Mercy Malaysia founder shares thoughts on being a woman in leadership


The work is clear, as is the target and what we want to achieve. As long as you achieve that, it doesn't matter where you're working from, says Dr Jemilah.

Humanitarian activist and doctor Tan Sri Datuk Dr Jemilah Mahmood has certainly accomplished a lot in her life. She is known, of course, for her role as founder of Mercy Malaysia in 1999 and for literally taking a bullet in her hip during a mission to deliver medical aid in Iraq. She is also known for her numerous other leadership roles, such as in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (2016-2020) and World Humanitarian Summit at the United Nations in New York, among others.

But to Dr Jemilah, her journey is “far from complete”.

“I have a lot more to do, and to achieve because there’s just so much need out there right now,” says the 65-year-old who trained in obstetrics and gynaechology.

And the journey is riddled with many obstacles, especially gender-related challenges, she adds.

“Convincing global stakeholders of Asian women’s capability to take leadership positions is a common issue, whether it’s in the United Nations, large corporations or government organisations, etc,” she says.

“When I started Mercy Malaysia, there were crazy rumours was that I was in a very unhappy marriage and started Mercy Malaysia to get away from it all which of course is untrue,” says Dr Jemilah.

The happily married mother of two sons asserts that her family is her anchor, and her obstetrician-gynaecologist husband, Datuk Dr Ashar Abdullah is her biggest supporter and fan.

Then, when Dr Jemilah became director of Humanitarian Response in the United Nations, her boss introduced her to the room and “everyone was shocked”, she reveals.

“Firstly, I was a woman, and secondly, a Muslim woman with a headscarf,” she says.

“I wasn’t their conventional idea of a leader: male and white/caucasian.

“And I had to go through those prejudices not just from men but also other women,” she says.

‘You don’t know Jemilah’

Dr Jemilah delivering aid to tsunami survivors at Mercy Camp in Lhok Nga, Aceh. Photo: FilepicDr Jemilah delivering aid to tsunami survivors at Mercy Camp in Lhok Nga, Aceh. Photo: Filepic

When an earthquake happened in Pakistan in 2005 and she was deployed as team leader for the United Nations, Dr Jemilah says there were those who questioned her appointment.

“They asked the person who deployed me: ‘How can you send Dr Jemilah to the frontlines of the Pakistan-Indian border at Jammu and Kashmir where the conflict is happening? She’s a woman!’ And his reply was: ‘Well, you don’t know Dr Jemilah’,” she recalls.

So, off she went to deal with generals and leaders in an extremely male-dominated space. But, everything fell into place.

“The funniest part was when I was waiting at the front of the camp, and this brigadier came out and asked when I had arrived from Kuala Lumpur.

“We started talking. I introduced myself and he took off his glasses and said: ‘Jemilah, don’t you recognise me? I’m Shakil. My wife was your patient in Malaysia when I was a military attache’, and just like that, all the barriers came down,” she says.

“But, because I was a woman, it was easier to reach the community to help them. I could go into people’s houses. They’re a very conservative community and usually the men would go out to work and only the women were at home, so they wouldn’t have let a man in,” she adds.

Because of this, she was able to get so much more done, she reveals.

Jemilah admits there are differences between the genders even in humanitarian work.

“Both men and women are just as capable of leadership, but we’ve to realise we’re all wired differently.

“Women tend to be more humble and not talk about their achievements as much, while men have no issues listing their accomplishments,” she says.

“My advice is: ‘Don’t try to be a man, be yourself. You don’t need to be tough like a man. You can still be feminine and get things done’.”

“When I was in the United Nations, there were hardly any Malaysians so I always felt compelled to work extra hard to prove myself, and make my country proud.

“Then, one of my mentors told me: ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself and don’t suffer from the imposter syndrome (self-doubt of intellect, skills, or accomplishments among high-achieving individuals). Just be yourself. You’re good so just go out and do it’.

“He also said: ‘Don’t try to be popular. If you want to be popular, then sell ice cream. You’re here to do a job and you’re here to do it well’.”

Values from childhood

Dr Jemilah and Aceh operations head, architect Norazam Abu Samah at the site of the new pharmacy academy that Mercy Malaysia helped set up. Photo: FilepicDr Jemilah and Aceh operations head, architect Norazam Abu Samah at the site of the new pharmacy academy that Mercy Malaysia helped set up. Photo: FilepicDr Jemilah reckons that her humanitarian career began at the age of nine, when her parents chose her – the youngest of seven siblings – to hand-deliver food supplies to families in need during the May 13 riots in 1969.

She says that from a young age, her parents had instilled in her values such as compassion, cohesion, and collaboration.

“I was born to a Malay father and a Chinese mother. My parents were very community-oriented.

“My civil servant father had a map of the area we lived in, and knew which homes comprised women-headed families. He knew which households had widows and bachelors.

