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Saturday September 18, 2010

Up Close and personal with Tun Ahmad Sarji Abdul Hamid

PLEASED as he is with Ahmad Sarji: Attaining Eminence, the 2008 biography written by veteran journalist Lim Chang Moh, Tun Ahmad Sarji Abdul Hamid is not so sure if he has done the right thing in giving his blessing to the book project.

Because he was planning to come out with a memoir to add to the list of titles he had already authored, Ahmad Sarji initially rejected Lim’s proposal.

But the latter was persistent and Ahmad Sarji said yes on the condition that the book would be based largely on published materials and not interviews with others.

Despite this restriction, Lim had plenty to draw on. As he recalls in the preface to the book, he found himself “submerged in what seemed like an ocean of newspaper cuttings, books, magazines and speeches.”

Months later, he surfaced with a 460-page effort. Ahmad Sarji thinks Lim has done well. But so much so that things have been made a little harder for Ahmad Sarji, who complains: “He has taken for his book all of what I have to say! Until I don’t know what to write.”

That’s merely mock annoyance, of course. The fact is, if he wants to, Ahmad Sarji can easily produce several volumes on his experiences.

After all, this is a man who spent well over three decades in the civil service, heading it in the last six years as the chief secretary to the Government.

A month after his retirement in 1996, he was made chairman of Permodalan Nasional Bhd (PNB), a post that has led to seats on the boards of directors of some of Malaysia’s largest companies. Fourteen years on, he’s still with PNB.

Just his observations and inside knowledge on major corporate events in recent years are enough for an explosive tell-all book or two.

However, it’s definitely not Ahmad Sarji’s style to make waves with sensational revelations. You don’t get to be the highest-ranking officer in the public sector and the chairman of one of the country’s largest institutional investors by shocking and offending people.

No, as with most jobs, you rise to the top by being a quietly and consistently solid performer and by gaining the confidence of your bosses. And he has had mentors who have been instrumental during key phases of his career in government.

Life as DO

In the beginning, there was the late Tan Sri Dr Mohamad Said Mohamed. In 1963, when Mohamad Said was the Mentri Besar (MB) of Negri Sembilan, he picked Ahmad Sarji to become the district officer (DO) of Rembau.

The 25-year-old had been in the civil service for less than three years at the time. It had been Ahmad Sarji’s longtime ambition to become a DO, but he had reckoned that it would take at least four to five years.

Growing up in Tapah, at the foot of Cameron Highlands, he knew no other path to a better life than to join the civil service. There was some paternal push towards that direction; his father and his father’s brothers were civil servants.

On his own, as a teenager, he also realised that it was cool to work for the government, that there was such a thing as “the aura of the civil servant.”

He remembers watching the DOs, almost always a European during the colonial era, officiating at functions at the town padang.

“The DO was quite a personality in those days. People gravitated towards him and paid obeisance. I thought this was a nice position to be in if I could make it,” Ahmad Sarji recalls.

Not that the job was all about power and pull. Once upon a time, the DO was the government’s point man in his district, responsible for putting into action the policies of a young nation back when the administrative machinery was nowhere near its size and reach today.

He explains: “The context then was different. In early 1960s, the momentum of development was so rapid, especially at the district level. We had to do all kinds of articulation and aggregation of interests.”

The DO was, as Ahmad Sarji describes it, all things sundry, especially in the rural area. He was in charge of a host of social and economic initiatives such as infrastructural development, tenant registration, land alienation schemes, organising farming communities and campaigns to promote racial harmony.

It was when he was the DO of Port Dickson that he had one of the highlights of his civil service career. In 1965, the Negri Sembilan government formed a commission of enquiry to investigate the affairs of the Seremban Town Council, and he was given a role.

“I was very happy to be the secretary of this commission, whose chairman was Justice Lee Hun Hoe (later Tan Sri) from Sarawak. I’ve got to know a judge and I was responsible for producing the report. I understand that it was the first report by a commission of enquiry into a local authority,” he says.

Having achieved his goal of becoming a DO earlier than he had envisaged, he was too preoccupied with the tasks at hand to set new targets. “I never thought I could rise far because at that time, there was little time to think about one’s ambitions,” he says. It was up to somebody else to provide Ahmad Sarji with a significant career boost.

At the summit of the civil service

That came in 1973. After a succession of Federal Government postings, Ahmad Sarji was chosen by then Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein to be the founding director-general of the Farmers’ Organisation Authority (FOA).

