Mayor of the World

Interview (January 3, 2018, Komtar) with Dato’ Maimunah Sharif, then-mayor of Penang and newly installed Executive Director of UN Habitat, based in Nairobi

Dato' Maimunah Mohd Sharif with the children of Mathare.

On December 22, 2017, the mayor of Penang, Dato’ Maimunah Mohd Sharif, was appointed Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She was only six months into her position as mayor. (She was sworn in on July 1, 2017).

After George Town was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in July 2008, she was given the responsibility to set up George Town World Heritage Incorporated. She was also the first woman to be appointed president of the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP), which took place in 2011, and is now the first Asian and first woman to lead and manage UN-Habitat, headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya.

She was voted in as president of the Malaysian Association of Local Authorities (MALA) in 2012.

For her remarkable contributions to Penang and Seberang Perai, she received several awards and honours from the Penang state government, the government of Malaysia and international organisations, such as Planner of the Year 2014 from the Malaysia Institute of Planners, and the Global Human Settlements Outstanding Contribution Award at the Global Forum on Human Settlements held in Quito, Equador.

Editor Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng chatted with her a couple of weeks before she left for Africa.

Dato' Maimunah Mohd Sharif.

Ooi Kee Beng: Congratulations on your well-deserved nomination to become the executive director for UN-Habitat. This new job will bring great changes to you and to your family. There must be a lot of question marks in your head at the moment about the next few years – living in Nairobi and travelling around the world as a top representative of the UN. Are you excited?

Maimunah Sharif: I am excited, but I also have mixed feelings about it at the moment – excited to join a new organisation, mixed feelings about leaving Penang. It’s only been six months since I became mayor of Penang Island; I took over only on July 1. I had a lot of plans to be executed this coming year. I have tried to continue with the projects I inherited from Datuk Patahiyah Ismail. During these past months, a lot has happened – what with the September 15 floods, the October 21 landslide, the November storm and floods, and a few other things.

You have not been mayor of Penang very long, and from what I hear, you were just about to implement new ways of doing things, and new projects to develop Penang. Leaving all that now cannot be an easy matter for you. How are you dealing with it?

I have a lot of plans that are to start being implemented this month, actually. I have mixed feelings also because I don’t know what awaits me in the UN. What are the challenges? The portfolio and the platform are totally different from what I have been doing. In Penang, I am at home and the platform is comfortable culturally. Over in Nairobi, we are talking about a global context.

Not only will I be the first Asian to have the position of executive director, I will also be the first woman to hold that position. From the messages I have been receiving the last few days via email and Twitter, the expectations on me are very high. It is also because I am a woman.

You will be representing not only Penang and Malaysia, but also South-East Asia. In fact, you are the first Asian to be offered this important job. How does that feel, and how do you think you can bring the Asian or the South-East Asian experience into the equation?

The expectations will be different. Over there, the expectations are global, and they will be coming from all the member states of the UN, and from within UN-Habitat.

Not only will I be the first Asian to have the position of executive director, I will also be the first woman to hold that position. From the messages I have been receiving the last few days via email and Twitter, the expectations on me are very high. It is also because I am a woman.

I was involved in the preparation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the New Urban Agenda (NUA) from the very beginning.

If you look deep into it, the SDGs are all about urbanisation and development. Maybe it was because of my background as a town planner and mayor who made herself internationally known which made them choose me to be the new executive director.

In Nairobi, they might be anxious about having a non-politician woman leader. I was taken aback when I was talking to them about my accommodation in Nairobi. They were expecting a fussy woman, which I’m not. I think they were very happy to realise that I’m very easy-going and are looking forward to work with me.

Many Asian countries are rising economically, and this is bound to influence how UN-Habitat will function. In many ways, Malaysia is neutral ground, and a Malaysian taking this position is an opportunity for smaller Asian countries to have a voice.

Yes. I also think that UN-Habitat should at least have a liaison and information office. Asia is booming and urbanising, so there is good reason to have an office here.

Dato' Maimunah Mohd Sharif meets with James Macharia, Cabinet Secretary for Transport Infrastructure, Housing and Urban Development at the Ministry of Land in Nairobi, Kenya.

Urbanisation is taking place at an extremely fast rate. This puts a lot of pressure on governments and economies, not to mention the natural ecology. Having been president of MPSP and then mayor of Penang would have attuned you to many of the problems that face modern cities, especially in the developing world.

Whenever I was given a slot to speak, I tended to be very loud – like at the UN, I said: “Look, in implementing the SDGs and NUA, you don’t just do it at the national or regional level. You must include the mayors.”

