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Rafiah Salim

Rafiah Ready for "National Service"

22 Apr 2006:
Sarban Singh

For the first time in 57 years, Universiti Malaya will be headed by a woman. When Datuk Rafiah Salim takes over on May 1, she will be bring with her an impressive list of credentials that includes stints in banking, the United Nations and, of course, academia. She speaks to SARBAN SINGH about the road that has taken her back to UM.

Datuk Rafiah Salim regards her new appointment in what is considered the premier university in the land as national service.

This very well describes the persona of the first woman vice-chancellor of an institution which has been headed by men since inception in 1949.

"As far as I am concerned, it’s national service ... a call to serve the nation," said Rafiah, who was in Mecca performing her umrah when informed of the appointment.

Rafiah has always been there when the nation needed her.

When Bank Negara wanted her as an assistant governor, she gave up a lucrative job in Malayan Banking.

It was the same in 2003, when Bank Negara governor and mentor, Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz, asked her to lead the International Centre for Leadership in Finance, a subsidiary of the central bank.

Established by a guarantee with a grant of RM500 million, ICLIF, Zeti’s brainchild was aimed at accelerating capacity building of senior management in the financial sector and corporations in Malaysia and around the world.

Again Rafiah did not hesitate and gave up the influential post of United Nations assistant secretary-general in charge of human resources.

The Kuala-Krai born is looking forward to returning to UM where she served with flying colours as its law faculty dean — another first for a woman.

The ICLIF chief executive officer is very well suited for the job with her impressive curriculum vitae.

The widely-travelled Rafiah can easily fit the "been-there-done-that" bill having dealt with Governments, leaders, world’s top CEOs, administrators, undergraduates and trade unionists in the course of her work.

A product of Belfast’s Queens University, law has always been her metier.

Starting off as a lecturer at Universiti Malaya, the mother of four counts Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil, Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Azalina Othman Said, Attorney-General Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail and several senior judges among her students.

Her love for the law books never stopped Rafiah from pursuing her other interests which included people management.

When Rafiah, who is married to businessman and chartered accountant Selamat Bajuri, was offered the position of general manager of the human resources department with Maybank, the country’s largest bank in 1991 with 15,000 employees, she grabbed it. She implemented a job evaluation and grading system and improvised the payroll system for the Maybank group which had a RM23 million monthly wage bill then.

She was instrumental in formulating the bank’s corporate direction, mission, vision and core values and headed a task force assigned to change Maybank’s corporate logo. While still with the bank, Rafiah was elected Malaysian Commercial Banks Association head.

It was during her time that the MCBA managed to sign a collective agreement with the National Union of Bank Employees — the 28,000-strong and most influential worker representative body in the country which practically made up the powerful Malaysian Labour Organisation then — without having to go to court.

Within a few years, she became an authority on people management and her opinions were regularly sought.

A product of the prestigious Tunku Kurshiah College and the Victoria Institution, Rafiah’s ability to reinvent the human resources division of Maybank was noticed.

She was set for bigger things which began when she was appointed Bank Negara assistant governor four years later.

Her immediate tasks included right-sizing the central bank’s work-force by almost 40 per cent, re-strategising with change management at its core, establishing competency models, revamping the training portfolio and designing a more current training syllabus.

Whenever she was invited to speak at conferences on related issues, she would always remind employers to recognise the need to put their human resource representatives in top management committees and boardrooms.

When there are no human resources managers in these committees, she argued, the management of human resources would be effectively separated from the heartbeat of the organisation. This would effectively derail efforts to implement changes for the betterment of the organisation.

She would remind the services industry that they should invest in human capital and have a proper succession planning pipeline to keep pace with the onslaught of competition.

Her effective and proven style of doing things did not escape the discerning eyes of the authorities. So it was no surprise when the astute and agile chairman of the sub-committee on advancement of women in the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry was appointed assistant secretary-general in charge of human resources at the UN in 1997.

She did not cringe when told that her job would require her to travel to war stricken capitals such as Sarajevo, Addis Ababa, Asmara, Nairobi, Brazzaville, Beirut and Palestine.

Although she described her tour of duty at the UN as her most challenging having to "deal with people from 191 nations", she passed with flying colours.

"It was an experience like no other. I was working with so many people from so many countries. Although I must admit that it was there I harnessed and sharpened my interpersonal skills, it was also where I went through the most stress," she said.

Her agenda at the world body with a workforce of 9,000 with 5,000 in New York alone, was no different: Improve staff productivity and cut costs.

With the UN mired in deep financial crisis caused largely by the US’ failure to pay US$1.5 billion (RM5.65 billion) in arrears, she had an arduous "but not insurmountable task ahead of me".

In her five years there, she conceptualised reforms, implemented the managerial development programme, introduced core values and managerial competencies in all aspects of human resources management.

She also introduced an electronic human resources handbook for better staff mobility.

When the Government decided to set up an international body to help train CEOs and managers in the face of increasing competition brought about by globalisation, the most eligible candidate at the helm was Rafiah.

This was also to ensure the local and regional financial organisations and the corporate sector were resilient in meeting these challenges.

So in March 2003, Zeti made her an offer she could not refuse — lead ICLIF.

