In the lead

Se­berang Perai's first fe­male mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil pres­i­dent Datuk Maimu­nah Mohd Sharif dares to do things dif­fer­ently.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By S. INDRAMALAR star2@ thes­tar. com. my

THE day she was sworn in as pres­i­dent of the Se­berang Perai Mu­nic­i­pal Coun­cil ( MPSP) in 2011, Datuk Maimu­nah Mohd Sharif was con­fronted with the mam­moth chal­lenge ahead of her - as the first fe­male coun­cil pres­i­dent in the town­ship’s 18- year his­tory.

“Af­ter the swear­ing in cer­e­mony, a reporter ap­proached three peo­ple to gather their re­ac­tions on the ap­point­ment of a fe­male coun­cil pres­i­dent. Two were women heads of de­part­ments who said they were happy to see a woman at the top. They were pos­i­tive and said they were look­ing for­ward to the changes I would bring and that they would be be­hind me all the way. The third per­son was a male coun­cil­lor... his re­sponse I will never for­get. He said: ‘ I don’t mind work­ing with a lady just as long as she can do her job!’.

“At that mo­ment, I re­alised that I would face ob­sta­cles and chal­lenges as a woman coun­cil pres­i­dent. I knew that I would have to prove my worth. But I wasn’t wor­ried or shaken. I was ready. I had a plan and I knew how I wanted to im­ple­ment it, woman or not,” shares Maimu­nah in a re­cent in­ter­view.

Maimu­nah’s plan was straight­for­ward: she would prove her­self within the year. As she was ap­pointed in March, she had just nine months to win the trust of her staff at the Mu­nic­i­pal Coun­cil and her stake­hold­ers: the 980,000- odd pop­u­la­tion of Se­berang Perai, on Pe­nang’s main­land. First on the cards was in­tro­duc­ing her­self to the peo­ple.

“I gave my­self three months to get to know ev­ery­one. I wasn’t from the mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil, so I came in as an out­sider. I didn’t know any­one. The good thing about be­ing an out­sider was that I was neu­tral and was not aligned to any­one. As the coun­cil pres­i­dent though, it was my busi­ness to know them,” she ex­plains.

Maimu­nah had 500 staff and 15 heads of de­part­ments. In­stead of call­ing them to her of­fice, she went down to the var­i­ous de­part­ments to in­tro­duce her­self: ‘ Hi, I’m Maimu­nah, the new YDP ( Yang Diper­tua). I hope we can work to­gether’.

The next two phases of her ac­tion plan was out­lin­ing the coun­cil’s mis­sions and goals for the year, and the strate­gies to achieve those goals.

“I wanted to show them that I was se­ri­ous. That I wasn’t all talk I had plans but I also had ways in my mind to get things done. I set tar­gets for us to meet and I think peo­ple took no­tice,” re­calls Maimu­nah who was re­cently at the Asean Work Life Bal­ance 2016 sum­mit in Cy­ber­jaya last month. As well they should. Though warm and friendly, Maimu­nah is un­mis­tak­ably res­o­lute and ca­pa­ble. Her de­ter­mi­na­tion is ap­par­ent within just a few min­utes of meet­ing her, as is her en­thu­si­asm.

In the five years since she’s been coun­cil pres­i­dent, Maimu­nah has more than proven her worth.

MPSP has achieved many new mile­stones un­der her ste­ward­ship: last year, the coun­cil was listed in the Malaysia Book of Records as the first lo­cal coun­cil to get five qual­ity man­age­ment sys­tem cer­ti­fi­ca­tions.

“We just got our sixth,” says Maimu­nah ex­cit­edly. For Maimu­nah, th­ese cer­ti­fi­ca­tions are much more than mere feath­ers in her cap.

“I be­lieve in putting qual­ity sys­tems in place. In­stead of crack­ing my head about putting in place a man­age­ment sys­tem that works, why not use the ones that Sirim has come up with. Those are ex­cel­lent and will make sure we ad­here by proper stan­dards in ev­ery­thing we do,” says Maimu­nah who first joined the Pe­nang Mu­nic­i­pal Coun­cil ( MPPP) as a town plan­ner.

MPSP is also bent on set­ting new bench­marks in green liv­ing, with the up and com­ing town­ship Batu Kawan de­vel­oped ac­cord­ing to stringest en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards.

Buid­ing trust

En­gage­ment is Maimu­nah’s core strat­egy.

In­stead of im­ple­ment­ing pro­grammes and fix­ing prob­lems from her of­fice on the 15th floor of the mu­nic­i­pal build­ing, Maimu­nah would lit­er­ally go down to the ground. “One of the first things I no­ticed when I be­came coun­cil pres­i­dent was the high num­ber of MCs in the solid waste man­age­ment depart­ment. I went down to the depart­ment to ask the work­ers why they were tak­ing so many MCs and they told me it’s be­cause of the brooms they were us­ing, ” re­calls Maimu­nah.

The brooms’ han­dles were too short, forc­ing the work­ers to bend low to sweep. It caused back prob­lems for the work­ers who then had to take med­i­cal leave.

Maimu­nah was shocked. But she also knew what she had to do. She made it manda­tory for all de­part­ments to en­gage their users and stake­hold­ers in such de­ci­sion- mak­ing pro­cesses.

“I started a com­mit­tee. When­ever we wanted to buy new equip­ment, we had to get those who use the equip­ment to give us their in­put. The first time I in­vited the work­ers up to my of­fice for a meet­ing, they were re­luc­tant. Some of them had been work­ing with the coun­cil for 20 years but had never stepped on the 15th floor where the YDP’s of­fice is.

“They said they were shy as they were “busuk” ( stinky). I told them the smell of sweat was noth­ing to be ashamed of and noth­ing I could not tol­er­ate. They came, gave their in­put and from that day, the num­ber of MCs went down dras­ti­cally,” she says.

She reached out to the peo­ple through MPSP Watch, an on­line por­tal ( www. cat. bet­terpg. com) and apps for res­i­dents to reg­is­ter their com­plaints about any­thing they are dis­pleased with - pot­holes, un­col­lected rub­bish, drainage is­sues, etc. A per­son only has to log on and up­load a photo with their com­plaint. There will also be a sta­tus up­date on the com­plaint for all to see.

“My of­fi­cers were not very happy with this. They didn’t un­der­stand why I wanted to air the coun­cil’s dirty linen in pub­lic for all to see. But I was in­sis­tent. We needed a more ef­fi­cient way of col­lat­ing and deal­ing with com­plaints and on­line was the way to go.

“We had to be ac­count­able. If no one mon­i­tors us, we could take our time and not get things done. This way, its out there. We have to act,” she says adding that the coun­cil had a set dead­line to act on com­plaints, de­pend­ing on the sever­ity of the prob­lem.

Trans­parency, as­serts Maimu­nah, is key in

gain­ing peo­ple’s trust.

“Even if just 10% of our res­i­dents use MPSP Watch, our job be­comes eas­ier. We have our cit­i­zens help­ing us mon­i­tor our town­ship, good and bad,” she says.

The res­i­dents are also con­sulted when it’s time for the coun­cil to draw up its an­nual bud­get. A sur­vey is con­ducted in four lan­guages - on­line and through the var­i­ous state leg­isla­tive as­sem­blies and par­lia­men­tary con­stituen­cies - to find out how the res­i­dents want their money spent.

“We have six cat­e­gories and we ask them to high­light or rate what their pri­or­ity ar­eas are. Al­ways, the top pri­or­ity is clean­li­ness. Next comes trans­port, flood­ing is­sues, mak­ing the town­ships greener, util­i­ties and fi­nally com­mu­nity en­gage­ment and ca­pac­ity build­ing,” she says.

On top of this ini­tial sur­vey, the res­i­dents are asked to as­sess the coun­cil’s per­for­mance twice - at midyear and the end of the year.

“We need to be ac­count­able. Af­ter all it is their money and they have the right to have a say on how it is spent,” says Maimu­nah plainly.

The re­sults have been en­cour­ag­ing, she says.