Mayors are the only local authority that can actually implement projects to achieve all the goals. That’s what I have always said – don’t leave the mayors behind. People are sending me videos of what I said in various speeches and conferences. These were taken in Bangkok, Stockholm, New York, Seoul and Surabaya, where I advocated the engagement of people on the ground and advised everyone not to leave mayors behind.

So now people are watching and they want to see whether I walk the talk or not. I think these are the challenges on the global level.

People listened to my speeches, and now they send me the videos. There were two from when I was in Stockholm talking about public spaces, asking for the return of public spaces to the people. I said that a city is for everyone.

The city is for the people, and people are for the city. A city without people is a city without a soul. They sent the videos to me and congratulated me, saying, “We are very excited to have a mayor who will fight for the people on the ground, and we really hope and believe that SDGs and NUA will materialise at the local level.”

I think that is the transformation that I would like to bring about. However, projects are funded and sponsors may have their own reasons for investing the money. I cannot act as a mayor all the time; I have to strike a balance.

UN-Habitat Executive Director Dato' Maimunah Mohd Sharif on a meet the people tour of Mathare in Nairobi, Kenya.

I would like to see how I, as executive director, can push the organisation in the direction I want, at the central, regional and local levels.

The mantra of the SDG is “Leave no one behind”. Now, the SDG goals include items like poverty, economy, gender, climate change, etc. So I cannot only focus on the environment – I have to learn to jump between the environment and economics, for example.

What are your ideas about the continuing urbanisation of humanity in the world, and the ecological challenges this brings?

In certain countries, people are simply hoping to have a roof on their heads and food on the table. When we touch on climate change and the environment, we can’t push things too hard in such areas. I have to look, observe and work for a balance. At a certain time, I may have to act like a politician, sometimes like a mayor and sometimes like a mother. I have to observe carefully and yet make my decision quickly.

Most UN projects focus on poorer countries. People often say urbanisation is a bad thing, but I would like people to realise that urbanisation is actually an opportunity for a better life. If there was no urbanisation, then infrastructure wouldn’t get built. Only through urbanisation can we create better facilities.

Will you be taking any co-workers with you to Nairobi?

I am still unsure about bringing any Malaysians along. I have to look at the situation first, and then decide whether I need extra help or not in Nairobi. The UN-Habitat staff on the list they have sent me come from all over the world. So I will have to adapt quickly to this new work place, to the culture and to the environment. I am told by HR in New York that I will have to travel, and I am monitoring the plans and resolutions that are already in place.

"At a certain time, I may have to act like a politician, sometimes like a mayor and sometimes like a mother." – Dato' Maimunah Mohd Sharif

My style of management is through a team – I can’t do it alone. My team members must be trained and be well-equipped, and have the capacity to build and to imagine.

During my time in MPSP, I faced financial difficulties the way UN-Habitat is facing now. Someone just sent me a newspaper cutting questioning how the new UN-Habitat executive director can bring back financial stability to the organisation. All I can say right now is that at MPSP, I did my own research, and also looked through the financial reports in order and studied the situation for myself. Through that, I was able to achieve quite a lot. I think I will use the same method and apply what I have learned from my experiences in the MPSP. I use collaborations and partnerships to fund projects – that brought financial stability to the organisation.

I have to do some research and have some discussions with our Beijing office in order to understand how we can get China, for example, to collaborate more with UN-Habitat.

How will this move affect your family members? You just moved into the Mayor’s Residence and must now repack and move back to your own home before packing to move to Nairobi. How is that going?

This is a huge and exciting change for my family. I did discuss with my husband about the offer; he is fine with it and he would like to tag along if I am travelling to the countries that he hasn’t visited yet. He would also like to join NGOs that will make him stay closer to me. My elder daughter is with the WWF and will try to get a transfer to New York. My younger daughter is finishing her diploma course soon and is planning to do her bachelor’s degree in Nairobi.

Does the state of Penang, being a small secondary city, provide insights that you think you can bring to your work on the global stage? Will the case of Malaysia, in general, with our multicultural and multi-religious landscape, help in your new work, do you think?

Dato' Maimunah Mohd Sharif at Mathare in Nairobi, Kenya.

Our chief minister, Mr Lim Guan Eng, has always been very supportive. He has always wanted me to accept all UN invitations to be a speaker. He would get upset whenever I turned down an invitation. He is suggesting that I publish as much as possible internationally to make myself more visible. I believe he is hoping to make Penang a centre for education, and has said that he is willing to work with UN-Habitat in projects tied to education.

Thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to talk to PM. Good luck in Nairobi.

Thank you.

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