Building Malaysia Together

Sep 12, 2014 1 Min Read

The time is now

*Editor’s Note: We wish to congratulate Datuk Seri Idris Jala on being just recently named in Bloomberg Markets 50 Most Influential list.

This coming Malaysia Day on Sep 16, I thought it would be nice to hear from an influential leader and native from Sabah/Sarawak.

A name that came to mind was Datuk Seri Idris Jala, CEO of PEMANDU (Performance Management and Delivery Unit) and former managing director of Malaysia Airlines (MAS).

As I researched further, I found that PEMANDU was formally established on Sep 16, 2009 (yup, on Malaysia Day!).

Let’s hear it from him in the interview below.

1. Tell us about your family and educational background.

As a Kelabit child, I grew up in Bario. My childhood was certainly an interesting one. Living in the thick Borneo rainforest, there were no shortcuts to reach the nearest town except on foot, on a long five-day walk.

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to journey into “the world beyond the mountains”. Back then, the only way to have a glimpse of this “world” was to read story books left by the British soldiers.

Some of my early favourite authors were Jack London, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, William Saroyan and Morris West.

Reading provided me the ultimate adventure and heightened my curiosity on what was happening beyond our jungles, which translated into a thirst for knowledge.

When I was in primary school, our classrooms had mud floors. We had to use tablets (not today’s definition of tablets!) and chalk instead of books and pens.

However, even with the lack of proper facilities, we were all very committed, both the teachers and students, and even achieved a 100% pass rate.

I was privileged to have my father as my school teacher, who also happened to be the school principal and a disciplinarian at home.

Today, I am very happy to see that the schools in Bario have much better facilities. For the Kelabit students who live and study in towns, they have even better facilities, more books to read and have access to the internet.

However, I hope our students will continue to have the desire to excel in their studies. Without the discipline of action, no matter how good the facilities or teachers are, you will not achieve success.

2. Describe your journey thus far, i.e. from humble beginnings in Sarawak to an agent of transformation for the country.

For almost 30 years, I was in the corporate life. The KPI (key performance indicator) for the private sector is the profit and loss (P&L) statement.

Stepping into my current role, it’s no longer about the P&L. In the Government, you look at providing services to improve outcomes for the rakyat. The KPI for the Government is how it can deliver to benefit the rakyat.

The challenge is enormous – whether turning around MAS with 19,000 employees or transforming a country with 1.4 million civil servants.

It would require tremendous skill, leadership, engagement and the support of everyone to ensure that it works.

When I was tasked with this job, I realised that the Government was serious about social and economic transformation of this country. It was made clear that people must come first.

Various media analyses and opinion polls were conducted to ask the public what improvements and changes they want for the country.

That was how the six NKRAs (National Key Result Areas) through the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) were established.

3. How is the integration now between Sabah/Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia, in your opinion?

Let me start by saying that in Malaysia today, there are two issues:

  • problems to be solved
  • polarities to be managed

We cannot possibly solve every issue. Instead we can use the middle ground to resolve problems and manage polarities. The leadership of this country is doing its best in addressing these challenges.

But in a diverse society like Malaysia, there will always be differences. The trick is to effectively manage the differences and compromise by moderating extreme views.

The key here is inclusiveness, i.e. to include each other in resolving issues.

4. Some insights on Sabah’s and Sarawak’s role in helping Malaysia achieve Vision 2020.

I think Sabah and Sarawak help achieve Vision 2020 in these areas:

  • Both states produce the bulk of Malaysia’s oil and gas (O&G) output. For many years, Malaysia has and will continue to benefit greatly from O&G contribution from Sabah and Sarawak.
  • Sabah and Sarawak are model states when we talk about 1Malaysia. People in the Peninsular can learn from their “give and take” (rather than “my way is the only way”) attitude when it comes to ethnic and religious relations. Essentially, moderation is a norm in Sabah and Sarawak.
  • More importantly, Sabahans and Sarawakians are Malaysians. We all contribute in our work and business to transform Malaysia’s economy.

5. When it comes to interests pertaining to Sabah and Sarawak, what have we done right, and what can be improved?

Clearly, education is a national priority. The goal is to bridge the urban–rural divide and to give equal access, facilities and quality education to all.

To achieve Vision 2020, we need radical improvements in education. This can happen when our students excel and be highly competitive at national and international levels.

Through our NKRA initiatives, we’ve seen tremendous changes in Malaysia, including Sabah and Sarawak. We are equipping schools with better facilities.

In Sarawak, for example, between 2010 and 2013, 641 new pre-schools have been set up, launching grants were given to 27 private pre-schools totaling RM280,000, and RM1.44mil were given to SeDidik centres and 17,270 students across 30 districts benefited from pre-school fee assistance, totaling RM9.93mil.

Another example of an exemplary role model school in Malaysia is Sekolah Kebangsaan Ulu Lubai in Limbang, Sarawak.

It is the first rural school in the country to attain the HPS (high performance school) status, was a nominee for the UNESCO Education Best Practice Award 2010 and since 2006, it had attained 100% passes in the UPSR examination.

Multiple awards won include the Commonwealth Good Practice Champions Award in 2009, five national education awards, 14 state awards and 26 district awards.

The approach of doing things have to change. We have started removing bureaucracy where needed.

Instead, we allow the rakyat to have full access to the Government, in line with the 1Malaysia concept of “People First, Performance Now”.

6. Your personal aspiration for Malaysia?

One of my favourite authors, Helen Keller said,

“Keep your face to the sunshine and you’ll never see shadows.”

In life, I prefer to keep things simple. Sometimes, the toughest challenges can be solved fairly easily. What’s important is to look at the bigger picture and not get too caught up in the details.

1Malaysia is not just about unity. It is about leveraging each other’s strengths; only then can you become a champion.

Vision 2020 is the place where we would like to be but we must first unite ourselves and include each other to be successful.

7. What inspires you to do what you’re doing now?

Nothing is more satisfying and inspiring than to see people grow as leaders in the process.

John Ruskins once said,

“The greatest reward from a man’s toil is not what he gets from it, but what he becomes of it.”

The transformation will give birth to new leaders from the civil service. When you create a safe environment where people can discuss openly, you will discover hidden talents and potential leaders.

As they fully mature as leaders, you transit from taking a directive leadership stance to an empowering approach.

The biggest achievement is to see the personal development of people. We take this approach as we challenge civil servants during problem-solving meetings.

8. What’s the significance of Malaysia Day to you?

A day to remember when Sabah and Sarawak became partners in the formation of Malaysia.

9. How do you describe a true Malaysian?

Someone who would do anything to make this country proud, someone with undivided loyalty to protect the nation in all aspects, regardless of their socio-economic background.

1Malaysia is more than a symbol – it’s behavioural.

Malaysia at its first level, where “we tolerate one another”. At Level 2, “we accept one another”. Beyond this level, we should move to Level 3 to “celebrate each other”, including celebrating our differences.

If we reach all three levels, we will find a society that is truly valuable. In my opinion, that is how we integrate a society and be united as true Malaysians.

10. Your message to all Malaysians this Malaysia Day.

William James, an American psychologist, once said,

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.”

Having started PEMANDU, I can safely admit that it’s time the silent majority speak out loud and have their voices heard.

Share your Malaysia Day thoughts with Lay Hsuan at

To watch Idris Jala on the Leaderonomics Show, click video below:

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