A trusted humanitarian, Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood was the driving force behind the establishment of MERCY Malaysia, the most successful nationally grown humanitarian organisations that works both at home and internationally. Born in Seremban in 1959, Tan Sri Dr Jemilah credits her parents for her early interest in community service, “I grew up in a family that was very much involved in helping others. We used to live in a house that had families living with us. My parents had no hesitation helping people – they were very generous and kind.” Her early education at Assunta School in Petaling Jaya, also encouraged her passion and interest in community service. “I had the opportunity to be under a fantastic headmistress – Sister Enda Ryan.”
Tan Sri Dr Jemilah obtained her Doctor of Medicine from the National University of Malaysia in 1986 and her Masters in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 1991. She also obtained her Fellowship from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in the United Kingdom and completed a business studies programme at the International Management and Development Institute (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1999, after several years of a successful private practice at Ampang Puteri Hospital, Tan Sri Dr Jemilah began to yearn for something more. “I woke up one day and thought - I love my patients, I love what I do, but I am not being true to what I really want to do.” She initially considered joining Médecins Sans Frontières but soon realised that, given the geopolitical shifts of the day, there would soon come a time when it would be very difficult for the conventional Western organisations to get access to people affected by crisis. She felt strongly that there was a need to build capacity and a network of organisations to fill that gap. Encouraged by her husband and family, Tan Sri Dr Jemilah began exploring setting up a humanitarian organisation that could address this need. As she says: “I wanted to be a catalyst with the hope that other organisations would follow suit.”
Founded in 1999, MERCY Malaysia works both at home and internationally, harnessing the spirit of volunteerism and selflessness from Malaysians from all walks of life. Throughout her 10 years at MERCY Malaysia, Tan Sri Dr Jemilah was responsible for providing the strategic direction of the organisation and, also, transforming it from a small-scale non-governmental organisation to one that is highly-respected today. Her stewardship saw the organisation involved in various engagements such as delivering support in emergencies, developmental work in post-emergency tasks such as emergency medicine, disaster risk reduction as well as long-term measures such as ways to strengthen health care systems. This can be seen after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami in Indonesia where MERCY Malaysia was responsible for the establishment of a nursing college in Aceh and the rebuilding of the provincial hospital in Nias, receiving the highest accolades from the Government of Indonesia. Besides Indonesia, MERCY Malaysia also helped to provide assistance and rebuild areas affected by conflict and natural disasters in numerous countries from Sudan, Afganistan, Sri Lanka, Philippines and Myanmar to name a few.
In order to ensure that MERCY Malaysia performed to the highest standards at all times, she constantly found new ways to improve the organisation’s capabilities in light of the ever challenging environment of disaster response. For instance, MERCY Malaysia was among the first (in 2002) to introduce Total Disaster Risk Management including Community Based education at MERCY Malaysia, well ahead of other international organisations. This method allowed MERCY Malaysia to go beyond simply responding to disasters and conflicts towards a more holistic approach that encompasses prevention and preparedness as well as recovery and reconstruction. The Total Disaster Risk Management methodology was later adopted by many organisations in the country, region, and globally. Passionate about education, she was also on the Board of Trustees of Teach for Malaysia.
Riding on her expertise in MERCY Malaysia, Tan Sri Dr Jemilah moved on to co-found the Asian Disaster Reduction and Response Network (ADRRN), which aims to enhance the capacity development of local NGOs. The network currently has 50 national NGOs as members and it aims to improve the standard of disaster response through capacity building, knowledge sharing and networking. ADRRN remains a leading network providing education and policy support in disaster preparedness, climate change and humanitarian response and recovery.
Tan Sri Dr Jemilah’s passion in bringing the unique brand of Malaysian humanitarianism and leadership to locals and those abroad also led her to serve on the boards of various international organisations such as The International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), Save the Children UK, and was on the Council of the Overseas Development Institute UK. She was the inaugural Chair of the UK Humanitarian Innovation Fund Grants Panel and remains an active member of the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team (UNDAC).
Ten years after she founded MERCY Malaysia, Tan Sri Dr Jemilah left the organisation to focus on other areas of humanitarian and development. In August 2009, she joined the United Nations and was appointed as the Chief of Humanitarian Response at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). During her early days, she re-organised the management of “UNFPA’s Emergency Response Fund” and instituted quality assurance and accountability through development of policies and guidelines. Shortly thereafter, she led the development of the Second Generation Humanitarian Response Strategy that provided for humanitarian response with development and an accompanying results management framework to allow for performance evaluation. She continued to bring change through the development of standard operating procedures, monitoring frameworks and improved communication tools and guidance. At UNFPA, she was able to position the organisation positively during major humanitarian crises such as that in Haiti and Pakistan and also by raising awareness on the special needs of women and girls through strong advocacy and communication skills.
In recognition of her efforts, Tan Sri Dr Jemilah has been the recipient of numerous awards both locally and internationally. She is the recipient of four Royal awards namely DPMP Perak, DIMP Pahang, PJN from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and PSM that carries the title Tan Sri. Internationally, her leadership and commitment to quality assurance and accountability has led to MERCY Malaysia becoming the first Asian NGO and third NGO globally to be certified for humanitarian accountability awarded by Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International in 2007. She was also the recipient of the East Asia Women’s Peace Award (Humanitarian Section) from the Philippines in August 2003. In November 2005, Tan Sri Dr Jemilah was one of the recipients of the Her World Women Award. In May 2013, she also became the first recipient of the Isa Award for Service to Humanity. Established by HM King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, the King of Bahrain, the Isa Award is given to outstanding world humanitarian leaders. In October 2013, she was awarded the Brand Laureate “Woman of the Year Brand Icon Leadership Award”.
Tan Sri Dr Jemilah also holds honorary doctorates from the International Islamic University of Malaysia and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
Tan Sri Dr Jemilah headed the World Humanitarian Summit Secretariat based at the United Nations headquarters in New York from 2014 until November 2015. She was recently appointed as the Under-Secretary-General of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva where she will oversee partnerships as well policy, knowledge management, communications and innovation.
A leading humanitarian, Tan Sri Dr Jemilah has been a leading catalyst and driving force behind the establishment of Malaysia’s first nationally grown and globally renowned humanitarian organisation that works both at home and internationally. Her deep understanding of the complexities of cross-cultural issues in the humanitarian and geopolitical arena and particularly with those surrounding the Muslim world has made her a strong voice of tolerance as well as advocacy on a wide range of issues. MERCY Malaysia, through Tan Sri Dr Jemilah’s leadership, has become a model for civil community organisations in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. MERCY Malaysia's success has motivated several organisations in these regions to improve their professionalism and influence. Tan Sri Dr Jemilah’s subsequent positions at the United Nations has brought Malaysia’s unique brand of humanitarianism to the global arena. In this regard, Tan Sri Dr Jemilah’s contribution to the development of humanitarian and international emergency aid personifies the enduring Spirit of Merdeka
which is about fortitude, perseverance and the independence of thought in a globalised world.