Editor’s Note: In conjunction with 2018 being the year of women empowerment in Malaysia, here is our first feature story to highlight some of our women’s contribution in their respective fields.
By YEOH LIN LIN
Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hassan Shahabudin… if the length of her name (with well-deserved titles) has not taken the breath out of you, wait till you read about her accomplishments!
Much has been written about Dr Sharifah; a quick Google search will reveal her many professional achievements. Read her biography Sharifah Hapsah: Inspiring Futures and you will be amazed at all that this 70-year-old, 7th child in a family of 13 siblings, wife, mother and grandmother has achieved.
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A medical graduate from the University of Malaya in 1973, she went on to be the first woman Vice Chancellor (VC) of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) in 2006, a position she held for seven years.
Listening to her share her journey, which included being the chairperson and chief executive officer of the National Accreditation Board, the president of the National Council of Women’s Organisations, consultant to various key international agencies like the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNESCO, it was not ambition that was the driving force behind her achieving these positions.
It was simply “doing my best” – a loaded attribute that all of us can adopt.
Here are seven leadership nuggets I took away from my conversation with her.
#1: Make your decision, stay the course, do well
Dr Sharifah got her first test early when she was still a student.
She was very interested in law but being a bright student, she was placed in the Science stream. In those days, that meant doing Law (an Art discipline) was out of the question. Medicine became a natural choice.
“Not that I didn’t like it. It was okay for me. Now that I was in medical school I made a choice to do my best and graduate well,” she said, and well, she did.
For all of us, life is indeed a journey full of decisions to make. Thoroughly weigh the pros and cons. Be confident that’s what we want to do. Once we take that path, we must move forward and say “I shall do the best in this path”.
#2: Courage to walk the uncharted path
Dr Sharifah had an unusual career path. As a medical doctor, the normal path would be to specialise in one of the clinical areas of practice.
However, due to the demands of family life (primarily her son who needed medical attention), she decided to move to the academia and pursue a non-clinical medicine career. She chose to step into a new discipline called medical education.
Her foray into medical education led her into a new world of accreditation and quality assurance. Despite challenges, she pursued her mission relentlessly.
Today, her name is synonymous with accreditation and quality assurance of higher education. She was instrumental in preparing the regulatory framework for the Malaysian Qualifications Framework (MQF) and the establishment of the Malaysian Qualifcations Agency (MQA).
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#3: Inclusive, Consultative, Transparent (ICT)
Dr Sharifah’s style of leadership can be coded as ICT, which entails horizontal communication. She involves all parties that matter.
It is an approach where:
- people are valued for their expertise and included in the work to be done (inclusive).
- views are exchanged and consulted (consultative).
- plans and actions are taken to serve the greater good of everyone and not any individual’s special interest or need (transparent).
When Dr Sharifah was appointed the VC of UKM, one of the first things she did was to bring together her professors and heads of department, identify their strengths, put them in multidisciplinary grouping and get them to focus on a goal. “Diversity in grouping is very important to me,” said the professor.
#4:Trumpet your strengths
“Asians generally shy away from trumpeting their strengths. If you do something well and someone needs help in an area you’re familiar with, raise your hand and say, ‘I do this well and I can show you’,” said Dr Sharifah.
Recognised for her expertise, Dr Sharifah was made consultant to various international agencies. She was asked to deliver keynote speeches, to be chief rapporteur and to organise international conventions, reining in some foreign delegates of high repute.
One of her many key strengths lies in her capability to put together summaries and resolutions of a meeting for onward submission the next day.
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#5: Build networks
A strong believer of building networks, Dr Sharifah practises smart partnerships through strategic networking.
Her exposure and active participation at international conferences, editorial board, workshops and global meetings helped in her personal development as well as the constituents she serves.
“When you do your work well and you speak at conferences, you build contacts. These contacts will then recommend you into their networks and in due time, your presence at such global forums would be sought-after,” she said, citing the example of how she got on to the WHO and UNESCO networks.
To her, making a name for herself at international agencies means boosting not only her reputation but that of her organisation and country. She subscribes to the adage that no man is an island. She believes that “mountains can be moved if one has good networks and the strategy to use it”.
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#6: Do everything with passion
“You cannot do something without passion, because then you will never be good. You must have the internal drive to want to excel. For me, if you do something, you must either be at the top or at least, one of the top achievers,” said Dr Sharifah.
#7: Always do the right thing with integrity
“You must go with your heart. The action should not hurt anyone; it should not do more damage. If there is going to be a little bit of harm, then the harm should bring more good than harm later on. You should not make popular decisions, but the right ones.”
Wise words from one who has gone through turbulent times at different phases of her leadership journey.
On his portrait presented to Dr Sharifah, Malaysia’s beloved former Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman wrote this message:
“… to take care of this nation as a mother, wife, intellectual and patriot”.
Dr Sharifah seems to have fulfilled her responsibilities beyond the expectations of the late Tunku.
And we could possibly strive to emulate some bits of it as we continue on our journey to be better individuals and leaders in our own circle of influence.
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Lin Lin is the editor behind the Leaderonomics Bahasa Malaysia website. Of Chinese ethnicity, trained in Bahasa Malaysia, and with a stomach for Indian cuisine, she likes to think that she is an embodiment of the muhibbah spirit of Malaysia. She writes occasionally for her own musing and is thrilled when it gets published!