PETALING JAYA: Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah is ready to retire this month after having served the nation for 35 years, of which the last few have been among the most challenging in his illustrious career.
The father of six said he is looking forward to spending more time with his family after he steps down on April 21, the day he reaches 60 and the mandatory retirement age for public service members.
“Retirement is the next chapter of life. It’s a life journey. I will cross one bridge at a time,” the Selangor native told The Star.
Asked if he will enjoy being retired as he is known to be a workhorse, he cheekily replied: “Let me experience retirement first and I will share with you my experience later.”
Having led Malaysia’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Noor Hisham is well remembered for helping to steer the nation out of the health crisis that crippled much of the world since 2020.
Grateful Malaysians immortalised the country’s famous medical commander in murals.
“It’s a memorable part of my medical journey to handle the pandemic and lead the challenge until we are (now) almost back to normalcy,” he said.
It is by no means the only highlight of his stellar career.
Dr Noor Hisham said he is also proud of the honour he was given to deliver the prestigious Martin Allgower lecture at the World Congress of Surgery in Krakow, Poland, in 2019 before 2,000 global surgeons.
(The lecture commemorated Prof Allgower, an internationally renowned surgeon who was the Department of Surgery chair at the University of Basel in Switzerland from 1967 to 1983.)
Another high point was charting Malaysia’s long journey towards achieving the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) goal of eliminating Hepatitis C by 2030 and addressing the issue of access affordability and equity.
“There are many more rewarding and fulfilling moments of my work. This includes establishing the parallel pathway in 15 specialties and many other high-impact initiatives of the Health Ministry with good outcomes and at reasonable costs,” he added.
Dr Noor Hisham was himself a renowned surgeon who blazed trails on numerous global stages including as the first Malaysian International Surgical Society (ISS) Global Surgery Committee chairman from 2017 to 2021 and as the chair of the first WHO Standing Committee on Health Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response, a position he was appointed to in December last year.
He was the first Malaysian to receive such recognition.
Dr Noor Hisham joined the public service as a medical officer in August 1988 before assuming the position of general surgeon in 1994 and serving as general surgeon of Hospital Putrajaya in 2004.
He succeeded Datuk Seri Dr Hasan Abdul Rahman as the Health director-general on March 1, 2013. Prior to that, Dr Noor Hisham had held the post of deputy Health director-general (medicine) since Feb 1, 2008.
Despite helming the ministry as a top civil servant, Dr Noor Hisham said he never forgot his calling as a surgeon.
He graduated with a Master’s degree in surgery and a Doctor of Medicine degree from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia before continuing his studies in the field of endocrine surgery and training at several universities in Adelaide and Sydney, Australia.
“Apart from being an administrator, I am also a practising breast endocrine surgeon. I am always a surgeon, trained as one and known as one,” he added.
While he has achieved much in his profession, Dr Noor Hisham said there remains one thing he wishes to see – the realisation of the Health White Paper, which aims to strengthen the country’s health system holistically as well as implement key systematic reforms and address all healthcare service issues.
Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa has said the White Paper is expected to be tabled in Parliament in June.
“The tabling of the paper is critical and will mark the starting point of the country’s journey towards health reforms,” said Dr Noor Hisham.
He said the opinions and ideas of various stakeholders have been consistently sought and that the cooperation of the private sector and NGOs is critical in ensuring the success of the healthcare reforms.
A proposal to set up a Health Service Commission to enable the ministry to recruit medical officers is among the recommendations in the Health White Paper, he noted.
“It is important to put the hiring process of medical officers under the Health Ministry to resolve the issues of contract doctors and permanent positions,” he said.
Currently, the hiring process is dependent on the Public Service Department and the Finance Ministry in terms of allocations.
Of late, there has been much angst and discontent including threats of strikes over the unresolved issues surrounding contract doctors such as lack of job security, low on-call payment rates, gruelling hours, and bullying, among others.
The contract-doctor system was introduced in 2016 to overcome the glut of medical graduates in Malaysia.
Dr Noor Hisham said discussions on healthcare, organisational and financial transformation for the Health Ministry have been ongoing for many years and it was now time for a serious change.
“There have been almost 40 years of discussions but no action despite multiple studies done.
“I wish to see the content of the Health White Paper be implemented and realised so that there can be a strengthening of the health system,” he added.