Leaving a sterling career in the civil service after 35 years, Tan Sri Dr Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria is an inspiring trailblazer for women.
AFTER completing her Form Six, all Tan Sri Dr Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria wanted to do was get a degree in English Literature and work in the private sector.
Upon graduation, she landed her first job as a cadet reporter with a local newspaper, but her civil servant parents cut short her stint, insisting that she joined the civil service. So in 1981, she began her career as an Administrative and Diplomatic Service officer in the then Trade and Industry Ministry. And eventhough it was not her first career choice, Dr Rebecca stayed on because she felt she could make a difference.
She had worked with several ministers but she credited Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz as a major influence for work ethics and leadership by example.
Rafidah in turn said Dr Rebecca rose to be secretary-general of the International Trade and Industry Ministry as she belonged to the culture of service in Miti that prioritised integrity, dedication, unstinting public service and facilitating private sector efforts.
When she was appointed Miti secretary-general in 2010, she became the first woman to hold the top position in the ministry.
She is popular with the media for her straight-talking but others see her as pushy as she never shies from speaking her mind, albeit diplomatically.
She had wanted to opt for early retirement at 58 last year but with Malaysia chairing Asean and the burning issue of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), Dr Rebecca decided she could not abandon ship just yet.
She finally retired yesterday and is adamant that she will not be back in Miti in any advisory role.
Dr Rebecca speaks to Sunday Star on her journey as a civil servant, the challenges she faced and her future plans, as well as advice for younger government officers.
Q: Since you joined Miti and moved up the ranks to the secretary-general position, you have worked with different ministers. How has it been working with different personalities and Miti priorities over the years?
A: As a civil servant, you have to get used to the different personalities and ministers who come and go. I worked with five ministers – Tengku Ahmad Rithauddeen, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed – each has his and her own style, preferences and priorities. At the end of the day, it is all driven by trade and investment policies. If the goal is the same, regardless of who is the minister, you just work to achieve that national goal. In our case, it is straightforward – you want to increase exports, you want to make sure you get the right investment into the country you want to create jobs. As a civil servant, your job is to make it as easier for folks to do business.
Why did you join the civil service when there were other options out there?
My first degree was English Literature. What are the options in those days? You either go into teaching or advertising. Most of my friends went into advertising or teaching or journalism. My first job was as a journalist – as a cadet reporter in the New Straits Times for six months. But my parents were civil servants. Every civil servant parent wants their child to be a civil servant, so there was this pressure for me to do something else – not a reporter, you know. The Administrative and Diplomatic Service (PTD) was very competitive then, so I said, let’s give it a shot. If I were to join civil service, I might as well go for the best, and the PTD was and still is very sexy in the context of the civil service.
Since my parents were civil servants, you are sort of conditioned that this is something you want to do. At that time, it wasn’t altruistic for me – I was just getting a job. When I joined Miti, understanding what it is all about, then I realised there is something here.
Ultimately, you stay in the service because you feel you are working for a greater good, you don’t stay in the service because of money.
If you are staying in the civil service because you think you will get rich, you are in the wrong business. It is really about service, that is why it is called civil service. That is the message I give to young people who want to join the service. In my time, my motivation was my parents – with their “go join the civil service” – but young folks today have many options. So we tell them the truth, here is a place where you feel you can make a difference and contribute to the greater good – as in contributing to policies, furthering the cause of the country, that sort of thing. Whether you want to call it altruistic or not, the point is, you stay because you are contributing. That was what I have done over the years.
Why did you decide to retire early?
I wanted to retire at 58 because I have had good innings, as they say. As I was reaching 58, my husband and I had this discussion – that maybe it’s time to look at retirement because my daughter is done with school, and my husband has already retired. You hit that stage in your life when you keep thinking about what is more important in life and you evaluate your priorities. You tell yourself you have done your best, did what you needed to do, so it’s time to move on and get back those things that you missed.
