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Obituary: Manickam Kanagalingam

Dr Manickam Kanagalingam (born 6 August 1934 died 11 December 2012 aged 78), known to his close friends as Kana, was born in Klang, Malaysia.

He was educated at the Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) in Klang and, later, at Victoria Institution, Kuala Lumpur. He belonged to the generation which lived through the Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War II (1942-45). As a result of this, many students of the era had their schooling interrupted or deferred. Paradoxically, the post-war demand for educated individuals to serve the country, resulted in some, such as Kana, being accelerated through the secondary school system. He secured a place to study Medicine at the University of Malaya, Singapore (now known as the National University of Singapore). At the time, it was the only medical school serving Malaya and Singapore. He qualified in 1958 before joining the public health service in newly-independent Malaya. His early career was colourful in that he fulfilled diverse roles. After completing house doctor posts in surgery, general medicine as well as obstetrics and gynaecology, he worked in the government venereal diseases clinic in Penang (then quaintly called the Social Hygiene Clinic). He then served as Port Health Officer, tasked with the responsibility of boarding vessels arriving at Penang Port and certifying passengers fit for disembarkation. A stint as medical officer in charge of the Tuberculosis Hospital, Leprosarium and Quarantine Station at Pulau Jerejak, off the coast of Penang Island followed. Advanced stages of tuberculosis and leprosy were then largely incurable diseases and these patients were confined to the island, though every effort was made to ensure they received adequate medical attention, food, accommodation and even entertainment. Jerejak was the Malayan equivalent of Alcatraz in that it could only be accessed by boat from Penang island.

Kana then commenced training in obstetrics and gynaecology, initially as registrar at the Ipoh General Hospital in the state of Perak, Malaya. From 1965 to 1968, he worked in the United Kingdom under the Federation of Malaya Government Study Award Scheme. This scheme enabled Malayan doctors to pursue postgraduate training in the UK as a local training scheme for specialists had not yet been established. In London, he worked at Forest Gate Maternity Hospital, Edgeware General Hospital and Northern General Hospital. He attained the MRCOG and FRCS (Edinburgh) while in the UK in 1968. 

He returned to hold specialist posts in the Malaysian towns of Ipoh and Taiping before being appointed consultant at Kota Bharu (1970 to 1978), the state capital of the largely rural east coast state of Kelantan. These were the early days of the service when a single consultant provided expertise for the Malaysian states of Kelantan and Terengganu. This would entail, on occasion, making the 170 km drive to the neighbouring state of Terengganu to perform elective or even emergency surgery before returning to Kota Bharu. In 1978, Kana was posted to the island state of Penang to head the Penang Maternity Hospital, a position he held until reaching the mandatory retirement age for public service in 1989. He was elevated to the FRCOG while in this post in 1982. He subsequently joined Gleneagles Medical Centre in Penang before his retirement from clinical practice in 2010. At the time of retirement, he had served a total of 53 years with 32 of those in public service. For his services to the people of Malaysia, he received the state titles of DPSK (1978)and SPSK (1985) from the Sultan of Kelantan. In Malaysia, holders of these titles are addressed as “Dato”.

Kana believed that medicine was a calling and upheld firmly the principles of service above self. He would often say that doctors should treat their patients as they would treat a member of their own family. He trained many generations of obstetrician and gynaecologists in Malaysia, who speak highly of his clinical and surgical skills and his ability to impart both the science as well as the art of obstetrics. He was known to expect only the highest standards from his staff and was a strict boss, though he did mellow with age! Apart from his clinical duties, he served as President of the Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society of Malaysia (OGSM) from 1989 to 1990 and the President of the Rotary Club of Kelantan from 1975 to 1976. He was also President of the Medical Alumni Association of the University of Singapore from 1990 to 1991 and was conferred the Medical Alumni Gold Medal for his contributions to medicine and the association in 2011.

Kana loved animals and frequently rescued stray cats, dogs and even injured birds which he would nurse back to health . He served on the committee of the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Penang. A soft-spoken, family man he leaves behind his wife, Chandra, a general practitioner, 3 children and 5 grandchildren. His sons, Devendra (also an obstetrician & gynaecologist and Fellow of the RCOG) and Jeevendra (an ENT surgeon) work in Singapore while his daughter, Sharmila, works in non-profit management for environmental and social justice causes in the USA.

Devendra Kanagalingam FRCOG (son), Senior Consultant, Singapore General Hospital