Under Rafiah’s stewardship, ICLIF managed to establish networks with the best learning institutions in the world which included the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management (Claremont Graduate University), Marshall School of Business (University of Southern California), Harvard Business School, Harvard Medical School, University of California Los Angeles and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Rafiah, a strong advocate of effective human capital development, says many CEOs often overlook this sector.

"Except for Petronas and the financial institutions which are required to have proper succession planning under the Bafia Act, I will be surprised if there are companies with proper succession planning models.

"Many have not thought about this. In fact, whenever there is a downturn, the first spending that is cut is always for training when the actual fact is that it is the time you should be retraining your employees," she said.

With such unrivalled enthusiasm and armed with a titanic-load of experience, Rafiah will surely take UM back to new heights.

Sunday May 7, 2006

Rafiah to get down to business


PETALING JAYA: The bouquets and congratulatory messages have not stopped arriving for newly appointed Universiti Malaya (UM) vice-chancellor Datuk Rafiah Salim.

This is largely due to the excitement generated by the fact that she is the first woman picked to head a public university.

“I have been receiving so many flowers both at my house and former office. I’ve been told that there are more bouquets at my UM office too,” said the affable Rafiah, who officially starts work tomorrow.

When met at her house yesterday, she was busy preparing for her first day, which promises to be hectic – she plans to get down to business straightaway by meeting the deans, heads of academic centres, masters of residential colleges and staff unions as well as student representatives.

Rafiah is aware that her “outsider” status means she may not be welcomed with open arms by everyone.

However, she is confident of receiving full support in her efforts to strengthen UM.

“I am counting on the loyalty of UM staff to the university. My role is to harness their enthusiasm to build and improve the university further. Vice-chancellors come and go but UM lives on,” she said.

She has already met with her two predecessors – Datuk Prof Dr Hashim Yaacob and Datuk Prof Dr Anuar Zaini Mohd Zain, whom she regards as friends.

And she worked under Royal Prof Ungku Aziz, the doyen of UM vice-chancellors, when she was in the university’s Law Faculty in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I hope to get guidance from him. After all he was my boss and so was his daughter (Bank Negara governor Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz).

Rafiah was executive director of the International Centre for Leadership in Finance, a brainchild of Dr Zeti, and was lecturer and deputy dean at the Law Faculty before her appointment as dean.

She has also served as an assistant governor of Bank Negara and assistant secretary-general for human resource management in the United Nations in New York.

Her selection is especially significant in the light of the Wan Zahid Higher Education Report, released recently. The report’s recommendations include more openness and greater academic freedom at public universities.

“Of course this is a good thing, but autonomy must come with responsibility and accountability,” said Rafiah, who has six children and three grandchildren.

Rafiah believes she has been picked partly because of her skills in people management, changing the work culture and reforming organisations.

“I have been given the mandate to improve UM’s position in the world rankings, develop it into a research university and internationalise the university.”

She regards herself as a “catalyst” in this transformation.

“I am already 59. I may not be able to achieve all this during my two-year term but I can begin with the planning to make this a reality.”

Tuesday May 9, 2006

Leadership is Rafiah's forte

KUALA LUMPUR: It was her leadership ability that got her the Universiti Malaya (UM) vice-chancellor post, not academic credentials, acknowledged Datuk Rafiah Salim.

“My appointment was timely; it was not by accident, but by design. I was chosen because it was thought that my skills in changing work culture and in managing people would benefit the university,” she said, adding that the brilliance of UM academic staff coupled with her people-management and administrative experience would lead to synergy.

Rafiah outlined two main challenges facing UM: to rectify the public’s perception that the university has gone down in terms of academic standing, and to position it as the country’s premier research university.

“My colleagues have done a thorough analysis of what aspects need to be improved. We will harness our strengths and improve on the shortcomings,” she told journalists yesterday at her first press conference as vice-chancellor.

On becoming the first woman to head a public university, Rafiah said: “I know that some people find it difficult to accept that.

“My appointment was based on the fact that I was the best candidate for the job. My gender is irrelevant. And don’t forget the members of the (selection) committee were of one gender (male).”

Rafiah became the ninth vice-chancellor of UM, replacing Prof Datuk Dr Hashim Yaacob whose three-year term ended last month. She was chosen by a five-member selection committee set up for the purpose of selecting his replacement.

She was formerly executive director of the International Centre for Leadership in Finance, and had served as lecturer, deputy dean and dean of the UM Law Faculty from 1974 to 1988.

Rafiah considers her new job a form of national service.

“This will be my last posting. Before I leave, I will do my best to ensure that the people in UM are capable of taking over after me,” she said.

It was a busy first day for Rafiah yesterday.

Other than seeing the deans and heads of centres, she also met up with members of the research university assessment panel tasked with auditing UM’s research capability. This follows the announcement in the Ninth Malaysia Plan that four institutions will be made research universities.

Commenting on the recently-released Wan Zahid Higher Education Report, Rafiah hoped that the recommendations on better remuneration for academic staff would be implemented.

“Brilliant people deserve to be (better) remunerated if we want to keep them here and to attract others into academia. As it is, the attrition rate is going up, especially in the Medical Faculty,” she said.

On the Akujanji or loyalty pledge for academic staff, Rafiah said this was the norm for an employee in any organisation.

“It is not asking you to do anything bad. It is a code of conduct that you need to be answerable to,” she said.

She added that she would try to build greater transparency in the promotion of academic staff “as it is part of good governance.”

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