By Aneeta Sundararaj
On Boxing Day in 2004, an earthquake occurred in the Indian Ocean with an epicentre off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. The subsequent tsunami caused devastation in more than 14 countries in the region. By midnight, 16 hours later, more than 250,000 people died and millions more lost everything.
In the following days after this monumental tragedy, even as I marveled at those who rallied to help the victims, not once did I consider moving my world to tend to them. One man did – Professor Dato’ Dr. Andrew Mohanraj – and years later I had an opportunity to interview this man.
As he recounts a story from his childhood, I can see that this pattern of selfless giving began long before he became a doctor.
“Until I was eight years old, I stayed with my grandparents in Taiping, Perak,” he explains. Sighing, he adds, “We sat in the shade of a mango tree in the garden and discussed things. Everyday.”
All these adult-like conversations meant that he flourished in his studies. He did so well that he decided to tutor the other urchins of the neighbourhood.
“I started charging them RM2.00 per month.”
His business venture was short-lived when, one day, the grandmother of a little girl he tutored stormed into his house and informed his grandparents about what he was doing. “But I didn’t keep the money,” he says, defending his actions. “I helped the others.”
It’s those last four words that prompted his grandfather to make two predictions: the boy Andrew would become a doctor and that he’d help people. In time, having chosen to pursue psychiatry, he graduated from the Calicut Government Medical College in India and settled into a comfortable job with the Ministry of Health in Malaysia.
Then, the tsunami happened. Andrew immediately left for Aceh.
The challenges were many and recurring as the area remained unstable and aftershocks continued to rock the region. One day Andrew woke up because everything was shaking violently. He ran downstairs from his bedroom on the first floor. When he turned to look back, the entire staircase had crumbled.
Back home in Malaysia, he faced another dilemma. Having not reported to work for a year and a half, his bosses were demanding that he return or face disciplinary action. None of this mattered. He had made a promise to the Aceh Provincial Health Office that he would help with the recovery process and he intended to keep it. With that, he chose the only option available to him – he resigned from government service.
With the shackles of being in full time employment removed, he channeled all his energies into developing mental health services in Aceh. In three years, he’d set into motion projects for psychiatric and psycho-social rehabilitation in several districts in Aceh. Soon, the accolades, titles and awards for the work he’d done poured in. Today, he manages a practice in Kuala Lumpur and is also the President of the Mental Health Association of Malaysia.
As our chat comes to an end, I am tempted to ask if he’d change anything about his career. Then I remember his grandfather’s predictions and I know his answer – Andrew would do it all over again. In a heartbeat.
About the author – Once upon a time, Aneeta Sundararaj created a website and called it ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. She has contributed feature articles to a national newspaper and also various journals, magazines and ezines. Aneeta’s bestselling novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets was shortlisted for the Book Award 2020 organised by the National Library of Malaysia. Throughout, Aneeta continued to pursue her academic interests and, in 2021, successfully completed a doctoral thesis entitled ‘Management of Prosperity Among Artistes in Malaysia’.