Conversations #1

For all its downsides, the pandemic has given many of us a chance to spend more time with our families. In the monotony of our present lives, it is easy to lose track of the passage of time. But time marches on regardless. One moment, you’re cradling your newborn son in a warm blanket, and before you know it, he’s telling you all his friends’ names at school (Ronny, Ion, Shala, Reyhan, and Kitty…in that order).

I whispered to my son last night, just as he was about to go to sleep:

“Don’t grow up too fast, M.”

He thought about it for a few seconds, perhaps wondering why I didn’t want him to grow up so quickly.

“But if I drink more milk, soon I’ll be four years old right? Then five, six, and seven years old!” came the enthusiastic reply.

“Sure buddy,” I said, wiping a tear from my eye.


Walking around today, I am reminded of the opening lines from the beautiful poem below:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand 
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour

From ‘Auguries of Innocence’ by William Blake

The Kindness of Others

Many years ago, when I was still an A-Level student dreaming of going to medical school, my mother suggested that I consider applying to Oxford or Cambridge. At first, I didn’t give the idea much thought. After all, the idea of going to Oxbridge seemed so far-fetched, I felt it was prudent not to dwell too much on it.

But as Leonardo DiCaprio says in Inception, ‘even the smallest seed of an idea can grow.’ And true enough, the idea grew in my mind: “Why not give it a shot?”

That was how I found myself getting in touch with my former debating teammate, Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, since he was already in the UK and presumably knew more about the place than I did. After all, the furthest I’ve ever been from home (in Selangor), up to that point in my life, was to visit my grandparents in Perlis.

The United Kingdom was so alien to me it might as well have been Mars!

Nik Nazmi and I agreed to meet up soon afterwards. He said he knew someone by the name of Adlan Benar Omar (Ben) who could take a look at my personal statement and give me some tips for applying. I had only heard Ben’s name spoken once or twice before, this mysterious figure who by all accounts was a bona fide genius. I told Nik Nazmi I would be grateful if he could do so.

True to form, Nik Nazmi also brought me to a Keadilan meeting that day instead of going out for a meal (but that’s a different story altogether!).

Not long after, I received a call on my trusty Nokia 8250.

It was Ben.

He introduced himself to me, told me he had read my personal statement and CV, and said something that remains etched in my memory:

“You are overqualified for this, but I’ll see if I can help.”

I don’t really remember the rest of the conversation. It was brief, and yes, I was a bit starstruck. Obviously, I didn’t actually believe that I was overqualified for Oxbridge (duh!), but you must remember, having someone say that they believe in you, that gives you a huge boost of confidence. Coming from someone you look up to, well…that’s just life-changing.

Now here’s the curious bit:

I made what was called an ‘Open Application’ to Cambridge, whereby I didn’t specify which college I wanted to apply to, mostly because I had zero knowledge about what to look for in a college. In theory, my application could’ve been allocated to any one of the 29 undergraduate colleges that were accepting medical students.

So what were the odds of it landing at Jesus College, the very same college that Ben attended?

Wallahu a’lam…

Recently, I saw a post on Facebook by Rafizi Ramli commemorating his friendship with Ben. I reached out to Raf, the one person who might know something about what Ben actually did for me, but Raf said Ben had never mentioned it.

So yes, I still don’t know for sure whether Ben actually wrote a recommendation letter for me and sent it to Jesus College, but I’d like to think that he did. Sadly, Adlan Benan Omar passed away in 2008 while I was still in medical school, and before I could say thank you in person to him.

Why am I telling this now?

I guess it’s because I want you to know about these random acts of kindness that are often done secretly without wishing for anything in return.

I guess I’m looking for an opportunity to pay it forward.

I guess I want to acknowledge a universal truth: We like to think that our accomplishments are due to hard work and diligence, but in reality, nobody succeeds on their own. God works in mysterious ways, often by blessing us with the kindness of others.

In that sense, I was blessed to have ‘known’ Allahyarham Adlan Benan Omar for the briefest of periods in the early 2000’s. Whatever kindness I show to others, whatever help I may give to my patients, I pray that Allah SWT will reward him too for the kindness that he showed me once, many years ago…


Book Review: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

It was an irony that I—like many modern leaders—eventually learned to live with: You never looked as smart as the ex-president did on the sidelines.

