Gurinder Singh Shahi: Thinker, eco-warrior who touched so many lives

Dr Gurinder Singh Shahi, an environmental warrior, was a member of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and ran various projects in partnership with the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO). He was co-founder and Chief of Medical Operations (CMO) of Rhapsody Holdings. Dr Gurinder passed away recently.

| Singapore | 16 Aug 2016 | Asia Samachar |
Dr. Gurinder Singh Shahi
Dr. Gurinder Singh Shahi

Are you a rabble rouser? Are you one who wants to change the world and make it a better place? If you are, then this fellowship is for you.” That poster of the Warren Weaver Fellowship at the Rockefeller Foundation caught the attention of Dr Gurinder Singh Shahi as he strolled down the hallway of Harvard University. This was during an academic year for his Master’s degree in Public Health, International Health Policy and Management. The Rockefeller Foundation is a scientific community that promotes the well being of humanity around the world and the Warren Weaver Fellows Program comprises extremely talented individuals who have contributed fresh perspectives on the Foundations’ work in specific programme areas and they are given full support to carry out any scientific project of their choice, which would be a service to mankind and the environment.

Gurinder is the eldest child in the family, with a younger brother and sister. Having spent the first 10 years of his life in Orchard Road, where his paternal grandfather had a shop-house, Gurinder and his younger brother would get up to mischief with the neighborhood children, running around rampant through the flood prone streets. “We were basically street urchins”, described Gurinder, with a slightly mischievous glint in his eyes, of him and his brother, Maninder.

Having graduated as a medical doctor from the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 1984, Gurinder joined the teaching faculty there. Three years later, he embarked on his part-time Doctorate in Molecular Biochemistry and Biotechnology, which he completed impressively in two years. It was about this time that he had the honorable opportunity to work with the former Dean of the School of Law in NUS, international lawyer and Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Professor Tommy Koh. Professor Koh was the President of the Third United Nations Conference of the Law of the Sea and his work in studying the peaceful use of the seabed and the ocean floor piqued Gurinder’s interest in environmental issues.

Gurinder decided to undertake his Master in Public Health at Harvard University – a decision his peers could not fathom as it was, by and large, an uncommon area of study. After successfully completing his Masters in Public Health, Gurinder applied for the Warren Weaver Fellowship at the Rockefeller Foundation. In spite of being among 500 applicants, Gurinder was one of the chosen five. All of them had different backgrounds and experiences ranging from finance to public health. With his experience as a medical doctor and a background in public health, Gurinder was placed in the global health division as well as the global environment division where he worked on a myriad of research projects, including the impact of human encroachment on the local flaura and fauna in the Himalayas. “We used to pretend that our actions were so insignificant that no matter how badly we mismanaged things, the earth was strong enough to recover from the damage we created. However, evidence now suggests that is not true and we have been destroying the environment and, in some instances, irreversibly.”

The global health division at the Rockefeller Foundation was keen on tackling healthcare challenges in developing countries. The initiative it had was developing public health schools without walls. The idea was to train medical personnel working in the field on the principles of public health and to provide them with the necessary skills and education needed to address challenges in their respective countries that were largely less developed. Despite being at a tender young age of 30, Gurinder was instrumental in creating a curriculum and game plans for this initiative. “There was a lot of fun doing that as I had the opportunity to share my knowledge and exchange valuable ideas with these bright people who would, in the future, bring about change for the welfare of their environment. In a way we were grooming classes of activists for social and environmental change.” He then embarked on this long road to apply his in-depth scientific knowledge to the service of all.

In 1993, after successfully completing his fellowship at the Rockefeller Foundation, with exemplary standards, Gurinder was invited to join the Division for Global and Inter-Regional Programmes at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). He spent two years in New York, where he ran various projects in partnership with the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO). He worked with consultative groups to produce solutions for pressing issues occurring in underdeveloped countries, ranging from global agricultural challenges,  water and sanitation issues to children survival and development. His face beaming with delight, Gurinder remarked: “There would normally not be opportunities to do something like this and I was extremely excited to be given the chance to work on these projects.”

