Category Archives: EZ 35

A Noble Profession

Prof Dato’ Dr Ikram Shah bin Ismail

Director of Universiti Malaya Medical Centre

‘Let the doctor do the worrying for your health,’ some may say. But there are times when the human body gives up on you without any forewarning, and this is when you do a fair share of the worrying as well. EZ seeks out Professor Dato’ Dr Ikram Shah bin Ismail, Director of Universiti Malaya Medical Centre, who provides his insight on what makes medicine the occupation of the compassionate and Malaysian conundrums with quality doctors.

1985 marked the induction of Professor Dato’ Dr Ikram Shah bin Ismail into the faculty of Universiti Malaya, Malaysia’s oldest and most prestigious university, where he first started out as a lecturer. Over the following decades, he was one of the men who built the foundations of Universiti Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC). At the time that he was promoted to the directorship of the Centre, the Director of UMMC also held the seat of the Dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences at Universiti Malaya. ‘Three years ago the Board of Directors decided to split (the designations) so they had to appoint another person as the dean. Because I’ve been the Director before this and as the hospital became a bigger entity, they needed somebody with experience so the Vice-Chancellor at the time asked and I stayed on as the Director,’ said Dr Ikram.

But Dr Ikram did not embrace the medical profession by design. His heart lay with mathematics long before a career in medicine crossed his mind. ‘I’m very mathematically-oriented. Computer science has always been my childhood dream,’ Dr Ikram relished. An opportunity presented itself, but with an unlikely outcome. ‘I was given a scholarship by MARA to do my matriculation in Brisbane, Australia. When I was there, I did rather well in my senior exam, and my seniors told me that it’d be such a shame if I didn’t do medicine because of my good results. So I called my parents and they approved.’

That decision altered his life path forever. He completed a six-year programme in East Queensland, and during this time, medicine gradually grew to occupy a space in his heart. ‘The love of medicine begins because when you start seeing patients, you feel like you’re doing something. By the time I was in my fifth year, our final year, I realised that this is what I want to do because this is where I feel I can do most good to humanity – to help people who are suffering from illness,’ said Dr Ikram. ‘My aim in life has always been to help the sick. In my younger days as a doctor, and now as hospital administrator, I try to improve hospital conditions and environment so that our doctors can do a better job in healthcare.’

Ikram editI realised that this is what I want to do because this is where I feel I can do most good to humanity
– to help people who are suffering from illness…

As he worked his way into the medical profession, Dr Ikram had his fair share of distressing experiences. He described his first job as a medical officer at Hospital Kuala Lumpur (HKL), illustrating just one of the many the struggles he has faced. ‘I was posted to HKL and they put me in a third-class ward. At that time the third-class ward was really like a hospital in a third-world country; it was horrible and I had nightmares about that period. I spent about three months there and my consultant at that time felt that I probably learned enough medicine or suffered enough, so she took me in and asked me to look after the first-class ward patients and second-class,’ he related with a chuckle.

However, that wasn’t the end of it. Later during his training, he endured a medical officer’s nightmare. ‘I was sitting for my exam at night, but the night before I was asked to go on call and I had to work through the night and next day, and I had to go to my exam feeling very sleepy after being on call for 24 hours,’ he explained. However, being the doctor that he is, the lack of sleep and fatigue didn’t stop him from acing the examination.

Being the son of schoolteachers, the professional veteran in Universiti Malaya and UMMC reveals that, contrary to popular belief, teaching and practicing medicine do go hand-in-hand. ‘All doctors should teach,’ Dr Ikram asserted. ‘As a medical doctor, we’re also lecturers. A doctor is supposed to learn to do things and then once we learn how to do things, then we teach. So teaching is part and parcel of being a doctor.’

‘When you teach other people, you are actually strengthening your own knowledge, because to be able to teach you must know your subject very well. If you want to teach students, you just have to keep up with the latest in medicine. So if you teach, you actually become a better doctor,’ reasoned Dr Ikram. He added that research plays a similar role to teaching in improving medical skills. ‘When I was doing my PhD, it trained me to be an even better doctor because by doing research, you learn how to solve problems. You have a particular research problem, you learn the approach to use, scientific approach to solve a problem. You know the approach on how to solve that problem. So it is very useful for a doctor to be able to do research, even up to the PhD level.’

