TAN Sri Dr Yahya Awang has taken on two major challenges. But the heart surgeon is hopeful that both of these group efforts will succeed.
In the short term, he is helping to set up a structured programme for doctors going into heart surgery.
His long-term goal, as one of the group of 25 prominent Malays, is a review of syariah and civil law, recognising the supremacy of the Federal Constitution.
After 12 years in government medical service, Dr Yahya was part of the team that started the National Heart Institute (IJN) in 1992.
His team performed heart bypass surgery on then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad at Hospital Kuala Lumpur in 1989.
At that time, he recalls, there was a shortage of heart specialists and a long waiting list.
“Many died while waiting for surgery,” he says.
Dr Yahya worked with the Health Ministry (MOH) on a proposal for IJN and they took it to Dr Mahathir.
“Being a doctor, he understood the limits we had then and agreed it should be established.”
And at IJN, where he became head of cardiac surgery, his team performed bypass surgery again on Dr Mahathir in 2007.
Dr Mahathir was “very brave” to decide to have his surgeries in Malaysia, he says.
Dr Yahya’s team also performed the first heart transplant in Malaysia in 1997.
“Dr Mahathir believed Malaysians could do what others can do,” he says. “His decision gave a real boost to our medical fraternity. Certainly after that, very few VIPs went overseas for surgery!”
But today Dr Yahya, who is now consultant cardiothoracic surgeon at KPJ Damansara Specialist Hospital, says there are still only 52 cardiac surgeons. He estimates the country needs 160.
Every state should have its own heart unit, he urges, but notes that Terengganu, Perlis, Kedah and Malacca have yet to open such centres.
And many of the units in other states do not have enough cardiac surgeons, he adds.
That’s why, through the Malaysian Cardiac Surgical Society, and with MOH support, Dr Yahya is working with the Academy of Medicine of Malaysia and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh to start a six-year programme here.
IJN, Serdang Hospital, Penang General Hospital and Sarawak General Hospital could be accredited as training centres.
He expects the programme to begin next year, initially training five or six per year and expanding in the future.
For his other challenge as a member of what has become known as G25, Yahya has set no time frame.
“G25 wants to reaffirm the position of Islam in a constitutional democracy, and to develop and promote Islam as a just and compassionate religion,” he explains.
“But incidents and regulations appear to be otherwise, which is why I decided to sign our open letter in December last year.”
Dr Yahya is the son of the former governor of Penang Tun Datuk Dr Awang Hassan, nephew of former deputy prime minister Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, and son-in-law of former prime minister Tun Dr Hussein Onn.
He is sure that all three of them, if they were alive today, would endorse G25’s goals.
Malaysians know Tun Dr Ismail’s moderate stand from the records, he points out.
And he remembers that when Dr Hussein laid the foundation stone for the Tun Dr Hussein Onn National Eye Hospital, he invited heads of all the religions to pray and give their blessings.
“My father inculcated the values of moderation as part of Islamic teaching,” he adds.
The Penang governor often quoted the Prophet Muhammad, who hated excess in religion and who stood up and bowed his head when a Jewish funeral procession passed by.
All three would have been very concerned if Malaysia veered off the moderate path, says Dr Yahya, and “I have no doubt that all three would be very concerned if they were alive today”.
He sees the riot at Low Yat Plaza last week as unfortunate.
“The mob mentality should not occur in a moderate country like Malaysia,” he stresses.
He notes that on July 13, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said action would be taken against those who destroy racial harmony.
“So let the authorities do their work, and I am sure the Prime Minister will keep to his work,” he says.
Dr Yahya was among the G25 members who met Najib in February this year and is optimistic that he would back the group’s mission. The Government has yet to begin a consultative council on the overlap of civil and syariah laws but “we are pressing the issue”.
He was also with the group when they met the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the Backbenchers Club and the Opposition leader.
“Most are for our moderate cause and not veering from it,” he says.
But the group “should meet with all segments of society, whether they are with us or not”, he says, because open dialogue is important.
“As a doctor, I see the workings of the heart and the brain every day,” Dr Yahya says. “God’s greatest gift to mankind is the brain and it would be a waste and maybe sinful to leave it on the shelf and let others do the thinking for us.
“I encourage open discussion. It would be sad if Muslims just leave certain segments of the authorities to make decisions for them.”
After all, the heart surgeon stresses, Islam encourages seeking knowledge.
“We are now in a world of solar-powered airplanes and going to Mars, but in Malaysia we are dwelling on the length of skirts and moral policing,” he laments.
“We can’t achieve developed nation status if we dwell on these things.”