“He said that these were the places we needed to send help to because bachelors would never think of storing food and the widows of course needed help,” she shares.

“When the curfew broke, my mother would go to the market – where she knew everyone – to get supplies.

“My parents would pack the food in bags and because I was the youngest and smallest, my father would lower me into the monsoon drain, and tell me where to go and I would be secretly delivering the food from house to house to the people who needed help,” she adds.

For Dr Jemilah, it’s our parents who mould us.

“I feel blessed to have had parents who embodied the spirit of muhibbah, compassion, tolerence, and acceptance. And as a Muslim and in their memory, what I can do for them in return is to be a good person.”

Dr Jemilah was speaking at Petronas and Shell’s first Merdeka Award Talk Series for 2024 titled “Women in leadership: Too hot to handle?”

She was a past recipient of the Merdeka Award in 2015 in the education and community category for her outstanding contribution to the development of humanitarian and international emergency relief.

Equality at home

As a leader, you need to have a mindset that is open enough to see that everyone has something to teach you, says Jemilah.As a leader, you need to have a mindset that is open enough to see that everyone has something to teach you, says Jemilah.Dr Jemilah – who worked in Switzerland for four and a half years – reveals that in Scandinavian countries, couples are entitled to one year of shared maternity-paternity leave.

If the partner doesn’t take that leave, it’s burnt, which means it’s the responsibility of the non-birthing partner to take leave to help take care of their child, she says.

Under Swiss law, primary schoolchildren don’t go to school on Wednesdays, they have a break midweek. Many female workers would take Wednesdays off or work from home on Wednesdays to take care of the children, she adds.

Even now, Dr Jemilah tells her staff, it doesn’t matter when they come into the office as long as they’re in the office two or three times a week.

They decide among themselves who will be in and when. She doesn’t believe in micro-managing.

“The work is clear, as is the target and what we want to achieve. As long as you achieve that, it doesn’t matter where you’re working from,” she says.

“An important quality for a leader is empathy – the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

“It’s this kind of empathy for women which gives them the confidence that they don’t have to give up on their family and home life to progress and advance in their career,” she adds. Dr Jemilah says that it all begins at home: in educating our boys about gender equality.

“We talk a lot about gender equality but when people have a son, they still expect a dowry for their son. Unless we change this notion which says boys are better than girls, society will continue to be prejudiced.

“My sons are real feminists. I’ve brought them up to understand that men and women are equal and need to have equity (fair and unbiased treatment),” she says.

And, it’s alright for men to earn less or hold a lower position than their wife because it’s a shared responsibility to bring up the family, adds the executive director at Sunway University’s Sunway Centre for Planetary Health

Succession plan

According to Dr Jemilah, mentorship is vital in order to have a good succession plan in any organisation.

Always make sure there are at least three women who are ready to step into your shoes before you leave an organisation, she advises other women leaders.

“This started when I was a doctor in the 1990s. There were so few Malay Muslim women gynaecologists in the country at that time – I was the eighth.

“I asked myself why this is the case when many women would be more comfortable to go to a female than a male gynaecologist.

“I was teaching at the university, and made a promise to myself that I would not leave until I saw three women become specialists who could take over my role,” she shares.

Dr Jemilah reveals she had a morbid thought when she was working in Switzerland and the pandemic broke out: she woke up one morning and asked herself, if she had Covid and died there, who could take over?

She thought hard of all those she had worked with from Malaysia, but couldn’t see anyone who could.

“That was the turning point, I decided to return to Malaysia and go into a role where I work with young people, women, and others to ensure that they develop a good mindset, understand the challenges we’re facing in the world today, and ultimately, help to find solutions,” she says.

Support others

Dr Jemilah says that it all begins with educating boys about gender equality.Dr Jemilah says that it all begins with educating boys about gender equality.Dr Jemilah says that a successful leader doesn’t feel threatened or worried about being overshadowed by their mentees. She isn’t afraid to promote others, and sees their success as her success.

“People who know me accuse me of having too many women in my organisation, but are they ready to take over from me? Some may not be quite ready to, but they are ready to take on leadership roles.

“I’ve worked with many of them and I’m proud of them. In fact, they may be better than me in certain areas,” she says.

“It’s important to set goals for yourself. To me, success is when I see people I’ve mentored achieve more than I can because I’ve had a small part to play in their journey,” she adds.

According to Dr Jemilah, to be successful as a leader, an honest support system is necessary.

“Everyone wants to be nice to you when you reach a certain level of success, but very few will tell you the truth.”

“But I’m blessed to have people who are willing to tell me straight to my face if something is not the right thing to do, and to reconsider it,” she says.

As a leader, you need to have a mindset that is open enough to see that everyone has something to teach you.

“There’s something that you can learn even from the person who’s serving you tea or coffee, so being humble in our approach is so important. And this is a value that my parents instilled in me,” she concludes.

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