Barack Obama himself remarked on this political truism, when describing how he sought the help of former President Bill Clinton to explain the details of a particularly contentious tax deal to the skeptical public. One has to wonder, though, if he isn’t also referring to the present day, when we’re still trying to contend with the toxic legacy of Donald Trump’s tumultuous time in office.

That brings us to the central question of this discussion: how do we review Obama’s biography without also reflecting on his presidency?

I pondered the issue while writing this blog post, but in the end decided that it was just impossible to separate the two. To do so would be to take A Promised Land out of its context, instead placing it alongside Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, written before Obama’s time as POTUS. He is clearly a different person now compared to who he was before his presidency. But what kind of person exactly?

Read on to find out…

The Time Chooses You

One of my favourite passages in the book came early on, when Obama was still thinking about running for the presidency. He approached Ted Kennedy, the Senator from Massachusetts, for advice and was told this:

…I can tell you this, Barack. The power to inspire is rare. Moments like this are rare. You think you may not be ready, that you’ll do it at a more convenient time. But you don’t choose the time. The time chooses you. Either you seize what may turn out to be the only chance you have, or you decide you’re willing to live with the knowledge that the chance has passed you by.

Seize the moment!

Obama did, and what an adventure it turned out to be.

A Promise Fulfilled

I am not a politician, nor do I want to be one. But I know enough about the business of governing to appreciate that it is often a marathon rather than a sprint. The process of trying to get the Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed was one such marathon. In the end, the 906-page piece of legislation was, in Obama’s own words, “dense, thorough, popular with only one side politically, impactful, and surely imperfect”.

Yet in order to get to that point, he had to overcome all sorts of obstacles, not only from Republicans but also from Big Pharma, insurance companies, and even his fellow Democrats.

The selfish part of me can’t help but wonder: why would anyone subject himself to such an ordeal?

But then my mind turns to my own experience as a doctor. Contrary to popular opinion, the pay is relatively poor, the hours long and punishing.

The experience, however, is rewarding.

Seeing the smile on a patient’s face, watching the relief amongst their family members upon knowing that their loved one will be OK…these are the moments that make all the hard work worthwhile.

The night after the ACA passed, Obama described his feelings as follows:

For me, this was a celebration that mattered. The night we’d had in Grant Park after winning the election had been extraordinary, but it had been just a promise, not yet realized. This night meant more to me, a promise fulfilled.

And in the next paragraph:

I thought about Ted Kennedy, and I thought about my mom.

It was a good day.

Indeed, we live for days such as these.

On The High Wire

The final chapter of A Promised Land deals with the events surrounding the killing of Osama bin Laden. To me, one moment in particular illustrated the extremes faced by people in positions of leadership. Obama wrote:

…despite the knowledge that McRaven would soon join the SEAL team in Jalalabad and could likely launch the operation within hours, I’d have to do my best to act like everything was normal in front of a ballroom full of reporters.

Imagine having to do so, knowing that a single misstep could spell the end of your career, trigger violent reprisals, spark political turmoil, and generally be a diplomatic nightmare all over the world.

No pressure, Mr President…

Speaking of balancing things, perhaps my only criticism of the book is that large parts of it felt scripted, as if Obama had a checklist of people he had to mention, one that he had cleared with a bunch of lawyers before putting his thoughts into writing. Typically, these passages would read something like this:

  1. Introduce the person by name
  2. Say something nice/cute about their background
  3. Give a generous description of their contribution

Sometimes I wish Obama was more combative!

A Failing Land

Ultimately, however, it is impossible to flip through the pages of the book without wondering: how on earth did it come to this?

How did we go from Obama, with his calm, cerebral demeanour, to Trump, with his…with his…I can’t even…

When I look at America nowadays, I struggle to see the so-called Promised Land that Obama keeps mentioning. All I see is a failing union, one in which people actively despise one another because of their political beliefs, egged on by politicians who really should know better.

Look, I really do admire Obama. I am a fan of his professorial style and his consensus-building approach. Plus, he seems like a really cool guy. I’d love to be able to chat with him over coffee!

But is all this mayhem part of Obama’s legacy?

I hope not. I sincerely wish that people can overcome the years of conflict, moderate their views, and come back to their senses. Whether that will come to pass remains to be seen…