HEART OF GOLD
Philanthropist and public figure Datin Suliana Shamsuddin Alias talks about what inspires her to give back to the community

by Sandra Foo

Suliana Shamsuddin 001Suliana Shamsuddin 002

In life, we meet people who leave a lasting impression on us for various reasons. For some, it could be because of their work, for others, it could be because of their personalities. And then there are the rare few who leave a mark on our memories simply by being kind. Datin Suliana Shamsuddin Alias is one of those few.

My earliest memory of Datin Suliana is of an extremely sweet and kindhearted woman who was only known to me as my schoolmate’s mother, but who put on no airs, and who seemed genuinely interested in who and what was around her. Today, 15 years later, that impression has not changed.  (I wrote this part this way as a reference to her character and how it’s relevant to what she does today. Please edit/omit as you see fit. Thanks!)

We meet her in her warm, comfortable home, where she shares with us the story of how the family’s cat, Jasmine, went missing just a week prior, and left everyone in great distress for three days. “It was three days of crying and going all over the neighborhood to look for her,” she says of losing the beautiful two-year-old Maine Coon, who clearly enjoys the attention as she rolls around at Datin Suliana’s feet, and allows herself to be put next to her loving owner and even photographed. “We distributed flyers, announced her missing on Twitter, and even offered a reward for her return! When one of our neighbors called to say that they had found her, we were all so relieved.”

Soft-spoken, graceful and extremely articulate, Datin Suliana is a qualified chemist, with a degree in physiology and biological chemistry from the University of Salford in Manchester, England. Her early career involved working as a chemist at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) Paints in Malaysia, later progressing into Human Resources and Quality Management. After 13 years with ICI Paints, she moved into management consulting, serving as a consultant in both Malaysia and Indonesia.

Her professional talents notwithstanding, Datin Suliana has always seemed to have some form of grounding in helping people in one way or another. Her parents, Dato Haji Alias Shamsuddin and Datin Hajjah Sofia, founded Sri Inai, one of the earliest private schools in the country, and Datin Suliana’s nurturing ways are made evident just by looking at her family. She is known for being a fierce supporter of their many endeavors, and was a pivotal figure in her husband, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim’s by-election campaign.

So it would appear to be no surprise that Datin Suliana eventually channeled her own innate talent for helping and being around people towards a greater cause. In 1998, Datuk Zaid founded the Yayasan Orang Kurang Upaya Kelantan (Kelantan Foundation for the Disabled, or YOKUK). When his schedule became more hectic, Datuk Zaid, who is himself a Kelantanese, suggested that Datin Suliana assume the duties of running the foundation, and in 2000, she became YOKUK’s Chairperson and Executive Director.

“It was an opportune moment, because by then, [my youngest child] Alysha was already a few years old, and I was ready to take on this role,” Datin Suliana says. “Back then I did think, What do I know about welfare work? Nevertheless, I was interested because even when I was in the corporate world, I had always wanted to do charity work, although I didn’t know where to start. That said, I hadn’t expected to do something all the way out in Kelantan!”

Upon her involvement with YOKUK, the foundation built its first center in Kota Bahru, and Datin Suliana developed her own team to carry out the foundation’s work. “Our concept is community-based rehabilitation, to allow people with disabilities to have an improved quality of life, while involving the community,” she explains. “We are a departure from trying to institutionalize or place people with disabilities in a home. We believe that it is better for them to be cared for by their own families, and provided the support that we can give them.”

Datin Suliana prides YOKUK for being a one-stop center for the disabled to receive the help they need. “Our center has facilities for rehabilitation. We actually have horses for therapeutic horseback riding, or hippotherapy, we have physiotherapy, sensory therapy, hydrotherapy, sand therapy, and also MAD therapy – music, art and drama therapy,” she elaborates. “Besides therapy, we also provide welfare services, and also educational services, as well as palliative care.

“Our palliative care patients are identified to us by hospitals, because they are in end-of-life care, so it’s better for them to be cared for in the comfort of their own homes. To this end, we have five units of cars going out to their homes every day, to give them not only nursing care, but also emotional, spiritual and holistic support for the families going through such hard times. We make about 700 home visits a year.”

Besides healthcare, YOKUK also aids the disabled in bettering their lot in life. “We provide vocational training for those who leave school at 18, and they learn basic skills such as washing a car, doing laundry or gardening, so that if they have sufficient skills, they can go out there and find a job. And a lot of them have been able to find jobs because of the skills that we have imparted to them,” she says proudly.

