. Our role is to empower and educate the women. We want to break the chain of poverty and abuse for these women,” she says.

Family comes first

Dr Marina (first from left) at YWCA Penang's 100th year anniversary in 2009. Photo: YWCA PenangDr Marina (first from left) at YWCA Penang's 100th year anniversary in 2009. Photo: YWCA Penang

Despite being busy with her career and volunteer work, Dr Marina says that her priority is her family.

“You need to first put your own house in order before you can help someone else. You must be a good role model and, you can’t help others at the expense of your own children because that would be unfair to them. The most important things you can give to your children are quality time spent with them, your relationship built with them, and good values inculcated in them."

She has four sons in their 30s and 20s. If I had daughters, I would get them to be members of YWCA because it’s for women. But my sons have been helping with our events,” she says.

“It’s good for them to be involved in such activities which will help them later in life,” she says. “Just as I emulated my mum, my boys are emulating me in volunteering, serving, and leading. They have also joined a group that cooks, packs and delivers food to the homeless at night,” she says.

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