While it may not be too difficult to find a private clinic staffed by two or more races in Malaysia, it is rare that such a place makes it a point to actively ensure that its employees are multiracial and multilingual.
In one particular clinic tucked away in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, the nine staff comprise three doctors (Chinese, Indian Muslim and Indian), a clinic manager (Lun Bawang ethnic group from Sarawak), two counsellors (Indian and Chinese), two administrative-cum-reception staff (Chinese and Indian) and an assistant pharmacist (Malay).
“I believe all workplaces should be multiracial – a patient is always more comfortable when they see someone from their own race," says consultant psychiatrist Dr Subash Kumar Pillai, who runs the clinic.
“Besides, some patients may have a language barrier, and although we all speak Bahasa Malaysia, there are some who understand Indian or Chinese dialects better and request for someone who can speak these languages.
"So we are equipped to cater to them.
“If need be, we’ll mix bits of several languages to get the message across, and if we really cannot communicate well, then we refer them elsewhere.
"So far, there have been no issues.”
Good communication is particularly crucial in diagnosing and treating mental health problems, hence the importance on being able to do so well with patients.
Growing up, Dr Subash went to national schools in Johor and Perak.
“I had friends of all races and the fact that we have a common language to communicate in, while keeping our respective culture and religion, is something unique.
"I have always been able to blend in anywhere I go locally and I want our patients and staff to also experience that, ” he says.
The Lun Bawang clinic manager is also his spouse, Darlene Sia, who hails from Lawas, a small frontier town in northeastern Sarawak’s Limbang Division.
“People think I am Chinese because of my father's name (Sia), and I may look like one, but I am not!” says the cheery lady.
“When a patient is sick, they come to us seeking hope and comfort because they want to heal.
"Race, religion and skin colour are forgotten.
“Also, with a multiracial team, taking leave during religious or cultural holidays is not an issue as there is always someone else to be at work.
“We make it a point to celebrate each other’s birthdays and cultural festivals together.
"Some may eat with their fingers, others with chopsticks, or fork and spoon – no one feels out of place.”
Manning the front desk
For clinic administrator-cum-receptionist, P. Raj Vambuli, 26, his colleagues at the clinic are like his extended family.
A product of a Tamil primary school, the psychology graduate from Seremban, Negri Sembilan, had difficulty adapting to a national type secondary school.
He says, “The teachers and students used to refer to me as the ‘Tamil school boy’ and bullied me when I entered Form One.
"I cried so much in the beginning and didn’t want to go to school.
"It took me a few months to adapt to having classmates of other races.
"Eventually, I realised that this is the reality – I am from a Tamil school – and slowly settled in.
“I’ve been doing all sorts of part-time jobs since I was 17 and have worked with all races.
"When I hang out, it could be with my colleagues here or with my friends from university, or from primary or secondary school.”
Raj did his internship at the clinic and enjoyed it so much that he decided to apply for a permanent position.
During the movement control order (MCO), he was tasked with sending prescription medicines to patients in the Klang Valley, instead of them coming to the clinic.
As the clinic is now operating as usual, he is kept busy manning the front counter.
“The focus should be on the individual and not on the race.
"If there is a communication barrier when the patient comes in, my job is to make them understand and solve the problem, ” says Raj, who intends to pursue his master’s degree next year.
Assisting Raj is Brendan Lee, 22, the youngest in the multiracial team.
“I joined two months ago and I like working here because I’m meeting people from all walks of life.
"They’re coming here because they are sick and it gives me joy to be able to help them.
“Sometimes, there are patients who are fussy and demanding.
"They will insist on consulting the doctor immediately and this is not possible as they have to make prior appointments.
"If it’s really urgent, we try to shift the slots around to accommodate them.
“If language is a barrier, I’ll ask one of my colleagues to communicate as I only speak English and Bahasa Malaysia, ” says Lee, who dropped out from studying geology in university early this year as he wasn’t enjoying the course.
As a reserved person, he is slowly opening up to others due to the requirements of his job.
Lee, who is himself a former patient at the clinic, says, “This is not going to be my career, but I’m getting exposed to ideas that I wouldn’t normally think about, which allows me to broaden my thinking.
"I’ll take it one step at a time.”
As for what is unique about being a Malaysian, he says: “I can walk anywhere and call someone abang or brother to strike up a conversation.
"Most people are friendly and will always reciprocate.”
Darlene refuses to divulge how her romance blossomed with Dr Subash, although she says they met in Miri where she was working as an insurance agent.
Dr Subash was then a medical officer at Miri Hospital and was the attending doctor to Darlene’s grandmother, who was warded in critical condition.
Back in the 1990s, critical care patients from Lawas were shuttled to Miri Hospital as it was the nearest government hospital.
Located some 400km away, the 10-hour journey via a combination of four-wheel drive and bus involved traversing horrendous traffic on narrow roads, mountainous terrains, and even passing through Brunei.
Today, a 45-minute flight is available through MASwings' Rural Area Services.
Although Darlene's grandma subsequently passed away, Dr Subash shares that she called to thank him afterwards.
“One phone call became two and three, and that’s how it happened – I didn’t do anything!” he recalls with a laugh.
When he was invited to her hometown, it was with much trepidation that he agreed.
He says,"It was unchartered waters for me... like a scene from the 1960s comedy movie Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? starring Sidney Poitier!
"The Lun Bawang community had never seen an Indian in their village before and everyone turned to look at me, wondering what species I was!
“But the family was so warm in welcoming me as some of them had met me at the hospital while I was treating grandma.
"They didn’t make me feel out of place.
“As for my parents, they had no problems accepting her as long as I was happy.
"One of my uncles had married a Chinese girl, so I guess he paved the way for me!”
Only after marrying Dr Subash in 2000 did Darlene make her maiden voyage to Peninsula Malaysia and she was in for a shock.
She says, “The pollution in Kuala Lumpur was (and is) so bad that it triggered my sinus and it hasn’t stopped.
"When I’m back in Lawas, I don’t have this problem.
“Then I was surprised that many shops, in and out of malls, were manned by only one race.
"In Miri, the shop owner would be Chinese, but the staff would be a mix of Chinese, Malay and indigenous people.
“In my opinion, there is more mingling and harmony among the races in Sarawak because there are so many tribes. I don’t feel that as strongly here.”
The couple has two teenage children.
Although Dr Subash is a Hindu and Darlene, a Christian, they respect each other’s religion and expose their kids to both religions.
“We teach the kids to respect both our religions and cultures, so we celebrate Deepavali and Christmas, along with other festivals," shares Darlene.
"They can understand the Lun Bawang language, but not Tamil, because in Subash’s household, they speak more English.
“I’ve learnt how to make Indian food such as chicken curry and biryani as the children love them.”
At the clinic, the staff go on monthly makan-makan outings after closing to chill out and relax.
“We are truly a united, Malaysian family, ” Raj concludes.
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