February 26, 2016

Up Close with
Tan Sri Dr. Mani Jegathesan

Determination and perseverance are a champion’s valuable assets. We shall witness how those tenacious aspects have carried over to the clinical work later in Dr. Mani Jegathesan’s profession.

Those who have interacted with Dr. Mani Jegathesan would know the steel of a man he is. A trailblazer on the tracks in the 1960s, who later became an accomplished researcher and scientist in medical microbiology, infectious diseases and tropical medicine. He remains till today one of the greatest athletes in the history of Malaysian and Asian sports. Famously nicknamed the “Flying Doctor”, his speed, great strides and style on the track was an inspiration to the youths during that time.

Speaking with Dr. Mani Jegathesan raises your mental alertness to a high level in order to keep pace with his thoughts and delivery. Quite amazing for an individual who is well past the 70 years mark. This itself answers many of our pressing questions and solutions on how to be active both mentally, physically and lead a healthy life as we reach our golden years. It is a natural path which is inexpensive and does not require you to indulge in highly priced anti-aging routines and treatments. Let’s hear from Dr. Mani Jegathesan himself, an eclectic person on his unique success story spanning six decades of wisdom and leadership.

Flashback to Early Years

From childhood Dr. Jegathesan showed the passion for athletics which continued to be an important moving force of his life. To begin with, according to Dr. Jegathesan only in 1924 was athletics opened to the others in Malaya. Before that it was only for the whites. His father was the first non-European who competed and won the 440 yards in the Malayan Open Championship. Dr. Jegathesan’s dad together with his friends in 1953 formed the Federation of Malaya Athletics Union and the same time the Federation of Malaya Olympic Council. This then allowed Malaya to participate at the Asian games in Manila in 1954. His father led the team and coincidentally, two of his elder brothers were athletes in the team. So it was a natural thing and good role model to follow. “Guess it was in the DNA too, as well as the atmosphere in the house”, says Dr. Jegathesan.

Undoubtedly, it was natural from his primary school onwards he was participating in the school athletics and continued to excel representing the school. He was briefly in the Victoria Institution in 1955 for Form 1. Joining his brothers and sister who were settled in Singapore, he continued his education in ACS Singapore from secondary two to pre-university. While at ACS Singapore Dr. Jegathesan excelled as the school athletics champion and was the School Captain, head prefect and the best student. “Subsequently I continued my medical degree at the University of Singapore. It was during this time that I started my participation in Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and the Olympics”, says Dr. Jegathesan.

He further adds, “Although my brothers and sister were settled in Singapore, and with the separation of Malaya and Singapore in 1965 I decided to come back to Malaya where my parents were and more so during this time the leaders of Malaya, Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak were very friendly and they used to write simple congratulatory notes to the sportsmen. In making the choice, I asked myself what the Tunku would think if I had decided otherwise.”

Saying “NO”

Striking among Dr. Jegathesan’s traits and one of his great elements of strength is his great sense of humour and soberness. Specifically, on how he was able to manage his excellence in sports while at the same time remain focused in his medical school, which he summarised it into three things, “One is time management, secondly you should know how to prioritise your activities and thirdly, and most importantly you must learn how to say NO, to distraction and to all that would take you away from your planned priorities. It is easy to say yes. Of course you won’t be the most popular guy but it is all about how you balance it with moderation. You must learn how to curb your excesses.” He says that he led a balanced life in campus with no disruption to essential things in life. “It's all about doses,” he adds. “I even had a girlfriend throughout my university life.”

“Eleven times I made the country proud.”

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Aside from this, his lecturers and his peers in the class were supportive. He says, “It depends on how you conduct yourself. When my friends are having their vacation I was tagging along my lecturers to make up for time lost in travel for competitions.”

Dr. Jegathesan’s athletic years started from school and continued during his university years and his last two years of top level sports was when he was a houseman in Hospital Kuala Lumpur and as a medical officer at the Institute of Medical Research (IMR). He achieved his record in the 200 meters Olympics during this period at the Mexico Olympics. He says the IMR posting gave him the environment and time to prepare for his last attempt in Olympics. Dr. Jegathesan says that although he had many coaches, the one specific person he attributes for his ascendancy was the Singaporean coach Mr. Tan Eng Yoon. He says, “I credit him a lot for my formative years and also together with two American coaches Mr. Stanley Wright and Mr. Bill Miller.”