In the 30-odd years there were sacrifices and now it’s time to catch up (with life). At the same time there was this high- pitched, frenzied, tense time in Miti with TPPA and Asean (chairmanship). It was really intense with sacrifices on the part of my husband and patience on the part of my daughter as she was studying abroad. But we were in the midst of Asean chairmanship and TPP was not completed; I didn’t want to leave the Miti folks high and dry. Certain commitments must still be seen through; that was why I didn’t really retire at 58. There was an extension so that we could finish all the work around TPPA and for the first time, Malaysia was hosting the World Economic Forum.
Everything was timed well, not because I planned well. Maybe it is the hand of God that in some way was putting things together. Now, I get to attend my daughter’s convocation on July 16 and her wedding on July 23.
What about the speculations that you are retiring early to join some international organisations?
I have a lot of friends in various places. There are folks who have asked me but no decision has been made. Let me retire first, close one chapter, and then I will decide. Yes, there are job offers but I am taking it one step at a time.
Would you come back to Miti in an advisory role?
No, no, no. I believe when you leave, you leave. Do not try to impose your values and your priorities onto the next person taking over. You make a clean break and you go. When I took over I went through a process of adjusting and finding things out. We were also fighting a lot of fires at that time, I really felt this tension and stress. I decided we needed to regroup and find a way to work better as an organisation.
I really needed to build my team including starting the Barefoot leadership circle in 2012. I started small with my team – a core team for me to build my own team – and found it was working, so I started expanding it.
Every year, we brought in younger people, which is, in a way, planning the succession plan. We take time to bond and to think about our work, our needs, our priorities. We have a mentoring programe where the top management become mentors to younger ones. It is a very structured programme, out of that we have published a book called The Headless Chicken and the Spark, which is available online, documenting our journey.
We want to keep this momentum going and one of the things that Miti officers must be able to do is to present and discuss ideas.
The moment you take over a post, you must plan to hand it over to someone. You are not indispendable. You must start to plan to exit and you must also plan to leave the organisation in a better shape than you received it.
Working in Miti is very demanding and stressful, so we want to create a fun work environment. When we moved into this new headquarters, we created fun spaces – we have four or five rooms that are colorful with beanbags – so that folks can have access to those rooms, share ideas and brainstorm. We couldn’t have a Google-like office but we did go to Google in KL to see how they managed their office space.
The bulk of Miti officers are young. You don’t want to have old ways of doing things, you need to make sure the organisation is vibrant and attractive enough for people to stay and contribute.
How would you like to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as a person who did her best and tried to contribute to the country as much as possible. I think all of us in Miti contribute something. As a secretary-general, you can’t do anything if you do not have a team of equally important people working with you.
Anything that you claim to achieve, you cannot say it is your own. It is the minister, the deputy minister, the deputy secretary general, the young officers; everybody must have some contribution to the final work. You are just the front person.
If you could turn back the clock, would you have done things differently?
People have always asked: If you could talk to the 25-year-old Rebecca, what would you say to her? Once, I answered I would tell the 19-year-old Rebecca to do a course other than English Literature. Do a law degree and be more hardworking and not relax. Honestly, I just wanted to get a degree in English Literature because it was one of the things I could do easily and fairly well. Being in Miti, you need a combination of English, law and economy. A lot of our job scope deals with legal agreements.
There has been talk in Miti that you give better opportunities to junior officers than the senior ones, especially in promotions. What do you say about that?
It is not me or just one person making that decision, it is a collective decision. No secretary-general makes the decision of promotion or posting on his or her own, it is a collective decision. It still goes back to PSD and KSN as well. That ‘talk’ is not entirely accurate.
Promoting the young is not peculiar to Miti. It is something we inherited even way back during Tan Sri Rafidah and Tan Sri Sidek Hassan (former KSN), it is about capability. Rafidah always reminded us it is not about seniority, it is about ability. One thing I will take away from Tan Sri Sidek is that it is not the hierachy of positions but the hierachy of ideas. Folks should not be griping: “I am not there.” You must prove yourself, you don’t deserve anything, you get it because you are good.
Miti is quite an open ministry and is popular among associations for solving many cross-ministerial issues. But this has caused unhappiness among other ministries and allegations that Miti is encroaching into their territories, do you agree?
