Interview with Dato’ Seri Maimunah Sharif: Changing the World – City by City

By Ooi Kee Beng

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Penang Monthly celebrated the appointment of Dato’ Seri Maimunah Sharif as Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) over a year ago by publishing an interview (April 2018) with her about her hopes and dreams in taking on that highly prestigious position. Now based in Nairobi, she has had an exciting year, with much already achieved, and with much more to achieve in the future. We caught up with her recently while she was back in Penang, where she has been the first woman president of the Municipal Council of Seberang Perai and mayor of the City Council of Penang Island; and had her on our Penang Institute Chats. We also managed to squeeze in a short interview with her about her highly influential work.

Ooi Kee Beng: Welcome home, Dato’ Seri Maimunah. Good to see you again after 13 months. Can you tell our curious readers, many of whom are Penang people who are very proud of your achievements so far, about your recent experiences working for the UN?

Maimunah Mohd Sharif: Happily. I can tell them about what I have achieved, the challenges involved and what I have learned over the last year.

When I first arrived in Nairobi, I was an outsider. I had no experience in UN work, and the first thing I had to do was to be seen and to be accepted by my staff. Already during the swearing-in ceremony, I was told by the Secretary-General that I was to carry out a long-pending governance reform for UN-Habitat within six months. This meant it was to be done by the end of June.

Suggestions for such a reform had been going back and forth between Nairobi and New York for 14 years. They were always rejected. Well, on June 26, I submitted my proposal, and on November 23, the UN general assembly endorsed it. So, I see that as one of my major achievements so far. This governance reform was something that could not be done under the three preceding executive directors.

Why do you think you could manage it?

I think I could do it because I worked together with the member states. In the UN, if one of them had raised their hand at the assembly to say that they did not agree with the proposal, that was the end of it. So I think it was my negotiation skills, and my budget planning, which did it. We are the secretariat, so we communicated a lot with the member states. I think we built up enough trust between the organisation and the member states. Trust is very important.

At the end of May, we will be holding the first UN-Habitat assembly in Nairobi, the first ever; 193 member states will be there, and the theme will be “Innovation in Accelerating in Implementing the New Urban Agenda”. The two sub-themes will be “Affordable housing” and “Mobility”. It will be a very big event with many side events; and the subjects being discussed will be closely related to Malaysia and Penang. Penang Institute should come – at my invitation.

The second thing I did was to form a task force after contacting and discussing with all my branches. I had to do that by Skype with certain remote units.

Also, when I took over, UN-Habitat was in deficit – US$5.5mil in deficit. You remember, when I took over Seberang Perai as council president, the council was also in deficit, so I had experience of what to do. In Nairobi, we had to deal with the deficit under great financial constraints. We did not have external consultants to rely on, but that turned out to be a blessing. Within UN-Habitat itself, we do have expertise, enough to handle such a problem. It’s a question of bringing back morale – and morals – into the organisation.

While doing this, I was able to look into the organisation’s structure as well and to reform it while dealing with the deficit.

The fourth thing I did was to come up with a new Strategic Plan. The old one was started in 2014 and will end this year, 2019. There was no New Urban Agenda back then, so this new Strategic Plan will be based on the new structure, and will tackle the urban crisis and include the New Urban Agenda in it.

So these are the four achievements I have managed in the last year: getting UNGA endorsement for the governance structure of UN-Habitat; putting UN-Habitat through a transformative change to fix the budget deficit and other matters; looking into the organisational and communication structure involving all member countries; and finally, getting the Strategic Plan done within a year.

As a German colleague said, these are the quadruplets I gave birth to this first year [Laughs].

You are ahead of schedule then?

Yes, but we have to get the Plan ready for approval by the end of May.

Something else I would like to share with your readers, Dato’, is that in August, I received a congratulatory letter from the Secretary-General on my leadership. I am very proud of that, but at the same time, I think it is also an affirmation of Penang, where I worked for so long. I am also a team player so it is an acknowledgement not only of me but of my team as well.