His final thoughts on athletics, “I would have liked to be an Olympic medalist, my long term target was to be a medalist and at one point I thought I would make it (in Tokyo 1964) but things happened (caught chicken pox) and I didn’t reach there.“

Independence and Pathology

Recalling his vivid memories on Independence Day, “In 1957 when Malaya was getting independence I was 14 years old and I was at the Stadium Merdeka for the proclamation of independence. I was very impressed with the national anthem and raising of the flag. And I told myself that one of these days I would be a champion and they would play this anthem and raise the flag for me.” He says it rather in an ostentatiously unpretentious way, “I made them do it eleven times in the international arena.”

Why pathology? Just as interesting another episode…

Dr. Jegathesan says, “When I was studying at ACS school Singapore I had a teacher Mr. Kanagaretnam, previously from Malaya and known to my father who took personal interest in me and made sure of my focus in studies and helped in my athletics as well. He was my guiding light in the school which made me the top student and the Head Prefect.”

“Moving on when I was in my forth year at the university, I met this Professor of pathology, Dr. Shanmugaratnam, who coincidentally happens to be the son of my teacher Mr. Kanagaretnam. I was impressed with him and he was a role model for me. I decided to emulate him and become a pathologist.”

Today the son of Professor Shanmugaratnam is the current Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr. Tharman Shanmugaratnam. Do you call it a coincidence or Karma?

Am I happy? Was it the right thing I did?

Dr. Jegathesan is very philosophical about this, he says, “It is very difficult because during many times in our life we come to a fork situation where we have to make a major decision. You can always sit down to figure out afterwards if that was the right thing I did? What you have to ask yourself is to just look at the outcome now.“ He shows the photo of his six grandchildren proudly saved on his mobile phone; and to him this is his outcome now. “If I didn’t make all these decisions, I wouldn’t have met this woman, wouldn’t have married her, settled down here, and wouldn’t have ended up with six grandchildren who are the product of all my decisions today. Are they worth it? So does it matter if you made one wrong decision here and there,” he asks?

“Two glasses of red wine is good for you but not two bottles, so is all about balance and moderation and you must know how to curb your appetite. In looking at the whole of life philosophically, you must not have an eye bigger than your stomach.”
Dr. Jegathesan

In the final analysis, he believes that you cannot judge what if you have made a different decision at any point, as it may have led to something else which you do not know. “Certainly you would never know what didn’t happen. But at least you know this is tangible and is what you have today. What you haven’t tried you don’t miss it,” says Dr. Jegathesan.

During his tenure at the Ministry of Health Malaysia which lasted 31 years, Dr. Jegathesan conducted and led research that resulted in personal publication of over 130 papers in national and international journals, and 200 presentations at local and international seminars and conferences. His work helped increase knowledge regarding various infections in this country. This further led to the establishment of the “Policy for disinfection and sterilization” in government hospitals, an “Antibiotic Policy” and establishment of the MOH policy on control of hospital infection. His national contributions were recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and he was drafted on many occasions as consultant, adviser and expert panel member.

After his retirement from Ministry of Health Malaysia in 1998, Dr. Jegathesan took up a position as the Medical Adviser to the UNDP affiliated Council for Health Research for Development (COHRED) in Geneva for two years. After this tenure, he is kept occupied with numerous positions both as professional and management consultant including international bodies. As he said, “All these keeps me occupied, but in these part time jobs “you are freed from the tiresome aspect of managing money and managing people”, you are here to exchange knowledge and wisdom; and as the years go by your wisdom component is higher than the knowledge.” He believes that in terms of knowledge he cannot match the young who are doing the cutting edge stuff. He expounds that medicine is both art and science. While the science may be very hard to keep up, the art is something you acquire over years of association and is hard to replace, measure or quantify. He firmly believes that the art of medicine can never be allowed to die.

As the Chairman of the Medical Committee of the Olympic Council of Asia and Chairman of the Medical Committee of the Commonwealth Games Federation Dr. Jegathesan supervises medical and anti-doping programs in the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. These are the highest positions in the international level which Dr. Jegathesan continues to hold.

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Created on June 15, 2017
Last update on June 15, 2017