In Miti we try to take the “government approach”. I don’t think Miti can on its own achieve the level of progress, i.e. making Malaysia a competitive nation. Miti is just one of the many ministries contributing to this. If Miti says we want to make things easier to do business, not everything is in Miti’s territory. Miti needs Customs, Agriculture, Domestic Trade, Health... I don’t think it is fair to say Miti is pushy; we try to collaborate, we see the importance of collaboration.
If you look at the E-commerce council that we set up, you need MDEC, Domestic Trade, Finance – you need all these parties to have a proper working policy. Export is not just about export, Matrade is a lot more than that. You have to look at the whole chain, from the manufacturers to the ports, which is under Transport Ministry.
My minister, Datuk Seri Mustapa has been collaborative, he sees the importance of working with and not alienating other ministries. We try not to step on anybody’s toes. Because we have this goal of pushing export, pushing investments, sometimes we are seen as pushy.
In negotiating the TPPA, there were claims that other ministries were not giving as much input and criticisms were always targeted against Miti.
Miti was in the forefront during the TPPA negotiations, but while we lead we do not have the competence across the board, we need our friends from other ministry to help us along. Maybe it is our problem as we did not communicate it well out there. Many people thought it was a Miti competence entirely. Eventually we managed to put the message out there to show who the ministries, agencies and experts are and they were contributing equally to the process. My minister is more articulate in presenting ideas maybe but we had other ministers come in and present their own ideas to defend their position.
Will Miti continue engaging the public since Malaysia is negotiating other free trade agreements?
Engagement works. For example, the Parliament bipartisan caucus stays; we just had a briefing for them on the FTAs and they are quite happy. Inter-ministerial council will go on, and the way we engage the public. The TPPA was a little bit more controversial, so it got that level of noise. Other FTAs may not get the same level of noise but it doesn’t mean we will not engage the stakeholders. The TPPA process taught us to engage with all different stakeholders although it was overstretching our resources. But we needed to do that.
The Treasury introduced 53 measures to cut costs early this year. Shouldn’t the government plug the leakages and stop the existing wastage first?
Miti has always been conscious about how we spend our money. Miti does not have a big budget; we are frugal, we don’t do things lavishly. If you come to a Miti function, you can see it is very simple. When we spend our money, we must show returns on the money that we spent. I would like to think through the meetings we have at KSU level and with KSN, there is always that reminder to all of us to be careful on how we spend and to be responsible. I think the civil service and the civil servants to a large extent are responsible and not spend unnecessarily.
How has these measures affect travels of your officers since they travel quite extensively for work?
Our team is normally very lean. When our negotiators go to a meeting, they have to be able to cover two or three things, they are well briefed when they go. When my minister travel, he travels with two officers only, one from his office and one from the core team. Sometimes my minister will travel only with one officer because we already have officers stationed in our overseas offices. That is part of Miti’s practice.
You said Miti is a stressful and highly demanding place. How do you handle stress?
I am religious. I take time to reflect and pray. I take time out, say my prayers, breath deeply. I do a lot of reflection early in the morning before breakfast. That has been my practice all through my life, as far as I can remember; even when I am travelling. That quiet time is morning, my most important time to prepare me for the day.
Do you not feel a tinge of sadness that you are leaving all this behind? Has it struck you that you are really retiring?
I joke about retiring: On July 2, I become Cinderella – because I had my driver and car and people waiting on me. All those trappings would be gone on July 2. But I would have a pumpkin!
I suppose in the back of my mind, I know I cannot be secretary-general forever. You must be grounded.
So, how do I keep myself grounded? My friends from way back who don’t care about my title and position. They just call me Becky, or at home, I am just Aunty Becca. I also drive myself on weekends and I have never had a live-in maid all my life.
I suppose, you must realise at some point that you are just ordinary citizen X. Being in Miti, there is not much of a power distance, there is no protocol, it doesn’t go to your head. At the end of the day you all go down to your basics. You must not let power go to your head.