Maimunah with the mayor of Penang Island, Datuk Ar. Yew Tung Seang.

You hit the ground running, didn’t you?

My people say something else. They say, “ED, you hit the ground running which is full of potholes, and in one year you have managed to fill quite a few of the holes.” I took over an organisation in deficit, but I have so far managed to raise US$3.9mil.

So your deficit is almost gone.

It’s still there – US$500,000. But the year ends only at the end of March, so we’ll see.

Any big disappointments this last year?

In any organisation, of course you want things to be done fast. In the UN, there are many rules and regulations. But as the Secretary-General told the meeting of executive directors, we have to decentralise. That is also what the Malaysian government, after the change in government last year, needs to do – decentralise.

In the UN, all major decisions had to go back to New York. I am coming in at a time when there is a lot of delegation of work, but also of accountability. You are empowered but you are accountable.

What I realise that we need in Malaysia when we decentralise is capacity building. In Malaysia and Penang, the understanding of the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda is still very low. Perhaps Penang Institute could help in that.

We do what we can. But perhaps we can get help from UN-Habitat through better understanding of what your organisation experiences; and what your practical problems are in implementing and disseminating those goals.

We have UN-Habitat Centres of Excellence. We have that in Dubai, in Istanbul, in Latin America. We would like to have one in South-east Asia. You remember in our discussion last year that the chief minister then, Mr Lim Guan Eng, who is now finance minister of course, was already suggesting that UN-Habitat should consider starting such a centre in Penang. I just met him; he is still wanting that.

So I would like to work with Penang Institute and others in Malaysia so that we can serve not only Penang and Malaysia but also the whole of Asia Pacific. We already have certain proposals that we will send to the prime minister. One of those concerns the Centre of Excellence.

At the same time, we also have the City Prosperity Index. This is a super tool for assessing the sustainability of a city; it looks at what needs to be done, how to achieve that, and what one should prioritise.

This City Prosperity Index covers 505 cities now. I was in Mexico, and you know, 305 cities in Mexico are on this index. I have talked about this with some Malaysian ministers on this visit, to [Minister of Housing and Local Government] Zuraida Kamaruddin for example; and also to Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow. Chow definitely wants us to work on such an index for Penang.

We have the indicators to study a city. Using them, we can confidently say where Penang is in the global urban sustainability context. The chief minister sees that this can help Penang2030 and provide concrete steps and concepts to align it with how things are being done and being discussed globally, namely the 17 SDGs and the 169 commitments of the New Urban Agenda.

Penang Institute has been sending regular reports to UN-Habitat since you took over concerning innovative changes in urban planning etc. reported globally. I hope those have been useful to you.

Yes, of course. My team treats them as research reports and we use them to see how we can value-add and how we can use the ideas and innovations we find in them. Thank you.

Do you miss your old job? Do you miss Malaysia?

In many ways, my job is still to be mayor. Now, I am mayor in a broader sense. So job-wise, I don’t feel a great change. What I miss is the food.

What’s wrong with Nairobi food?

It’s hard to find food that fits our taste buds, if I may put it that way. So we cook almost every day. Or my husband does. He is there with me now.

But I do love the weather in Nairobi. It’s like being in Cameron Highlands every day – 16 to 20 degrees Celsius, year round. At most, it reaches 24 degrees.

As a last question, any advice for young Malaysians?

People like to say that youths are the leaders of tomorrow. I don’t believe that. I think youths are the leaders of today – and tomorrow. Positive thinking can take you a long way.

They should dream. They should even dream the impossible. Be positive – don’t think you cannot do it. Try your best. People tell them to think outside the box, I would say think without a box, ya? Keep on dreaming. But you dream by implementing and by working.

People like to say that youths are the leaders of tomorrow. I don’t believe that. I think youths are the leaders of today – and tomorrow. Positive thinking can take you a long way.

Thank you so much, Dato’ Seri Maimunah. I look forward to our next conversation on your further adventures in UN-Habitat.

Thank you so much.

Ooi Kee Beng

is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: