Malaysia’s First Lady: A Champion of Public Health

Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali (popularly known as Tun Siti) is not only one of the earliest local doctors before and after the British colonial period in Malaya, but she is also a staunch advocate and champion in various developmental issues related to public health in the country. Tun Siti graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Malaya in Singapore two years prior to Malaysia’s independence, and then completed housemanship at the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital. From 1956 to 1962, she served as a medical officer in different places in Alor Setar, Kedah. Three years later she became the first female Medical Officer at the Maternal and Child Health Department, and Principal of the Rural Health Training School in Jitra. Her passion for healthcare and especially in women’s health eventually made her the first State Maternal and Child Health Officer in Kedah in 1974. In the same year, she was appointed Maternal and Child Health Officer at the Institut Kesihatan Umum (Institute for Public Health) in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. She retired from government service in 1979, joining the Dental Faculty of the University of Malaya as a lecturer until 1981 when her husband Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad became Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister.

Dr Siti Hasmah stresses a point during one of the many lectures and discussions in the Bilek Sharahan at the Sekolah Latehan Kesihatan Luar Bandar, Jitra. Dr Arumunayagam, lecturer in the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, Universiti Malaya, is beside her.

It was in 1965 when Tun Siti became directly engaged in public health and preventive medicine. Describing her time in Public Health as her ‘happiest days’, Tun Siti devoted herself for many years to advancing community health and building a poverty-stricken nation recently liberated from the yoke of colonial rule. She championed rural health by organizing numerous programmes and competitions in villages in order to promote hygiene, healthy lifestyles and immunisation for children. Tun Siti was also an advocate for women’s health at a time when women were mostly restricted by cultural taboos and lack of knowledge. With a lot of patience, she spent years educating rural communities – especially traditional healers, traditional midwives and local women – to prevent a number of unsafe practices surrounding post-natal and newborn care. Family planning was another field to which Tun Siti had made a lot of contributions. Even though there were many challenges and misconceptions on this subject at that time, they were gradually overcome with patience, continuous education, good communication and mutual respect between the health personnel and community members.

For her public service for more than two decades, and her involvement in public health, literacy, women’s education and drug abuse control, Tun Siti received numerous awards and honors. These include the Kazue McLaren Award by the Asia Pacific Consortium for Public Health in 1988, Honorary Doctorate in Medical Science by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in 1991, Honorary Doctorate in Public Health by the Royal College of Physicians, Ireland in 1992, Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by Indiana University in 1994, and the honorary title on ‘Tun’ in 2003 by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia.

To this day, the impact of Tun Siti’s contributions to Public Health and preventive medicine are still resonating and strongly felt. We are indebted to our predecessors like Tun Siti for the progress and success that has been achieved in the health system and industry in this country.

Written by Dr Raudah Mohd Yunus

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