There had been a mushrooming of associations and co-operatives in the agricultural sector, but many of these were ill-organised and not viable.

The FOA’s No.1 mission was to streamline these grassroots institutions. For Ahmad Sarji, it was an opportunity to make good use of the experience from his years in the district offices and in Federal Government, and it was another pivotal turn in his years in the public sector.

He explains: “It was a prized appointment because you were an appointee of the Prime Minister.”

After six years at the FOA, he continued his progress up the ladder with a series of senior positions in high-profile bodies – the Economic Planning Unit, Mara, the Public Services Department and the then Trade and Industry Ministry (as secretary-general).

In February 1990, he was made the Chief Secretary to the Government, the pinnacle of the Malaysian civil service. He has gone way above the DO league.

He says Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad threw many challenges his way, and he is grateful for that. Many government organisations had to be either set up or revamped.

“We call it creating administrative capacity,” adds Ahmad Sarji. Not surprisingly, he says he would not have changed his mind about entering the civil service if he had a second chance.

He says: “The thrill of becoming a civil servant those years was inexplicable. I was very fortunate because I was thrust into positions of leadership and therefore, I did not have to struggle with being a deputy for a long time, which would have made one very impatient.

“It was not so much about the perks of these posts, but the trust. The trust was the most important thing. Every position you hold, you are in command of financial and human resources, and you have this trust placed in you by redoubtable people.”

He is referring to the government leaders who have given him his big breaks. He describes Mohamad Said, the former Negri Sembilan MB, as “the acme of integrity and honesty, a very learned person.” Tun Abdul Razak’s decision to send him to the FOA had a big impact on Ahmad Sarji’s career as well.

“And of course, when I served under Dr Mahathir, an icon, it was an honour and a pleasure. He has a vision for the country. He’s a man with great intellect and he’s politically astute, I must say,” he says.

Clearly, Ahmad Sarji has done enough to be noticed by these men, but he insists that he did not consciously muscle his way to the top by wielding self-belief and ambition.

“I just plodded along. I’ve always regarded every encounter with my bosses as the moment of truth. I must be well-prepared for it. I articulated my views and the most important thing was to be refined. You have to be a refined person in your demeanour, mannerisms, choice of words, body language... And you need the ability to read your boss’s mind. They call it scanning the environment,” he sums up.

“I’ve worked with quite a few arrogant and gregarious people, but I’ve managed to survive.”

A time for other passions

Obviously, to Dr Mahathir, Ahmad Sarji did more than just survive. When the latter had left the civil service, the then Prime Minister suggested that he take over as PNB chairman.

“It was something I had never dreamt of. I was succeeding an icon, Tun Ismail Ali. I stepped into his big shoes,” Ahmad Sarji recalls.

He adds that at the point of retirement from government work, he had a housing loan to settle and was considering offers from one or two friends to continue working.

The PNB appointment changed everything, and he accumulated a wealth of experience as a steward of many companies in various industries.

For him, the biggest difference in being in the corporate sector is the extent of the accountability.

“In the private sector, you have to adjust to achieving targets. In the civil service, before the Government introduced key performance indicators, we were working on quite a different time-frame. But in the private sector, there are quarterly targets. You’ve got to prepare quarterly reports. And then you have half-yearly and annual reports. You’re working to meet targets all the time. In other words, you must always be on top of things,” he points out.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t a problem for him because “I like measurable things.” He also likes plenty of other things.

Thanks largely to his father, a keen sportsman and coach, he has a lifelong passion for sports such as hockey, football, cricket and golf.

Quite naturally, that developed into a commitment to sports administration in cricket and lawn bowls. He has even written a book to put on record his memories of his leadership of the Malaysian and Asian lawn bowls organisations.

History has deep meaning for Ahmad Sarji. He champions the preservation and conservation of heritage structures and sites.

He collects rare books and appreciates vintage cars, and he is chairman of the editorial advisory board for The Encyclopedia of Malaysia series. It’s not surprising therefore that he laments the lack of emphasis on the writing and teaching of history.

And, yes, no personality profile on Ahmad Sarji can be complete without a mention of his idol, the late Tan Sri P. Ramlee. He has co-written five books on the multi-talented performer, and has watched all his movies save three whose copies are lost.

“You cannot explain how somebody becomes a genius. People have tried to do research on what has influenced and shaped him, but the answer is always ‘He’s God’s gift to us.’”

Maybe somebody should try to figure out what is it exactly that makes Ahmad Sarji tick. Given his diverse achievements and interests, the answer must surely be interesting.

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