While working with the United Nations, a portfolio was created for him to spearhead the Sustainable Health Development Division. He was tasked to join a group that was setting up a new global institution in South Korea called the International Vaccine Institute (IVI). It is dedicated to the development of vaccines for diseases in developing countries. Gurinder spent three years in South Korea playing a key development role for the institution. He was
responsible for overseeing the build up of overseas partnership links between the IVI and leading centres of excellence in Asia. Today, the IVI has grown to become a 200-person strong non-profit organisation.

Dr Gurinder with classmates - PHOTO / FACEBOOK PAGE
Dr Gurinder with classmates – PHOTO / FACEBOOK PAGE

Gurinder was then invited by several Japanese and Korean scientists to assist them in setting up another medical organisation in Singapore, the International Molecular Biology Network of Asia and the Pacific Rim. It is an organisation dedicated to promoting the development of molecular biology and biotechnology in Asia and the Pacific region. It comprises Asian and Asian-Pacific member countries, with Singapore being one of them. The initiative allowed for the exploration of Singapore’s growth potential in the molecular biology and biotechnology arena. Gurinder was appointed as Executive Director of the Asia Pacific International Molecular Biology Network (A-IMBN). He worked closely with the European Molecular Biology Organization and with regional scientists, governments and private-sector partners. This paved the way to further develop the molecular biology and biotechnology infrastructure in Singapore. A priority needs assessment committee was established to identify top concerns of each country and areas of weakness that needed to be resolved. Singapore was part of this committee and Gurinder was the representative in developing the best strategies in improving the biotechnology industry in Singapore and around Asia and Pacific region.

“Gurinder always had a deep interest in international developments and health. He decided to travel on the public health terrain at a time when there was relatively little interest in the area. He was indeed a rebel rouser who wanted the world to be a better place. In doing so, Gurinder’s labour of love proved to a massive success and enabled Singapore to become a leading regional and global player in the public health, molecular biology and biological sciences arenas.

Gurinder has played a key role in the development of several major international initiatives, and served as advisor and consultant to leading international organisations, governments, corporations and foundations in such areas as healthcare, life science technology innovation and commercialisation management, and biotech industry development. He has also been actively involved in operationalising and providing strategic and management inputs to a range of entrepreneurial enterprises.

Amongst other portfolios, Gurinder is an extraordinary teacher who brings a special passion and unique insight into his classroom. He has changed the way many view the world and global health.”

-Associate Professor Shabbir M Moochhala Distinguish Member of the Technical Staff Defence Medical & Environmental Research Institute & DSO National Laboratories

Concurrently, Gurinder worked as a principal consultant with Coopers & Lybrand (now PriceWaterhouseCoopers), a multi-professional organisation, in coordinating new vaccine introduction in Singapore and Asian countries as well as assisting local and regional companies to launch their technologies and products into the marketplace. This allowed Singapore based companies to attain a significant standing in the biotechnological marketplace. Although Singapore was fast becoming the leading light in the medical arena, Gurinder insisted that it was crucial, at the same time, to be aware of relevant developments regionally and globally. At A-IMBN, Gurinder worked very closely with regional countries in developing their biotechnology industry and this has shown significant results, with countries like India, South Korea and Japan currently being the leading Asian players in this field, and China being the leading manufacturer of biotechnology.

As a result of Gurinder being the Singapore representative, the substantial growth of these countries proved to be beneficial to Singapore with considerable resources being available to the tiny nation through transnational collaborations in research conducted in this field. These collaborative efforts further catapulted Singapore onto the global map.

Locally, Gurinder has been an adjunct faculty at Singapore Management University since 2004. He was part of a committee that developed the curriculum and subsequently taught the course on ‘Technology and World Change’ at the university.

Gurinder always had a deep interest in international developments and health. He decided to travel on the public health terrain at a time when there was relatively little interest in the area. He was indeed a rebel rouser who wanted the world to be a better place. In doing so, Gurinder’s labour of love proved to be a massive success and enabled Singapore to become a leading regional and global player in the public health, molecular biology and biological sciences arenas.


[This article is courtesy of SINGAPORE AT 50: 50 SIKHS AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS, a book published by the Young Sikh Association, Singapore (YSA) in conjunction with Singapore’s 50th birthday. Dr Gurinder passed away in Aug 2016]


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