With a foreign education, it is puzzling why Dr Ikram chose to come back to Malaysia when there are greener pastures in fully-developed countries, such as Australia and the United Kingdom that he has been to. But he stands firm on this decision with several valid reasons. ‘I never looked to it. I rather like the environment here,’ he answered. ‘Here, we have everybody. All the specialists are here, so if you have any problems or need any advice, everybody’s here. And they’re the best in the country, so that’s why I like it here. I always tell people, if you go to see the doctor in a private hospital, you’re seeing our students. If you come here, you will see the mahaguru (great teacher). If you want the best, you come to UMMC,’ he said.

Recent international rankings of education institutions, however, have raised the ire of Malaysians who question the performance of Malaysian tertiary education providers. This provides fodder for the public perception that, perhaps, current Malaysian education standards are declining when compared to the previous generation. ‘In those days, everything is done by reputation. If they’re famous, people think that they’re good, but they may not. Maybe those lecturers that were considered to be good in the past – if they were to practice now – may not reach up to the standards that we expect them to do now. So it’s a perception. I don’t think that the standards are coming down, but of course we are always trying to improve,’ explained Dr Ikram.

There are even instances where Malaysian education standards actually exceed the quality of certain foreign education institutions around the world, which debunks another myth amongst common perceptions that foreign education makes a better-trained graduate. ‘It depends on where you come from,’ Dr Ikram reasoned, adding some countries, like UK and Australia, have reputable medical schools. ‘(If it’s from countries like) UK, Australia then you know that the schools are good. ‘But if you come from, say, some of these universities in Russia, Crimea, these are the ones where their students may not be as good as the local universities.’

UMMC puts its money where its mouth is in light of these international education rankings, for they are the testament to the quality of Universiti Malaya’s graduates. That standard continues to outstrip that of most other institutions in the country. ‘We are the top university and also the oldest. There are medical schools in UKM (National University of Malaysia) and USM (Science University of Malaysia), and these are also very good medical schools. But there are some of the newer ones, which are not as good,’ said Dr Ikram. ‘When it comes to choosing doctors I would prefer doctors who are graduating from this university.’

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Regions of Art

pascal Odille-®Vivian van BlerkPascal Odille

Artistic Director, Middle East & North Africa, Singapore Art Fair

The latest addition to the art extravaganzas in Southeast Asia is the Singapore Art Fair. Set to enthral the public for the very first time, Singapore Art Fair is an off-shoot of the Beirut Art Fair which is in its fifth year. To chart the progression of the Fair and its novel concept of ME.NA.SA, and what it hopes to accomplish, Yasmin Bathamanathan interviews Singapore Art Fair’s Artist Director of Middle East & North Africa, Pascal Odille.

It is no denying that Singapore is fast becoming the centre of art and culture of Southeast Asia. In fact, the island-country has always enjoyed a central location for trade and economics that stretches back to the days of the spice trade. When it was announced that Singapore would be home to yet another world-class art event, the news was not met without some amount of scepticism from the art world. However, what sets Singapore Art Fair (SAF) apart from the rest is its concept of ME.NA.SA.

For the uninitiated, ME.NA.SA. stands for Middle East, North Africa, Asia and Southeast Asia, and with that, SAF is positioning itself as a ‘platform for cultural and artistic exchange with the aim of widening interests and to explore the artistic development of the ME.NA.SA region through strategic curatorship and programmes, and selection of exciting representations of art from this region.’

Pascal Odille, who is also the artistic director of Beirut Art Fair (BAF), said that SAF’s desire is ‘to bring together all players of the art market of the ME.NA.SA regions, including the press, collectors, novices, public or private museums, auction houses and curators.’

