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.
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.