“In the first year, the rate of cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion was 69%. Last year, it was 89%,” she says with pride. “We still have a long way to go but it’s an im­prove­ment.”

Cru­cial fam­ily sup­port

Though she’s worked in and for Pe­nang for more than 30 years, Maimu­nah is orig­i­nally from Kuala Pi­lah in Negeri Sem­bi­lan.

“I had a tough life grow­ing up. My father was a rubber tap­per. When I was young, I had to wake up early and tap rubber be­fore go­ing to school. It was tough but I was happy,” she rem­i­nisces.

Maimu­nah says she owes her suc­cess to her father who be­lieved in her.

“We lived in the kam­pung but my father in­sisted that I go to an English school. The rest of my fam­ily were not too happy but he went ahead,” shares Maimu­nah who holds a Mas­ter of Sci­ence in Plan­ning Stud­ies from Univer­siti Sains Malaysia and a de­gree in town plan­ning from the Univer­sity of Wales in Bri­tain.

She joined MPPP in 1995 and was the di­rec­tor of the Plan­ning and De­vel­op­ment Depart­ment from 2003 to 2009. In 2009, Maimu­nah be­came the Gen­eral Man­ager of Ge­orge Town World Her­itage In­cor­po­rated, man­ag­ing the Ge­orge Town World Her­itage Site, which Unesco listed in 2008.

When she re­turned from her stud­ies abroad, Maimu­nah was de­ter­mined to change her lot in life. But she re­grets some de­ci­sions she made.

“I didn’t want to be a kam­pung girl any­more. So when I came home, I de­cided to upgrade our fam­ily home. I wanted ours to be the first house in the kam­pung to have air con­di­tion­ing. I de­mol­ished half of my wooden her­itage house and re­built it with bricks and put in air con­di­tion­ing.

“Of course when I was with Ge­orge­town World Her­itage In­cor­po­rated, I re­alised how stupid I was. I de­stroyed my own her­itage home! Now, I’m look­ing at the house plans to see how I can recre­ate the old house,” she says, slightly shame­faced.

Life as a coun­cil pres­i­dent de­mands much of her time, she ad­mits, and is grate­ful for the sup­port of her hus­band and two daugh­ters.

“My hus­band is most sup­port­ive and I couldn’t ask for a bet­ter part­ner. Be­fore ac­cept­ing this job, our fam­ily had a se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion about it. He en­cour­aged me to ac­cept it as he felt I would be work­ing for the ‘ bet­ter good’ of our state and coun­try. He backs me up and looks af­ter our daugh­ters when I am away, but he also prefers to stay in the back­ground,” shares Maimu­nah, her face soft­en­ing as she speaks of her fam­ily.

For a woman to suc­ceed, shares Maimu­nah, fam­ily sup­port is in­te­gral.

“Women can do any­thing. My father had that fore­sight when he sent me to school. But to suc­ceed, sup­port from fam­ily is im­por­tant. Even when I was with Ge­orge Town World Her­itage, my hours were long. That’s just me and the way I am at work. We can say that we will keep our work and fam­ily lives apart but I think that’s quite im­pos­si­ble. So their sup­port is cru­cial. And for that, I am grate­ful,” she says.

— Pho­tos: Filepics

Maimu­nah be­lieves in en­gag­ing her stake­hold­ers – the cit­i­zens of Se­berang Perai.

1 Maimu­nah ( cen­tre) ini­ti­ated the Se­nam­ro­bik pro­gramme at Ta­man Tunku in Se­berang Jaya.

2 Maimu­nah ( cen­tre) with coun­cil of­fi­cials vis­it­ing Bukit Mer­ta­jam wet mar­ket.

3 Maimu­nah pre­sent­ing the tro­phy to Md Zaqh­wan Zaidi at the Petronas AAM Malaysian Club Cham­pi­onship in Batu Kawan in 2012.

4 Sun­gai Pi­nang assem­bly­man Lim Siew Khim ( right) help­ing Maimu­nah with her beret at the state leg­isla­tive as­sem­bly sit­ting.

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