‘Without these people coming together, there will never be true visibility of ME.NA.SA artists. A contemporary art fair is a meeting place for participants to gather to share common interests and ideas on how best to raise the profile of art in that particular market. This helps to create strong connections.’

Having worked with SAF Founder and Fair Director, Laure d’Hauteville on several projects over the past 15 years before joining BAF, Odille was interested in joining forces with d’Hauteville once again, this time in Singapore. ‘When we decided to embark on the adventure of SAF, we saw it as a continuation of the spirit of BAF. Therefore, it was natural that I took on the role of Artistic Director, Middle East & North Africa of SAF to achieve our goal of showcasing ME.NA.SA art in Singapore,’ said Odille.

Just as branching off to SAF from BAF was natural to Odille, one could say that the ME.NA.SA. connection in terms of art is also organic. The ties between the Middle East, North Africa and Asia started with the Silk Road, and there is shared history between these regions. ‘Archaeological excavations carried out by the Russians in the early 20th Century in Eastern Turkestan led to the discovery of Christian objects of worship that were brought ​​by Syrian merchants dating from the 8th Century. The first exchanges that took place between the traders were forged through artworks. As such, there is a common history.’


Without these people coming together, there will never be true visibility of ME.NA.SA artists. – Pascal Odille, Fair Director of Middle East & North Africa, SAF


‘Closer to our time, modern history, particularly that of decolonisation, seems to affect all of ME.NA.SA – for SA, in particular, this would be the period from early 1960s to early 1970s. All these countries have a common cultural and artistic past,’ Odille expounded on the history behind the ME.NA.SA concept.

Art and art history have always been subjects that fascinated Odille, interests that only deepened as he grew in age. ‘I discovered my love for art at a very young age. I started with a high school diploma focusing on literature with a specialisation in philosophy and art history,’ said Odille, who has taught at the Paris campuses of American institutions such as Center for University Programmes Abroad, Parson’s School of Design and University of Delaware.

‘While finishing my studies, I took a number of internships in institutions and galleries. It was after my stint as assistant of Claire Burrus (of the now-defunct Galerie Claire Burrus) in Paris that I decided to only work in contemporary art. It was at that time that I opened Gallery Pascal Odille in Paris, and applied to be an expert at C.N.E.S (National Chamber of Specialised Experts).’

‘After three years of study and supplementary internships under the direction of Armelle Baron, a specialist in Nordic painting, I finally obtained my title as an expert,’ explained Odille. He credits Baron for cultivating his ‘profound interest in art and determination to further artistic research.’

As the Artistic Director of ME.NA.SA., Odille does not only have the task of selecting the artworks that best represent the region, but also to foster an understanding among the galleries and artists on their presence in Singapore. ‘The potential for expression through art is fabulous. It is time that the ME.NA.SA regions are given the opportunity to showcase itself on the international artistic stage and for us to work together on this visibility.’ As for how he selects the artists and artworks, he employs a set selection criteria: ‘the intrinsic quality of the work and the relevance of the subject.’

For most in the SA side of ME.NA.SA., there might be a preconceived notion that the regions of Middle East and North Africa are one, and in that, their  art too are similar. In one part, this perception is not all that wrong. ‘The differences between the ME and NA are not found in their artistic practices. These regions have always used similar media such as video, installation and photography,’ commented Odille. The close proximity between the countries in the two regions and ties that date all the way back to the biblical days are sure to be reflected in art produced in these two regions.

In present day, the ME.NA. region is wrought with internal conflicts, and political unrest. Then there is the on-going Arab Spring, which in the course of four years has seen demonstrations, protests, riots, and civil wars. How the artists react to the turmoil is reflected in the art that they create.

On this note, Odille said, ‘What is also crucial is the question of identity and how it is part of contemporary society. Thirty years of civil war in Lebanon have inevitably pushed young Lebanese artists to try to understand how they got to where they are today. Therefore, I understand their quest to work on themes such as the memories of these painful moments.’

