Malaysia has been heralded by the United Nations for encouraging women to participate in the workforce with the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) seeing an encouraging show of intelligent, successful Malaysian women. The Peak sits down with some of our STEM stars to talk to them about their achievements, challenges and what more needs to be done to further champion women in Science.
Group CEO, TMC Life Sciences and CEO, Thomson Hospital
Tell us about your role as Group CEO of TMC Life Sciences Berhad and CEO of Thomson Hospital Kota Damansara.
As Executive Director and Group CEO of TMC Life Sciences Berhad, I am responsible for the overall performance of the listed company and its subsidiaries, including Thomson Hospitals, TMC Fertility, Thomson TCM, TMC Care Pharmacy and our development in Johor, Thomson Iskandar Medical Hub. I also oversee the corporate office functions at the group level, which includes Finance, Quality, Legal and Risk, Business Development, Marketing & Communications, Human Capital Development and ICT. In addition, as CEO of Thomson Hospital Kota Damansara, I am responsible for the strategic direction, growth and operations of our flagship hospital here in the Klang Valley, where we are currently expanding from 205 to 600 beds by 2021.
How did you get started in the healthcare and medicine industry?
My mother will tell you how I drove her mad sticking anatomy drawings on the walls as a teen, but I thought medical school would be boring and my mother suggested I look into creating cures instead of giving them. I ended up studying biochemistry as an undergraduate at Harvard, simultaneously working for four years in a virology lab at Boston Childrenâ€™s Hospital. Those years made me realise I wasnâ€™t suited to being a lab rat, so I joined the Boston Consulting Group on returning to Malaysia. After doing my Masters in Public Health (Nutrition) in London, I joined the Sunway Group and TMC Life Sciences Berhad. The moment I started working in healthcare administration, I knew I had found my place. The complexity of healthcare systems, the challenge of leading large organisations, the need to keep up with the latest scientific advancements â€“ every day in healthcare is different enough to keep my interest and there is no better satisfaction than to know that doing a good job means literally making another personâ€™s life better.\
Tell us a bit about your past â€“ what were you like growing up? Who inspired you as a young woman?
To be honest, I was very lucky. I was born into a multiracial, middle-class family who happened to speak English at home. My parents believed strongly in education and books. We didnâ€™t have tonnes of money but my father never said no when we wanted to buy books. My mother gave up a promising career in marketing to coach my brother at home after he was diagnosed with dyslexia. She taught me to persevere but never told me what to do, instead egging me on to find ways to pursue my goals. She always told me that to succeed at work, itâ€™s never about what you know, but how you manage the people around you. You can probably tell my parents were my biggest inspiration. They always believed in me and supported all my decisions, from going to America as a young Muslim girl right after 9/11 to deciding to get married two months after first meeting my husband. They trust me and Iâ€™d like to think that I tried to live up to that trust. I try to do the same as a leader: trust your team, and more often than not, they go on to exceed expectations.
You are the youngest hospital CEO in Malaysia at only 36 years old. In a society and industry that looks at one’s age as equivalent to experience and wisdom, how does your youth make you a better leader?
I look ahead and see a good 40-50 years left instead of imminent retirement and Iâ€™m very aware of having to live with the consequences of my decisions. Having to take a long view means being concerned about sustainability and adaptability, and serving the communities in which we operate. At the same time, the speed of change and disruption can put all that we know in the past. Just because this is the way itâ€™s always been done, doesnâ€™t mean that it is the right way to do it tomorrow. Experience to some extent is only valuable as part of history.
This worldview affects my priorities as we constantly try to find new ways to adapt to a changing world. For example, Thomson Hospital is actively reducing our carbon footprint, implementing systems that will integrate and analyse data and information to study long-term value propositions for our customers. We view our employees as people, providing assistance with housing, childcare and education. We were the first to offer three months maternity leave to our staff, long before the government made it compulsory. As a leader, I view myself as a custodian to ensure that as an organisation, we can continue to thrive and serve our mission long into the future. For that we need to ensure the wellbeing of our people and our communities.
You are one of few women hospital CEOs in the healthcare industry here in Malaysia. How can women be given more managerial positions in healthcare?
Women make up more than 70% of the healthcare workforce, so it is common to see them in senior leadership positions in healthcare organisations. However, this changes at the board level, as directorships are still primarily male-dominated even in industries where women make up more than half the employees and customers. But policies and public opinion can help drive change. For example, Bursa Malaysia requires boards to consider appointing at least â…“ women to their membership. This has triggered conversations at the board level to look for more candidates beyond the traditional network of â€œold boysâ€. Shareholders and investors are also increasingly demanding that boards reflect the diversity of their customer profiles. I believe that diversity, not just in gender, but also skills, geographical exposure and age are critical to ensure that organisations have a balanced view and can make better decisions.
What are your thoughts on societyâ€™s traditional views of what a womanâ€™s role should be?
I think women definitely bear the majority of unpaid work and this indirectly results in us having to compromise on other fronts like careers. Women are usually the caregivers to ageing parents and young children. Nora Roberts once said, â€œWe are all juggling many balls. Some of the balls are glass and others arenâ€™t. Focus on the glass balls.â€ I think her point here is that our priorities at any one time can change, but we women need to focus on what is important in that moment and trust that if the other balls fall, they usually can bounce back. But letting anything fall at all can be really hard and we can be our own harshest critics when it comes to not measuring up. We may feel we made the wrong choices that have led to that moment, but I can tell you that in most cases, things and people do bounce back. Donâ€™t beat yourself up about dropping a ball that isnâ€™t glass.
Do you see 2020, and this new decade, as a ripe time for women to shake the world of healthcare?
So far, healthcare has been slow to move because of our inherent risk-aversion and legislation. But if even highly traditional sectors like banking and energy can be disrupted, itâ€™s only a matter of time for healthcare. We have no end of challenges in this industry, so many fields are converging and with them come opportunities not just for women, but also for youth and other groups of people who traditionally may not have been interested to work in this sector. I canâ€™t wait to see what happens next and be along for the ride.