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When Life Gives You a Challenge – Say, “Yes!”

08 Mar 2024

She has lived a full and adventurous life, and when fate threw her the biggest curveball yet, she caught it and ran with it. In conjunction with International Women’s Day, we celebrate Prof Sharifah Sulaiha Binti Syed Aznal, Dean, School of Medicine at the IMU as she talks about challenges, rising above and how she hopes to contribute to the future of healthcare.


It’s been a year since she received the diagnosis. It came as a shock. It was February 2023, and she had received the news that she had cancer of the colon. It may have felt like her life was upturned and plans thrown up into the air, but by July of the same year, halfway through her chemotherapy treatment, she was back at work.


What drove her? She explains: “My children. As one of their closest role models, I wanted them to know that even when there are setbacks in life, it is not over.” Her recent scans have been clear and as she looks back on the past year, one word pops into her mind: crazy! She is careful to say that she is not sharing this story because she thinks others should follow in her path or to rouse sympathy. Rather, her message is clear and simple: that there is light at the end of tunnel and to never give up.


It is a lesson that she herself learnt as a young girl watching her parents, especially her father.

Growing Up

The third child of five siblings, Prof Sulaiha was brought up by parents who were always on the go. “My father was someone who never said no,” she says, explaining that he was involved in many roles. This was not just in the school where he was a teacher, an assistant headmaster and discipline teacher and later as a liaison officer for the education ministry; but also in the community where he was a leader and trained the neighbourhood kids for various sports tournaments. “He was never not doing anything,” she says.


She watched her father as he applied himself fully to life and learnt many life skills from him: “I saw how he was on the stage, how he approached people, how he thought on his feet and how he led projects and groups of people. All of this became second nature to me,” she says explaining her willingness to always take on a challenge.

A Chosen Field

She did not, however, imagine that she would have a career in medicine. She explains that her experience of healthcare when she was young was always of overcrowded hospitals filled with shouting. “It was not somewhere you’d want to be,” she recalls. Instead, she had set her sights on less tumultuous paths such as being an engineer, a lawyer or an accountant.

It was her father’s words that made her reconsider. He told her that if she wanted to make a difference – to help the nation and the people – then she should do something to change the things that needed to be changed. He felt that she would fit the role of doctor. In the end, she heeded his advice and took up medicine.


Studies were tough at first, she recalls, but the moment she got into her clinical years, she knew why her dad had wanted her to do medicine. “I loved it!” she said.

Memorable Moments

Having studied medicine and worked in Scotland in her early years, coming back to Malaysia in the mid-90s brought many adventures and insights.


Her first posting was at the general hospital in Kuala Terengganu and she remembers the emergency case of a new mother who was experiencing post-partum haemorrhage. The mother was in Kemaman, three hours away from the hospital. As the medical officer that day, she was assigned to take a flying squad to assess and bring back the patient. She promptly got her equipment and waited for a helicopter. It never came. It turned out that the flying squad was an ambulance that ‘flew’ – making the three-hour journey in one! Arriving at the location, the ambulance had to park a distance away from the patient’s house. It seemed like it would be quite a challenge to get the patient to the ambulance, but this was quickly overcome as the whole village came to help carry the patient on a stretcher.

It was a heartwarming scene, and for Prof Sulaiha, it ignited a passion to change things. “It was a turning point,” she says, describing how it hit home the number of obstacles people had to face just to get the healthcare they deserved.

Change is Possible

While she served in Terengganu, she applied herself to doing what she could as a young doctor.  She was part of the community of practise that oversaw quality assurance at the hospital. She remembers researching best practices and finding innovative ways to improve processes such as admissions. It was something that she could do to contribute towards better service for patients. The hospital was known at the time as the best hospital in terms of quality assurance and even received awards for it. They were also invited to the First National Convention on Quality Assurance in the country.


She also advocated for the rights of doctors. For instance, as secretary of SCHOMOS (Section Concerning House Officers, Medical Officers and Specialists) under the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) in Terengganu, she joined the party fighting  for junior doctors to be given on-call allowance – an accepted practise in many other countries. Her efforts paid off when the proposal was approved and eventually implemented nationally.


“Each of us can do something,” Prof Sulaiha says, “even if it is small.”

Influencing the Future

Her sights were set though on bigger changes. She decided that she would work hard to build her career so that she would be in a position to influence things on a larger scale. She recalls jokingly telling a friend: “By the time I am 40, I want to be either the head of the (government) service or a professor in an institution.”


As fate would have it, Prof Sulaiha joined the IMU as a lecturer in 2004. As an academic, she hoped that she could be an influence on the younger generation and equip them with what they needed to make their own changes in the future. She was 33. At 40, she had received her associate professorship; and in January 2023 she became the dean of the School of Medicine.


Over the years at the IMU she worked hard to drive initiatives that help students fulfil their potential. About eight years back, she led a team to push for work placements to become part of the university’s policy across all programmes. This ensured graduates’ work readiness and improved their employability. She also led a taskforce to transform the IMU’s Clinical Simulation Skills Centre to become an independent department with the capacity to serve the entire university benefitting both undergraduate and postgraduate students.


Most recently, at the School of Medicine, she was a catalyst to evolving the curriculum. The new curriculum that was launched in 2021 ensured students had the best exposure and learning outcomes, while creating learning platforms with more interaction between student and lecturer.

She seems tireless in her work even when faced with personal challenges. How does she balance work and life? One of the most important things she says is knowing that you cannot do it alone: “It is about collaboration.” She explains that rather than seeing it as support from those around her, she sees it as having a collaborative relationship – with her husband, her parents and even colleagues. “I’m there when they need me, and they are there when I need them. Without a collaborative environment, you will struggle,” she says.

Women’s Inclusivity in Health

Prof Sulaiha is a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology, and her work has always kept her close to women’s healthcare challenges. One of the pressing issues, according to her, is the take up of pap smears to test for cervical cancer. “We are still struggling to convince women to do it,” she says, explaining that even when private and government initiatives offer the test, the uptake remains low.


One of the reasons women don’t come forward for regular tests is that they are embarrassed to do so.  “We need to make them understand that there are female health professionals – both doctors and nurses – who can see to them,” she explains. Another reason would be the fact that women don’t see it as important.


The way forward, Prof Sulaiha says, is to have more targeted public education. She understands though that it is difficult to reach the women who really need it. Having done on-the-ground talks when she was in the government service, she remembers that it was not always easy to relate to a particular community and to capture their attention. But she feels we can all do our part in our varied capacities.

Saying Yes to Life’s Challenges

Today, Prof Sulaiha continues to do what she does best – changing things for the better bit by bit. She wants to remind women in Malaysia that they are as capable as anyone else, even those from other developed countries. “In our heads, we may still have the narration that Asian women are lesser. But it’s not true – we are just as capable of world recognition!” she says.


Reinforced on by a strong faith in God, Prof Sulaiha has learnt to take each day as it comes as long as she gives it her best. She embodies her father’s can-do attitude, and it is a mantra that has not changed even after her cancer diagnosis: “I don’t know what fate has in store for me. But I want to take this time to make sure others can benefit from what I do.”


Saying yes to life’s challenges – that’s the fiery spirit of Prof Sulaiha.

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