Moreover, the notion of identity in Algeria has always been very evident; the different political and social events that the country has suffered, along with a painful decolonisation, has given Algerian artists a compelling reason to tackle such themes. These themes are eventually reflected in their work,’ said Odille, drawing parallels between the North African nation of Algeria and the Middle Eastern nation of Lebanon.

This quest for identity and its expression is also found in the art of SA, a common thread in much of the contemporary art world. ‘I find the artists share the same reflection when it comes to the notion of identity. The social problems as well as the political involvement of certain artists, regardless of where they come from, are themes that are clearly illustrated in their work. They are the witnesses of their time, whether they are from ME, NA or SA, and so their reflections are similar,’ said Odille on the contemporary art of ME.NA.SA.

As SAF would be the official inaugural point of convergence for Middle Eastern and North African art in Southeast Asia, collectors who are not as familiar with the art of ME.NA. have a lot to look forward to. Like purchasing art from any other regions or periods, Odille said that collectors should ‘buy with their eyes and not with their ears’.

Personally, he finds the contemporary artworks from those two regions fascinating. ‘I am truly touched by the sensibility, intelligence and diversity displayed in them,’ said Odille, ‘From Algeria to Tunis, Lebanon to Egypt, even Iran and Iraq, an important artistic tradition and a strong sense of speaking out prevail throughout these countries.’

‘The significance of the artists from these regions would be of great interest to a number of art enthusiasts and collectors. Therefore, I believe in the importance of taking the time, as an art collector, to talk to gallery owners and asking the relevant questions about the artists they represent.’

Crown-ing Glory

Jim Thompson &  Jimmy Thompson

Founder & Chairman, The Crown Worldwide Group & Managing Director, Crown Worldwide Group Sdn. Bhd.

After 50 years in business, Crown Worldwide has handled everything from alligators to the King of Tonga’s throne and even the priceless ‘Mona Lisa’ painting at the Louvre. With 250 offices in 50 countries and a global turnover of USD850 million, EZ speaks to the father-and-son team about their success story so far.

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ – so the old bard, (Shakespeare) believed but others are convinced there are advantages in sticking with a good name, be it recognition or influence. Perhaps that would account for three generations of James ‘Jim’ Thompson in this family of self-made men.  ‘In the Irish tradition, usually the name stays in the family – not directly one to another, but usually grandfather to grandchild. But for some reason my father gave me the same name he had, and I gave it to my son,’ laughs Jim Thompson.

‘My father was an amazing man,’ Jim, remembers. ‘He came from nothing – poverty, and made a success of his life. I felt that having done what he did and giving me the opportunity to get an education, I should build on that.’

Crown Worldwide was founded in 1965 when a young Jim Thompson who was residing in Japan recognised the need for a reputable international moving service. With only USD1,000 to his name, Jim established Transport Services International in Yokohama. Even here, the significance of a ‘good name’ would become apparent.

‘People used to forget that name; they couldn’t get it right. So when we opened in Hong Kong for a second operation, we wanted to name it something different, something we could associate with a symbol,’ explains Jim. ‘Crown emerged as a nice name of quality, royalty and all that. It became very popular in Hong Kong so we kept the name for all our operations.’

By 1975, Crown Pacific would expand into Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and other Asia Pacific regions, becoming the leading relocation company in Asia. The expansion was accompanied by a new name to reflect the company’s global presence; this time the name was to remain Crown Worldwide Group with Crown Relocations being one of its primary division. The other divisions include Crown Fine Art, Crown Logistics, Crown Records Management, Crown Wine Cellars and Crown World Mobility.

According to Jim, the phenomenal success of the company was not something he anticipated or expected. ‘People often ask about Asia and I can’t honestly say it was a vision. It was a startup like any startup company. There’s always this effort to just survive for the first few years. And then as you get going, you say, ‘maybe we can do this well,’ and we just kept expanding and that’s been successful.’ Timing also lent a helping hand as world globalisation was accelerating and Crown and its divisions were there to serve the mobile and logistic requirements.

‘That was our constant effort, to convince people that we are the best. We’ve always been fanatical about quality and I think that has paid off because people use our services and tell their friends about it. We developed over fifty years and became the only global company in our business,’ continues Jim.

