Sadly, a small percentage of Malaysians still live in very harrowing situations, including poverty and being homeless.
But thankfully, there are also good people who not only have a strong desire to make a change in these unfortunate people’s lives, but also, go out and do it.
One of them is Dr Sharminithevi Paramalingam, 37.
It all started when she was lying in a hammock in Koh Phangan, Thailand, last year, after quitting her job and travelling around South-East Asia.
As she enjoyed the beautiful view and gentle breeze, she received a message from her friend Ralph Mpofu.
“Ralph was the one who encouraged me to apply for an internship called Volunteering for International Professionals Programme (VIP).
“It seemed interesting enough, so, with a hope to be of service and to return to work, I sent in my application,” she says.
Dr Sharmini, as she is known, had previously been working as a surgeon and lecturer at Universiti Malaya Medical Centre.
“I went through my training there and had worked long enough to know that I had reached my glass ceiling there, and I was very unhappy,” she says, adding though that she is thankful to all the teachers who inspired her during her post-graduate training.
She also felt that her job was so demanding that it left her with no time for the other things she loved – travelling, meeting new people, learning new things.
And it wasn’t just about leaving a stable job; as she was bonded by a scholarship, resigning her position meant having to pay back the RM160,000 the Government had spent on her surgical training.
“So I just thought, well, in life, we all have commitments to pay monthly and paying for my education would be ok with me,” she explains.
Her family were very supportive and encouraging of her decision, telling her to go ahead and do what she believed in.
To Dr Sharmini’s delight, her application for the 2017 VIP programme, which recruits professionals who wish to volunteer for social impact projects, was quickly shortlisted.
Shortly after that, she was interviewed via Skype to see which community project was the most suitable for her to contribute to.
After an extensive vetting process, her journey with Inclue began.
Inclue is a social enterprise business model that the VIP programme wanted Dr Sharmini and her colleagues to build up and test.
The idea was to create a business model that employ the homeless and help generate income for them.
Coming from a medical background and being new to the works of a social enterprise, Dr Sharmini had to learn the ropes from the start.
“We worked on the business model and improved on it continuously because it was something entirely new. It was a challenge for me personally, stepping out of a work comfort zone. But I had a ball learning and enhancing my skills – it was a very exciting time,” she says.
She shares that she did a lot of sitting and listening, as well as asking lots of questions and trying to figure out solutions.
“I exercised my brain and took on new roles that challenged me the most,” she says. “The first challenge was always within myself. I had to recognise what my role was in the entire setup and why I was doing what I was doing. It was about knowing my strengths and using my gifts to the fullest.”
She also stresses the importance of teamwork, which she notes is the best asset any team can have and acts as a foundation for any successful organisation.
“We were such good friends and colleagues, and the chemistry we had with each other was special and still is.”
Other than the business itself, Dr Sharmini also set up a clinic at the Inclue warehouse to assess the employees’ health and to provide medical treatment if necessary.
This was one of her favourite parts of the journey.
“I think there’s a soft spot in me for marginalised or unknown communities. All I know is that as a doctor with all my knowledge, I can help decide what needs to be done further,” she shares.
A change in her lifestyle was also part and parcel of the journey, which Dr Sharmini confesses was a bit uncomfortable at first.
This included dealing with questions about what her future plans were when she herself was unsure of what she wanted.
“There was a lot of anger and confusion towards the circumstances that brought me to this point,” she shares. “It drove me to look out for what’s out there for me. VIP taught me that I have many options of building a career based on the kind of work I’m qualified for.
“There was some anxiety when I couldn’t find what I wanted, but I knew that if I kept at it and believed in my strengths and recognised my weakness, I’d be fine.”
She has also come to accept the sacrifices required of practising medicine.
“Being a doctor has taught me that our role in any sector of society is a prominent one. I guess I embraced it over time; it’s about being there when it’s crucial.
“I always wondered why it was that I had to make this big sacrifice in terms of time for the sake of my job description. Then again, I have to decide for myself how I’d like to contribute to society and be my own person and enjoy the life I was born into.
“I now know that I enjoy being that person in society, that that responsibility is something I respect and it humbles me. This is the feeling I have when I have to, on any given day, get out of bed at 3am to review a patient who could use my help.”
Dr Sharmini handed over her duties at Inclue in July, and is currently practising medicine at a construction site on the outskirts of Johor Baru as part of a private primary healthcare group.