PETALING JAYA: Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah is set to call time on his 10-year tenure as health director-general, during which he was at the forefront of managing the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Noor Hisham told FMT that he was grateful to have experienced some special moments and unique achievements in the past decade in leading the health services.
His proudest moments were undoubtedly in helping to control the pandemic and lead the nation toward endemicity.
“Covid-19 taught us about the need for a whole-of-government and whole-of-society action plan to overcome the pandemic and any calamities. We must work together to achieve the country’s common goal and I believe that, together, we can make the impossible possible.
“It has been an epic journey serving the people and country,” said Noor Hisham, who will be retiring on April 21.
He has served under five different prime ministers, namely Najib Razak, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Muhyiddin Yassin, Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Anwar Ibrahim.
He was head of Hospital Kuala Lumpur’s breast and endocrine surgery department for nine years when he was chosen to be deputy director-general of health in 2008. He was promoted to director-general five years later, succeeding Dr Hasan Abdul Rahman.
Noor Hisham was among the top officials at the forefront of handling various health crises, including the outbreak of measles in an Orang Asli village in 2019, and the spread of the hand, foot and mouth disease among children in 2018.
The biggest task was the management of the Covid-19 pandemic. The first Covid-19 case in Malaysia was that of a traveller on Jan 25, 2020. The first Malaysian to contract the virus was detected just 10 days later.
The change in government in February that year left the health ministry without a minister for a week. But it was business as usual for ministry officials and for Noor Hisham as the professional head of the health and medical services.
Eventually, he found himself becoming the face of Putrajaya’s management of the pandemic, giving daily public briefings on the Covid-19 situation in Malaysia, taking over the role from Dr Adham Baba after several gaffes by the then health minister.
His management of the pandemic led to China Global TV Network (CGTN) naming Noor Hisham as among the top doctors leading their nations’ respective battle against the pandemic, alongside Dr Anthony Fauci of the United States and New Zealand’s then director-general of health, Ashley Bloomfield.
But Noor Hisham shied away from being described online as a national hero, saying the focus should be on all Malaysians and what everyone could do to curb the spread of the virus.
“What is important is our service (to the country),” he had told reporters in March 2020. He also repeatedly lauded frontliners who had worked tirelessly to serve and protect the people, especially those who gave their lives in the line of duty.
Noor Hisham also won over the hearts of many Malaysians as he was seen as a top government official who was approachable and compassionate.
When nine-year-old Lara Khadijah McAfee wrote to the director-general to thank him for the work he was doing, he wrote back to her, again directing the praise to fellow Malaysians and healthcare workers.
He told her: “I hope you’ll continue to study hard and keep up with your grades. One day, it will be your turn to help Malaysia” and signed off “From your new friend, Dr Hisham.”
Despite all the praise, Noor Hisham’s tenure has been far from a bed of roses.
He has drawn flak on various occasions from a range of critics, from regular Malaysians to retired civil servants to doctors to Bintulu MP Tiong King Sing, who was then a “minister-level” special envoy to China under the Perikatan Nasional-led government, and is now the tourism, arts and culture minister in the unity government.
Noor Hisham has also had to take on more administrative matters in the ministry, particularly the hot issue of contract doctors and strikes by healthcare workers.
But he has been repeatedly defended by colleagues in the ministry and those in the medical profession, such as the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA), as well as former health minister Khairy Jamaluddin.