Crown was only 10 years old when they opened here in Malaysia, four decades ago, but it has seen rapid growth, brand distinction and even acquired a sense of exclusivity. ‘We like people to think of us as high quality, top of the market. Most people in the industry require three quotations. So long as they call us even if they think we are expensive, they find that we are not. We’re quite competitive with the other good companies in town,’ explains Jim. ‘When they see that our quote is reasonable we stand a good chance of getting business.’

Though they may share the same name, the father and son team did not always share the same career ambitions. ‘I always hoped that my children would be in the company someday, I think most fathers would, but I think that, he knew when he graduated from university that if he wouldn’t join Crown, he would have to go and get his own job, which he did, in China.’

A request by one of the operating managers to assist with a project in China led to Jimmy joining the company officially and staying with Crown for 15 years. ‘My first thought was I needed to pay my rent,’ he chuckles. ‘Second thought was, well, I’ll get the project done and then I’ll look for something else. But I guess, I’m just that good and here I am!’

Having married and resided in China for almost 18 years, the opportunity to relocate to Malaysia was too good to miss. ‘It was a time of change for me and an opportunity came up in the organisation as well. I was very pleased to come to a place with cleaner air, a new environment and very friendly people.’Of course, there were some domestic arrangements to consider as well. ‘To be honest, my wife said this was the only place she would move to if she left China,’ he grins.

Nevertheless, the move would prove to be mutually beneficial for both, man and company. ‘I speak Chinese and I also have certain skills in different sectors of the business, that other employees don’t have in Malaysia − particularly on the logistics side of the business, which can be used to really build up the development of the business in Malaysia.’

Jim Thompson3‘Crown emerged as a nice name of quality, royalty and all that. It became very popular in Hong Kong so we kept the name for all our operations.’

– Jim Thompson

As for managing the operations of over 5,000 employees and contractors worldwide, it may not be an easy feat but the Thompsons have taken it well in their stride. ‘We have to really motivate them, centralize them with compensation, whether through salary or recognition for their good services,’ says Jim. ‘Frankly I think we have one of the best teams, certainly in our industry.’

Respect is a key ingredient in the management style at Crown. ‘I started the company and I’m still here, but it’s all these people who built the business for me. I really think about that all the time. Whether they’re driving a truck or cleaning the offices or someone in a management position, I try to respect these great men and I think this has sort of filtered down to our team.’

Working for his father’s company does not seem to affect Jimmy in any way. ‘Well, Crown is a pretty big company and there are different layers of management. We do work closely together sometimes but mostly with the management team within Crown.’

Jim agrees, ‘I think the important thing is that Jimmy doesn’t work directly for me. He’s my son so we talk a lot, but his boss is actually the head of the Asia Pacific region. I think that’s good because he’ll be mentored by that guy, who’s also quite experienced.’

But there is no denying Junior’s admiration for the man who built the company. ‘I always look at my dad, who has a very positive attitude. Even though times may be tough, he’s always got a positive outlook. He’s been in the business for so many years, that all the experience that I or anyone else can give is just a story.’

As for what the future holds for these enterprising men and their business, there is talk of a book and quite possibly a museum. ‘I’m hopeful that Crown as a company will be able to build an art collection as well. Many businesses do that and I thank this opportunity because in Asia, art is coming up so much, it’s fantastic. We’re in a position to buy pieces from time to time and build a Malaysian art collection,’ muses Jim, who is himself an art collector. ‘I love art, so I hope that my collection will be passed on and hopefully grow in the future.’

The passage of time has been a reflective time for this charismatic man who has achieved so much through hard work, determination and mutual respect. And it’s a life story he wishes to preserve for the next generation. ‘I realised when I saw a lot of people in the office today, that not one of them was 40 years old. So they weren’t here when the company started in Malaysia. And they and the ones coming after should know what Crown was in the beginning. I want it written down accurately, with old pictures … I want to tell my own story as well, about what it’s been like.’