Putting all into the job

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Ooi giving a speech at the Tourism Malaysia Australia Roadshow in Melbourne.

What is required of a woman today to create an effective organisation, and sell and market new ideas? According to managing director of Penang Global Tourism Ooi Geok Ling, it’s all about striving to excel, strong personal convictions and staying focused.

It is a dog eat dog world in sales. But whether you’re selling concrete or a destination, the same values ought to be present, such as honesty, perseverance and a strong sense of duty. That is the conviction of Ooi Geok Ling, the managing director of Penang Global Tourism (PGT), which the state bureau set up six years ago to promote tourism for the state.

Ooi Geok Ling.

I met up with Ooi in July for a chat and found myself instantly inspired by her tenacity. Indeed, running a bureau that has the very heavy and exciting task of taking to a higher level an industry that is vital to Penang’s economic future is not for the faint-hearted. Being a woman on such a job does not make it easier. For one thing, malicious reporting is to be expected.

“There was a full-page coloured article in one of the local Chinese newspapers which was a personal attack,” she told me, reflecting back on the early days on the job. We were in her car – she was rushing to a meeting with Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and we were making use of the trip to complete my interview. “The article argued that the turnover rate was too high. The thing is, many had sought positions at PGT thinking of glamour and nothing else, and left after realising how much work is involved. The truth is, at least four of those who quit officially asked for their jobs back soon afterwards. But I did learn that what I have is a very public job, hence all the scrutiny.”

Before taking the helm at the thennew PGT, Ooi, who has a BSc in Education majoring in Physics, was in the construction business. “My physics major helped me tremendously, so I wasn’t intimidated by terminological jargon like what impact resistance on concrete was or what tensile strength was. But to be honest, I did doubt myself when I got into sales as a young woman. For one thing, I had to distinguish between that and marketing. I was a marketing and sales executive; I actually did both and had to close sales and market what I was selling.”

What was it like moving from construction to PGT? “You would think it’s a jump – it does seem disjointed – but I have not felt that at all,” she said. “I was sometimes criticised for saying that the job is the same – marketing is marketing. But I simply saw similarities in both the construction business and the tourism business – and maybe this was because of my optimistic side. I don’t look at what’s difficult to do. When I came in, I was thinking, ‘How am I going to start an organisation?’”

At the Penang product update and networking session in Singapore.

Ooi accepted the challenge of – and derived pleasure from – starting something from nothing. “I was blessed that I had the opportunity, that somebody believed I could do it. And if there’s anything I’m proud of after five years, it is that I’ve not only turned PGT into an effective organisation – I like to believe I’ve created a culture here. I would hate to have created a shell of an organisation that hasn’t got soul.”

Her zeal for the job is evident as she spoke of love and sacrifice, and how one needs to think outside the box to excel at something. “Everybody can come to work, 9 to 5. But at the end of the day, you need to go back and think about what you’ve achieved. You have to use creativity to think about how you can make something better. That’s the distinguishing feature.” She wrinkles her nose at those who spend their time merely covering their backs, something quite prevalent these days – and she appreciates those who go the extra mile.

“Laziness is something that is very transparent. People don’t seem to realise that. I think Penang is one of those places where values mean something. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s the water,” Ooi added with a laugh. “It’s as simple as honesty or a sense of duty – innate values. You would think that is just common sense. If you are prone to cheat, and others are prone to cheat you, what would that make the world? I don’t fancy living in such a place.”

Then there’s the mammoth task of managing limited funds as effectively as possible. Back in 2010, PGT started out with a small allocation of RM4mil. That has since increased to around RM7mil this year. “You make do with what you have,” said Ooi, who delights in being resourceful. “We had insufficient funding and we couldn’t spread it out too thin or we’d risk losing the ‘wow’ factor. My job is to evaluate how and where to spend. Because of my familiarity with the Singaporean market, I proposed to start off there with an RM600,000 campaign in 2011.” This quickly led to the peoplecentric “My Penang, My Experience” posters and promotional spaces at the Dhoby Ghaut MRT station in Singapore, and a bus plying Orchard Road bearing advertisements of the campaign.

Everybody can come to work, 9 to 5. But at the end of the day, you need to go back and think about what you’ve achieved. You have to use creativity to think about how you can make something better. That’s the distinguishing feature.”

“This year, we had the campaign in Hong Kong. Being in business, you need to seize opportunities at the right moment. The Spotlight Hong Kong event was held in Penang in early June and we were talking to the organisers, the Hong Kong Fringe Club, when it all clicked. We asked Joe (Sidek, of George Town Festival fame) if he’d like to showcase George Town Festival, and within a very short time – we planned the whole thing under a month – and with a small cost, we managed to carry out the campaign earlier in July. We found the right partners to work with, simply put.”

Ooi with the Chief Minister at the Dr Wu Lien-Teh Commemorative Symposium earlier this year.

And selling to places like Singapore and Hong Kong may mean a switch in the type of tourists who visit Penang – from rugged backpackers to more affluent globetrotters who voyage for different reasons. “Travellers have different psyches, and we also happen to have the right product – the Unesco World Heritage Site,” she said. “At first I was apprehensive about how the beach hotels would react, but after discussions with a few general managers, I found that they agreed that the way to go right now is to rebrand Penang and sell it from the heritage point of view. And although we may be selling heritage, the beach hotels – not just the town hotels – are also enjoying high occupancy rates because it doesn’t hurt for tourists to wake up to a nice view. So say what you like – our waters may be infested with jellyfish sometimes, but the whole Batu Ferringhi stretch is still beautiful.”

Our heritage site spreads over 250 hectares. Even if you say there’s nothing to do, there’s still 250 hectares of heritage site to see. Then you have those who prefer to see the old Penang – what they think of as the real Penang.

Launching the "my Penang" campaign in Hong Kong in July.

But it is not possible to satisfy everyone. On one hand, some travellers say that there’s nothing to do in Penang, and on the other, you have those who complain that it’s already too touristy. “Our heritage site spreads over 250 hectares. Even if you say there’s nothing to do, there’s still 250 hectares of heritage site to see. Then you have those who prefer to see the old Penang – what they think of as the real Penang.”

This brings us to another topic that is of much concern to many Penangites – is George Town at risk of becoming over-commercialised? How is a balance to be kept? Ooi spoke openly on this subject, and laughed that she might be the wrong person heading tourism because she doesn’t believe in the kind of tourism that destroys a place. “You have something natural that Unesco wants to protect as a world heritage site, so you don’t then create something for somebody else. I think that’s the negative side of tourism. But to some extent, you can’t avoid it. People want to survive, and they will do whatever it takes. If we went back in time, we would instead see a lot of bars because we used to have sailors who came here because we were a trading port.

“Businesses will always cater to demand. Right now, there is a demand for souvenirs. Hopefully there will be some kind of balance in the future where people want to buy things of higher quality.

As we start to attract more discerning visitors – they don’t necessarily have to be affluent – with any luck, we’ll start to see better quality, artful products.” As we neared Komtar, I asked Ooi one last question: Does she wish she could have done anything better?

She didn’t hesitate. “I can say without batting an eyelid that I’ve done everything I possibly could have given the odds. I put my whole being into the job, and it’s that sense of achievement that I will carry with me.”

Hopefully, the legacy she has created – the work culture at PGT – will carry on in coming years

Julia "Bubba" Tan is assistant editor for Penang Monthly. She would like to explore Japanese literature beyond Haruki Murakami and is currently reading Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country, which she nds is as cold as it sounds.



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