Zaliha Omar's Path to Leadership
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Zaliha Omar's Path to Leadership


Zaliha Omar, MD, DPMP, PMP, SMS is a Professor and Former Head of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. In her 25-year tenure at the University of Malaya, she has introduced a Rehabilitation Medicine curriculum for undergraduate medical studies and developed two academic post-graduate residency training programs for doctors (Rehabilitation Medicine and Sports Medicine). She also introduced a Rehabilitation Medicine curriculum at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Discover Zaliha's path to leadership – in her words.


Rehabilitation Medicine in Malaysia was an unplanned child for me, then 28, and barely two years out of medical school. I was hand-picked to fit a University of Malaya policy foundation plan laid down in 1962 that included rehabilitation as one of the main services at the University Hospital.

I was determined to give it my best and repay my country that had provided me with scholarships from primary one through high school at an elite boarding school, and later medical school. Challenges were aplenty right from the outset: gender culture, a non-existent path to follow, management and policy changes, academic rivalry, just to name a few – I braved it all.

In 1980, I was appointed trainee academic staff in medical rehabilitation, Department of Orthopaedics, Faculty of Medicine. That was when it all began and very quickly I found myself in a series of international responsibilities beginning with the International Year of Disabled Persons, Japan (1981). My two-year (1981-1983) structured training in Medical Rehabilitation under C.B. Wynn Parry in the UK laid a strong foundation which enabled me to explore all multi-, trans- and interdisciplinary as well as sectorial opportunities, and spurred me to strive to do my very best.

My 25-year stint at the University of Malaya saw me growing from strength-to-strength, maximizing my creativity and putting in place innovation after innovation. Two new residency programs were established: Sports Medicine (1996) and Rehabilitation Medicine (1997), both of which continue to grow to this day. Thirteen special interest multi-, trans- and interdisciplinary clinical services were created. As a result, rehabilitation staff strength grew 20-fold and patients served 15-fold, from the time I joined in. Thirty-three multidisciplinary in-house continuous education programs attracted many others from the Ministry of Health and private hospitals. In my tenure as Head of Department, I made sure each and every staff was taken care of in terms of training. Community-based and engagement programs remain my obsession to this day. The wise words of Royal Professor Ungku Aziz, who was Vice-Chancellor when I was first hand-picked, remain in my ears: "What we do in this university remains insignificant until its impact is felt in the community".

My first acquaintance with the AAP was in 2012 when ISPRM had organized a bid for the 2016 World Congress. I was intrigued by the sheer spread of educational opportunities and I wanted my children back home and others in the region to benefit from this systematic professional management organization that I saw existed. I have since encouraged others to be part of the AAP family and initiated a request for a special lower membership fee that has since been granted during Gerald Francisco, MD’s presidentship. I am grateful for this, and I shall continue to be an ambassador for the AAP’s international work.

My humble beginning was inspired by Howard A. Rusk, MD, the father of American rehabilitative medicine, having been given his book in 1980 by the wife of our then Prime Minister who had visited the Howard Rusk Centre. In his current second round of premiership, I am still hyped up as a Rehabilitation Physician striving for more that can benefit society at large. I have now earned the title of Mother of Rehabilitation Medicine in Malaysia.

To budding physiatrists, enjoy growing up in this holistic specialty. There is always something in Rehabilitation Medicine that will spark you up. At age 66, I am still learning; for now, I am pursuing a PhD at Fujita Health University in Japan under Professor E. Saitoh.

I live Rehab, breathe Rehab… I am Rehab!