IN her first press conference in Malaysia since assuming the role as executive director of UN-Habitat, Datuk Maimunah Mohd Sharif, had a momentary lapse.
In fielding questions from the local media in Kuala Lumpur earlier this week, she used “we” when asked on certain localised issues. “I have to mindful that I am now speaking in my capacity as a UN representative,” she recalls with a chuckle.
Of course, everyone forgave her for the unintentional slip of the tongue, as Maimunah was just glad to be home after being away for months. Her last trip back to Malaysia was in February for the Ninth Session of the World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur.
She flew into town last Sunday from Hanoi, after concluding yet another official work trip, and has been meeting people non-stop since then but this trip is of great significance as she came back to meet a newly-elected Federal Government.
“I paid courtesy calls to members of the new Malaysian government, and met with other senior officials,” says the affable former mayor of Penang Island City Council who accepted the UN job offer six months after becoming mayor.
In the end, she had separate audiences with the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Defence Minister, Finance Minister, Housing and Local Government Minister, as well as the Climate and Environment Minister, just to name some. Elsewhere, lots of eager beavers were also lining up to pick her mind on a variety of issues. The newly-minted Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, for one, arranged for a private lunch just for the two of them on Friday when she was in Penang to participate in dialogues under Malaysia’s Urban Futures, an initiative of Think City (thinkcity.com.my).
It is known that a senior UN position is nothing short of gruelling, but Maimunah is definitely not showing any sign of strain. One of her immediate tasks includes pushing for a concrete resolution for reforms to the governance and financing structures of UN-Habitat.
“The reform process started in 2004 but did not reach a definite conclusion after 14 years. The UN Secretary-General told me I had until 30 June to complete the task,” she says, illustrating some of the expectations laid on her shoulders.
Basically, she was given only six months to finish the task that entails dealing with 93 ambassadors or country representatives in Nairobi, where UN-Habitat is based. “But praise be to Allah, we managed to conclude the matter by June 26, in time for it to be submitted New York (UN headquarters) so that it could be discussed in September.
That Maimunah, 57, was able to push for some semblance of closure to something that was hanging for 14 years, is a demonstration of her steely resolve that is tempered with a deep calmness and tact.
Penang-based activist Datuk Anwar Fazal, who is currently chairman of Think City, said her successful navigation of the tangled maze of diplomacy and manoeuvring at the global stage can be attributed to 5Cs that Maimunah possesses.
“Firstly, it is due to her competence. She is also caring, lending that listening ear to people. And then, she possesses courage, which is definitely needed for the job. Fortunat ely, she also has lots of charm, which is useful when people are about to ‘whack’ her. And of course, she is creative, yet another essential quality,” says Anwar during the Penang edition of Malaysia’s Urban Futures.
“And just when we thought she was going to blossom here (in Penang), we suddenly lost her to UN,” Anwar adds in good nature shortly before inviting Maimunah to launch his latest book, Our Cities, Our Homes in Penang on Friday.
One thing that struck Maimunah during her trip home is that she constantly has to explain what her work is about, as well as what UN-Habitat stands for. “Not many people know about UN-Habitat (unhabitat.org) apparently. Many know about Unicef, UNHCR, but not Habitat, which is entering its 40th year.”
Whatever the case, she is now fully immersed into her job, which calls for more than just being a salesperson for UN-Habitat.
For Maimunah, urbanisation in itself is neutral. “Urbanisation can be a tool to solve problems if we do it properly. At the same time, it does not mean only skyscrapers. It means giving good quality of life to people. And at the same time, there is the improve things in the countryside so that things like housing, healthcare, education and the like are improved. If this is the case, then there is no reason for people to migrate to cities. With all these, we can then have climate resilience,” she says in elaborating how UN-Habitat supports the localisation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), a priority she would like to include in the next strategic plan, something she is in the midst of.
Indeed, changing the way things are done, or corporate governance, weighs heavily on her mind. According to her, basically every city she visited in recent times is talking about the need for internal reforms revolving around governance and financials, including agencies affiliated to the UN.
“People are talking about new approaches to looking into cities. There should no longer be any compartmentalisation or departmentalisation. In a lot of areas I visited, I saw a lot of silo mentality, with the only question being how large are gaps,” says Maimunah, who frequently refers back to the SDG as the framework guiding her agency.
The SDG was endorsed in 2015 to replace the Millennium Development Goals. With 17 Goals, the SGD itself has its sights trained on 169 targets, though Goal 11 is UN-Habitat’s main preoccupation as it is about sustainable cities and communities.
“The challenge is how to translate the SDG into reality on the ground, how to break it down to the language that every country and continent can understand.
“When I was in Perai (she was the Seberang Perai council president from 2011), we started the move to align things to the SDG, to bring policy to programme to action.”
According to her, progressive cities have set up departments of climate change, mobility, and all things that trend towards breaking down walls. She cites a European city where there is no more distinction between engineering and planning, and people work in teams.
Nonetheless, she acknowledges silo thinking still dominates much of the world, especially in developing countries. “Don’t say that only Malaysia has little Napoleons,” says Maimunah, who started her town planning career with the then Penang Island Municipal Council in 1985.
During her tenure at the Seberang Perai Municipal Council, she pushed for it to be the first local authority here to achieve six quality-based management ISO certifications, other than championing gender‐responsive participatory budgeting and gender responsive participatory planning.
Looking back at her stint in UN, she concedes she has a lot more to learn, such as translating concepts like "Resilience" on the ground so that it could be easily understood components.
She and her colleagues are also taking on collaborative mindsets and well thought-out approaches. “We also want to be a bit of a thinker, be able to demonstrate things on the ground, and partner with various agencies, be it World Bank, the Malaysian government, the private sector or organisations like Think City.
“There are a lot of good practices that I have learned after travelling to so many places. Sometimes we take for granted what we have, when other cities are still struggling with things that are far worse than us,” says Maimunah, who also took time off to attend the George Town Heritage Day celebrations yesterday.
Right after that, she flew off to Singapore to attend the World Cities Summit that begins today, where she will rub shoulders with over 150 mayors and city leaders.
It does seem likely that Maimunah is about to chalk up a lot of frequent flyer miles, if not already so, in her quest to serve her global constituents. In the last four months, she has been to five countries. With more than 2,000 staff worldwide, UN-Habitat has 59 offices, as well as four regional offices (one in Bangkok and Fukuoka, respectively).
“I have 90 more (member states) to go. I don’t even know whether I could finish visiting the other 90 over the next four years,” she remarks in half-jest.
Looks like Maimunah will be living out of a suitcase for a while, even as she strives to create a better habitat for everyone else.