For all the work that she has done over the last 15 years, Datin Suliana acknowledges that there are still many challenges in doing what she does, and reveals that there is still much that needs to be accomplished. “Fundraising is and always will be a challenge,” she declares. “We have to make sure we can sustain ourselves and cover our overheads, because nobody really wants to do volunteer work, and there are surprisingly a lot of people in Kelantan itself who have never heard of YOKUK. We have to ensure that we have continuous support from corporations, so I have to constantly write to them to keep them aware of the work that we do. It’s difficult because we are all the way out in Kelantan, while there are so many other charities in Kuala Lumpur itself that also need help.”

Nevertheless, YOKUK has been successful so far in keeping to its cause. “We have about 3800 people (and their families) registered with YOKUK, and we go to all their homes to conduct a socio-economic analysis of their families’ situations,” she explains. “With all this data, corporations and other NGOs like to work with us, because we know, for instance, how many people suffer from a particular disability in one specific area. I don’t get regular grants and I’m very reliant on corporations, so I’m very thankful for their support.”

In order to raise funds for YOKUK, Datin Suliana has had to initiate many fundraising activities. “Two years ago I worked on a supercar charity drive, and the response was fantastic: we had more than 70 supercar owners participate in that project, and they gave rides to the public around Publika. It was a lot of fun, and we managed to raise RM200,000,” she says. “I do smaller-scale activities like lunches with Mouawad, where a small percentage of sale proceeds will go to YOKUK, and I do charity screenings of blockbuster movies.”

Needless to say, Datin Suliana’s work over the years have made for an enormous learning curve. “We multitask like crazy. We’ve had to sell tickets at shopping malls from 10am to 10pm; I’ve never stayed in a mall for so long! In those days we were literally standing in the middle of the malls, trying to hawk our tickets. It was quite daunting initially, but we got used to it, and in the end, we actually had withdrawal symptoms and wondering why we weren’t standing in a mall concourse!

“Another learning curve is the communication. You have to deal with many other organizations, and communication is so important, to make sure that everyone is on the same page. You get to meet all kinds of people, and it’s fun.”

Playing the role of Chairperson and Executive Director does not stop Datin Suliana from being as hands-on as possible, as she travels to Kelantan at least twice a month and makes home visits herself. “It really opens your eyes when you go out to the houses, and you realize just how much there is that needs to be done, beyond just giving them money and therapy,” she says. “Here you have a person suffering from cerebral palsy, but cerebral palsy isn’t their only problem, because in the next room there is someone else who has a stroke, and sleeping on the floor, under a roof that has a big hole in it. So you can’t just take care of one problem and ignore the rest; in fact, the Lamborghini Owners Club sponsored a gotong-royong initiative where we were able to clean up these houses and repaired their bathrooms and roofs.”

With so much on her plate, it’s a wonder that Datin Suliana has time for other interests, but she maintains that she makes time for at least her family. “Our whole family plays golf, so when we go on holidays together, we try and play some golf together. And since we actually live by a golf course, we try and get in a little bit of golf here too. I also like reading, and I like watching the Korean drama series… oops!” she laughs. “In my younger days, I had no time to watch television, so I suppose I’m making up for it now.

“I also travel, either with family or friends. I used to travel practically once a month, but I’ve cut back a little bit in this latter part of the year. I realize that I need to focus more on my health, so I exercise when I can and manage my food intake better. As nice as it is to travel and see so many new things, your routine does tend to go a little haywire!”

Datin Suliana also cites the people around her as her reason for keeping motivated. “When you see so much need out there, and you realize what you can do to help, then why not? I really enjoy being able to keep my team motivated and getting the best that I can out of them,” she says.

When asked about the presence of a role model in her life, she is surprisingly stumped. “I’ve always admired people who can bring something of significance from nothing, and I’ve always imagined that I would be able to do that,” she muses. “My husband, of course, has always been very supportive, and even though he is no longer involved in the foundation’s work, he is very much the backbone of its success. My parents and family are also very supportive, and when I have to be away or running around getting things done, everyone understands that it is what I have to do.”

In spite, and also perhaps because, of the fortunate life she has been blessed with, Datin Suliana notes that the emotional toll that her work takes is not lost on her, and it makes her work all the harder to better people’s lives. “God has given my family and me a lot, and I’m very thankful to be able to be given this opportunity to help out,” she muses. “Seeing all these things around you makes you much more aware of other people’s sufferings, and it makes you very thankful to God that you have whatever you have. It makes you want to go out and help people more, doesn’t it?”

For more information on Yayasan Orang Kurang Upaya Kelantan (YOKUK), visit www.yokuk.org (Datin Suliana has asked if we can include this)