On Jan 1st of this year, I was in Malaysia, and I chose to spend my lunch time with a Datuk in a hotel. I went with my husband’s okay and support.
Okay, so it was nothing dodgy at all. It was a meeting with a long-time work contact, Prof Zaini. He is now actually Datuk Seri Zaini Ujang, Malaysia’s secretary-general of the Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water. But I don’t know, big titles don’t seem to suit him, in my mind he will always be that smiley Prof I first met circa 2003 or 04.
Some background is needed, I suppose.
In the early noughties, I was still a junior reporter at the New Straits Times interested in water management issues in the country, and I had a lot of questions. He was an academic in one of the local universities who could talk about the subject of water until the cows came home. Over the years and many discussions about water and the environment, I would call him whenever I had to understand technicalities or context related to these issues. Over the years I would also watch as his career boomed – he would continue to grow academically and professionally; in research, teaching and advocacy. He eventually became vice-chancellor of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, advised the government on issues, and continued to win awards, work with other universities, and so on and so forth. Many years later when he heard I had left the newspaper business for freelance writing, he hired me to edit material for UTM and teach his staff about social media and the like. When I moved to the UK, we would keep in touch sometimes, but by then he was an even busier man – he had been appointed Ministry of Education’s secretary-general (II) in 2013, later moving to Ministry of Higher Education. Last year, he would finally enter the ministry best suited for him – Energy, Green Technology and Water. I remember smiling big time when I read the news.
Okay, back to my meeting with him on Jan 1. The thing you have to remember about government officials or politicians in Malaysia is they are so busy and there is often a huge amount of red tape or dealing with secretaries and calendars if you want to meet them. The thing you have to know about me is I still had many friends I wanted to see in Malaysia before I left for the UK, and I was so tired. And this was the first day of 2017!
But the thing about Prof Zaini is he is still as humble, efficient and cheerful as the first day I met him all those years ago. And to know he wanted to make time to meet me was heartwarming, so I knew I had to make time to head to KL. New Year’s Day in the over-crowded city centre, yikes! Anyway, we locked the time and venue down in just a few messages, ‘Okay see you there’ and we were done. We met at the breakfast/lunch restaurant of Mandarin Oriental, where he sometimes has meetings.
And here’s why I’m writing this post at all.
With all his status and success, we spent lunch talking about …. water and the environment and sustainability issues. And books and cycling, which he is quite obsessed about. Yes, we caught up – he asked about family and I asked him about life as an office-bearer, but we did not talk much about politics or what have you. When I told him about my no-shopping, low consumption plans this year, he was very interested and shared his thoughts on consumerism. We discussed sustainability issues at length. I even pointed out his super hip bag – it was the Kånken bag! I don’t think he realised how hipster the brand was, he just knew it as a great and durable bag from Sweden. (He is now all over Scandinavian efficiency, development and sustainable living – he keeps sending attachments about Hygge and ‘How to Live Danishly’ and all)
We also talked about the possibilities of improving the environment and green technology in Malaysia. ‘Prof,’ I told him, ‘This is your time, you can really make a difference.’ There is no better ministry for him. My personal hope is that those around him and in charge of other decisions pertaining to these sectors can move with him, for everyone knows the issues of water management, energy and the environment in the country are numerous and complicated. At the end of the lunch, I remember feeling energised about my own sustainability goals and hopeful for the country. Not thaaaat hopeful, but it was something. It was a good way to start off the first day of the year for me.
Even in the chillest of conversations, he draws charts …
I don’t keep in touch with many work contacts at all, and friends would know my current feelings about the administration in Malaysia. There are many things I sigh about when it comes to Malaysia, but obviously it is still so wonderfully raw and rife with possibilities. This is an example right here – someone born for a role now has it.
To Datuk Seri Zaini Ujang, I’m sure those who know you feel ever so grateful that you continue to share articles with us about ‘Responsible Consumption’ and ‘The Odd Beauty of Ice Fishermen’, haha. I just want to say thank you and Happy Birthday. I know I am a day (?) late, but here’s to your continuing passion and dedication to subjects you have always felt strongly about. May you achieve your dreams about book-writing and doing as much as you can for the betterment of the environment in Malaysia.
To those in Malaysia who are interested in these issues – especially Malaysian youth with good intentions and plans – you now have a man who is knowledgeable, committed and open to ideas about the topics of sustainability and Energy, Green Technology and Water. He just got in last year, but he won’t be there forever (you know what Malaysian politics is like!) He is interested in innovation. He raised the name of MaGIC (The Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre) before I did.
So move now. Plan now. Do what you can now.