Prime Minister of Malaysia Yang Amat Berhormat Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was conferred an Honorary Doctor of Laws by NUS Chancellor and President of the Republic of Singapore Madam Halimah Yacob on 13 November in recognition of his outstanding leadership of Malaysia and his contributions to the longstanding bilateral relations between Singapore and Malaysia.
His spouse Yang Amat Berbahagia Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Haji Mohd Ali was also conferred the NUS Distinguished Alumni Service Award during the special conferment ceremony at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music Concert Hall for being an inspiring role model for women doctors in Malaysia, as well as for her excellent and sustained service in public health in Malaysia and beyond.
Delivering the citation for Tun Dr Mahathir as Public Orator, Dean Designate of the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (NUS Medicine) Professor Chong Yap Seng said that Tun Dr Mahathir, Malaysia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, is a living example of bold leadership and steadfast resilience who has forged a modern and economically thriving country, placing it prominently on the global stage.
Tun Dr Mahathir graduated with an MBBS from NUS’ predecessor institution King Edward VII College of Medicine in 1953. It was also here that he met his future wife Tun Dr Siti, a fellow medical student in the same cohort. Upon graduation, Tun Dr Mahathir served at various government hospitals in Malaysia before setting up his own private medical practice. He was elected to the Malaysian Parliament in 1964.
As Prime Minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, Tun Dr Mahathir oversaw the rapid modernisation and growth of the country, initiating major infrastructure projects such as Putrajaya, the home of Malaysia’s public service; Malaysia’s largest hydroelectric dam located in Sarawak; and the Multimedia Super Corridor south of Kuala Lumpur, said to be business magnate Mr Jack Ma’s inspiration behind Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.
He also shocked international critics by increasing government spending and pegging the Malaysian ringgit to the US dollar during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, a bold move that went against the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund and enabled Malaysia to recover from the crisis faster than its neighbours.
It is for reasons such as these that Tun Dr Mahathir is often referred to as the architect of modern Malaysia.
“Tun Dr Mahathir, Malaysia’s longest-serving Prime Minister and the world’s most senior elected statesman, returned to helm his country’s government earlier this year in a stunning demonstration of his abiding love for Malaysia, and his desire to enhance growth and prosperity for his countrymen….NUS salutes his visionary excellence and exceptional leadership of one of Southeast Asia’s most vibrant countries,” said Prof Chong.
In his speech, NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye touched on Tun Dr Mahathir’s legendary curiosity and spirit of lifelong learning and service, which he said NUS hopes to imbue in all its students. Sharing NUS’ vision to become a leading provider of quality continuing education for professionals in Singapore and the region in preparation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, he said that the University will look to Tun Dr Mahathir’s “zeal for learning, and his zest for life” for inspiration.
“At 93, he is still always on the go, reading, learning and sharing his insights on a wide range of issues. Tun Dr Mahathir has already achieved much in his career and life, and yet continues to serve Malaysia with distinction and verve, exemplifying service to society and country,” said Prof Tan.
Dr Wong Hee Ong, former classmate of Tun Dr Mahathir and Tun Dr Siti, recalled Tun Dr Mahathir’s “caring and obliging nature” as he officiated as Prime Minister during the opening of the Kuala Lumpur Gleneagles Hospital in 1997, when Dr Wong was CEO. Tun Dr Mahathir also wrote the foreword for her book T J Danaraj: Doctor and Teacher Extraordinaire, and helped to launch it despite his public duties. Dr Wong, who was present at the conferment ceremony, also fondly recalled his great sense of humour, being “party to all the pranks we students played”.
Tun Dr Mahathir said that he would value the honorary doctorate he was bestowed for as long as he lived.
In his acceptance speech, he noted how the peaceful separation of Singapore and Malaysia in 1965 was an achievement and something for other countries to learn from. “Normally when nations separate there would be violence, but in the case of Malaysia and Singapore, the separation was smooth, and good relations continue. Those good relations, I believe, have led to me being conferred with this honorary degree,” he said.
Tun Dr Mahathir added that the ties between Malaysia and Singapore have resulted in many new ideas that have contributed to societies and nations across the globe. “We believe that what we do is not for ourselves alone, but for humanity at large. It is our duty to leave this world better than when we arrive. That is something that we must do if we value life itself,” he concluded.
Tun Dr Siti received the Distinguished Alumni Service Award from NUS Chairman Mr Hsieh Fu Hua during the ceremony.
As a young doctor, Tun Dr Siti was passionate about improving the health and wellbeing of Malaysians, particularly those living in rural areas. In 1965, she became the first woman in Malaysia to be appointed Medical Officer in the Maternal and Child Health Department and in 1974, was the first female doctor to be appointed the State Maternal and Child Health Officer. Throughout her illustrious career, Tun Dr Siti went on to serve in numerous leadership positions, including President of the Malaysian Girl Guides Association, President of the Malaysian Medical Association Foundation and President of the Association for the Rehabilitation of Handicapped Children.
“She was a gentle, caring individual, and still is, especially towards the women colleagues” said Dr Wong.
NUS is “immensely proud of her achievements and impact”, said Prof Tan, adding that the couple’s “amazing energy and the impact of their combined accomplishments serve as an inspiration for the NUS community”.