Highlights from Aliran Monthly (August 1999)

Physician under Pressure

In an unlikely struggle, an award-winning doctor fights to stay on in government service

by our special correspondent

Since November 1998, the Ministry of Health has been hounding Dr. Jeyakumar Devaraj of Ipoh General Hospital, trying to get him out of Perak. First, he was asked to go to Pahang and after he resisted, they tried to send him to Kedah. And now, they want him to go to Sarawak. Why such victimisation? Because it happens that Kumar has a social conscience. Outside of his hospital work, he is a tireless social activist, fighting alongside plantation workers and urban pioneers (squatters) for their rights.

Kumar, a highly talented and dedicated doctor, is the Consultant Specialist and head of the Respiratory Unit of the Ipoh General Hospital with 17 years' service in the government. He is one of only seven chest physicians currently in government service in the country. Those who know him know also that he is a 'hardcore' who feels he has a moral obligation to provide quality healthcare to patients coming to government hospitals. Nobody was really surprised when Kumar won a Malaysian Medical Association award in 1997 for outstanding health and public services.

The government certainly has the right to transfer officers so long as it is in the interest of the service. This, however, is no normal transfer. The health services would have suffered somewhat if Kumar had just packed his bags and left. No arrangements were made for anyone to replace him as Chest Physician in Perak nor to continue the TB control programme. Further, had he gone to Kedah, there would have been two chest physicians in Kedah and none in Perak. How could that be in the interest of the service?

In this whole transfer exercise, scant appreciation has been accorded to a doctor who has served 17 years in the government. That he has already done his rural postings - in Kapit, Sarawak and Teluk Intan, Perak - doesn't seem to matter. His files were rushed ahead of him to Pahang first and then to Kedah. People in government service know how long files take to move when there's a normal transfer. We hear that his latest notice of transfer came about only three days ahead of the day he was supposed to report for work in Sarawak.

It is despicable how professionals truly committed to serving the people and the country are treated. While Kumar was appealing his transfer to Kedah, his pay was held up for up to three months. Very obviously, the motive of all this harassment is to get Kumar to voluntarily leave government service out of pure frustration. This is not an uncommon tactic used on government servants who are unpopular with the ruling masters.

Kumar is a household name in many estates and villages. Villagers facing eviction eventually reach him and his group of friends who help them take up their problems with the authorities. In the course of this work, he has been arrested twice.

Not unexpectedly, his social involvement has irked the powers-that-be to no end for frustrating their so-called development plans that sideline the poorer segments of society. His growing stature among these people has threatened self-seeking politicians to the degree of paranoia.

Kumar's latest involvement in the signature campaign among doctors exhorting the government to rethink and to be more transparent about its plans to corporatise the government hospitals would undoubtedly have earned him many more black marks. Corporatisation of government hospitals is a hugely unpopular exercise, which the authorities seem determined to bulldoze through - though in the stealthiest manner imaginable. And whilst they are vehemently denying their attempts to corporatise, what they least need with elections looming is a campaign opposing corporatisation which has now been taken to the streets by another group.

It appears that politicians have thrust their meddlesome hands into the Ministry of Health to pressure Kumar to leave. His transfer seems politically motivated and not done in the interest of the health services.

What then is the message? Don't have a social conscience? Then what's the big hype about a caring society? Who should we blame then for the increasing self-centredness of middle-class Malaysians? Our politicians talk with forked tongue - on the one hand, they bemoan the exodus of our doctors to the private sector and, on the other, they show them the door. Absurdly, Kumar has to actually fight to stay on in government service.

A doctor's posting is not a political decision; his transfer should not be either. (END/AM/SC/99)