It's the last day of the World Halal Conference, and Ng Yeen Seen is striding along the plush carpet floors. At the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, lunch has arrived in steaming trays, arrayed on long tables.
In the thick of the lunchtime crowd, Ng is growing impatient. There are 800 participants from 50 countries at the event, and it's hard to find a quiet spot to talk amid the hungry crowd.
“OK, we’ll go to a VIP room,” she says, pushing open a heavy door. Setting down her mustard-yellow handbag, she settles into an armchair, prepared to field questions.
The 35-year-old has been riding a wave of publicity since she was declared a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader (WEF YGL). As one of the YGLs of 2016, she joins the most exclusive and elite club in the world: past winners include Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and Jack Ma of Alibaba. Closer to home, fellow YGLs are Khairy Jamaluddin and Nurul Izzah.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect to win,” she says, incredulous. Her eyes widen in mock surprise, and she laughs. “My nomination came from somebody abroad. They contacted me last year to ask for my CV and my profile.”
After the WEF sifted through thousands of nominees, Ng was announced as one of the 15 winners from the Asia Pacific region. The award pays tribute to the pioneering work she has done in public policy. More importantly, it recognises Ng as a genuine leader in the field, with the potential to make a lasting contribution to society.
“It’s the recognition,” she says. “I got a letter, an e-mail, but no trophy. It comes with a five-year term. In these five years, I have access to a very powerful community of people with the potential to impact lives. When people share experience and knowledge, you really can achieve a lot of things.”
As the COO of the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (Asli), a top regional think tank, she has met political luminaries and heads of states. Her renown is such that when a distinguished guest pays a visit to the country, she is invited by embassies to brief the visitor on the state of affairs in Malaysia.
Part of her appeal is her impartiality; belonging neither to the government nor the private sector, she is consulted by both on policy and research issues. To the uninitiated, her job scope is expansive and bewildering. It seems like she has a finger in every pie, hopscotching from conference to conference, all while juggling a dozen policy proposals in the air.
“No, no,” she says, chuckling. “Personally, I look at politics, economics, and education. These are the areas I’m actively working on. A few years ago, before Malaysia introduced the minimum wage, I was appointed to sit on the Technical Committee of the National Wage Council. We put the technical papers together and made proposal recommendations.”
But, she says, while key industry players and ministries may call on think tanks for advice, the input they give often ends up revised many times before it becomes official.
“Up there,” Ng remarks, rolling her eyes heavenward, “they make political decisions. There’ll be a lot of consultations along the way. We may have proposed a cup, but at the end a wine bottle comes out!”
It’s all part of the job, all part of the conveyor belt of arranging conferences, attending roundtable discussions, and overseeing feasibility studies.
“My job at present puts me in a very unique position,” she says, grateful and appreciative. “At Asli, we have the luxury of thinking and executing what we think, through the government, political parties, and industry players.
My motto is that if I want to see change in society, I have to do it first.”
Born to lead
Ng was born in Kelantan to a family of six. She was an active child who played tennis for the state. Off-court, her life was strictly timetabled: up at 5am for piano practice, in the car to school by 6.30am, tuition after school, heaps of homework after that, some more tennis, and then bedtime at 10pm.
“The clock just ticked like that for 18 years,” she says. “I was always busy doing something – never stopped until I was in Form five. I lived a military life.”
Still, the exacting schedule may explain her Spartan self-discipline, her formidable work ethic. She is a multi-tasker extraordinaire; while she answers questions, she fiddles with two handphones, deftly flicking a finger over the screens to scroll for new messages and updates.
The self-described “late bloomer” was “blur” in noticing the world around her, more clued in on her studies and sports. She studied Accounting at Cardiff University and received a postgraduate degree in Educational Policy from Warwick University in Britain.
After a frustrating stint as an accountant at the family business, she decided to pursue something else. Education had always been close to her heart, so it made sense to set up a counselling centre for pre-university students.
“After I left, I set up an educational counselling centre in Kelantan. We provided advice for SPM and Form Six students for free. We placed them in colleges and universities. I didn’t know it then, but I had started a social enterprise.”
In the next three years, from 2007 to 2010, she worked at Wawasan Open University and for Gerakan’s think tank. Then Asli came calling in 2010, and she’s been there ever since.
“If you look at my career pathway, somehow everything worked out – opportunity walked past me, and I just grabbed it,” she says.
As a leader, she has the same go-getter attitude. She doesn’t suffer fools, and has no stomach for “nonsense”. She can be unsparingly blunt, wielding a well-timed phrase like throwing a knife.
“I led a team of 28. If I want my team to work very hard, I will work very hard with them. I believe that as a leader, if you only give instructions and then disappear, why should the rest of the team do what you say?”
She draws inspiration from young leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Ma. She counts herself extremely lucky to be in “close contact” with former prime ministers. She takes their best traits, arranges them in a composite, and makes a model for herself.
But she knows when to take a backseat.
“It’s just as important to know how to be a follower at times. It’s not possible to know everything very well in every field all the time. So when it comes to areas you’re not so familiar with – or when there’s a bigger or greater leader than you – you should be a follower and learn from them.”
Don’t dream, do
Ng is a decisive doer, not a passive dreamer. In fact, she’s a doer par excellence. She wants to be an agent of change in society, but she doesn’t just sit around dreaming of lofty ideals, she makes them happen.
“Dreams evolve as we go,” she muses. “I want to make the best out of the present. You have so many dreams to chase; if you keep having a lot of dreams, you’re not going to stop. I don’t want to sit there and just hope for a better future.”
In the wake of the Kelantan floods last year, she spearheaded Ops Harapan, a volunteer group that brought together doctors, nurses, and volunteers for flood relief. It was a personal project for the Kelantan native.
“It was something that I initiated. With small movements like this, I get to do things for myself, not just talk about how we should handle disaster management. I took it one step further and made it happen on the ground.”
No longer in the VIP room, she raises her voice above the din of the Starbucks on the lower floor. “You know,” she says, leaning over slyly, “if you gave me a Starbucks to run, I would do it!”
But with fully scheduled weeks stretched ahead, it’s hard to picture her wearing a green apron and churning out lattes. Things can get so hectic she has to “slot” seeing friends into her diary.
“When I have a real weekend off, I hang out with friends and run errands. I have so many friends to catch up with.”
If time permits, she bakes and cooks. Sometimes she swims or goes hiking. She travels so much that she can’t keep pets.
Ask her about the future, and she’s startled into thoughtful silence.
“I honestly don’t know what that means,” she says sheepishly. “What do I want to do in ten years? I cannot answer. I don’t know.”
Once the tea has been drunk and the recorder put away, she offers a soft pat on the shoulder, then gets to her feet.
An associate is waiting at a table nearby. She strides over. “Sorry to have kept you waiting for so long,” she says.
She leaves with him in a hurry, switching back to business mode.
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