Penang mayor makes history as first Asian to head UN-Habitat (Updated)

GEORGE TOWN: Penang and its island city council will have a new Mayor and council president, respectively, by next month after the incumbent Datuk Maimunah Mohd Shariff, 56, decided to accept the position of United Nations Human Settlements Programme's (UN – Habitat) executive director for a four year term.

On the same token, Maimunah has created all sorts of history by becoming the first Asian to assume the post. She is also the first Malaysian and the first Asian female to assume such a prestigious position within the UN.

The Negri Sembilan–born town is also believed to be the first Malaysian to head a major UN programme, whose input will help formulate global perceptions on the human habitat and the environment.

In addition, she has joined the ranks of Penang residents who have served the global body.

Among them was Penang Free School alumni, prominent economist Prof Dr Jomo Kwame Sundaram, who had served as the UN assistant director-general for economic development in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Maimunah interviewed for the job on Dec 14 and was offered it the next day via a video conference with UN officials who were based in New York City.

Maimunah will alternate between the UN Human Habitat headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya and its New York offices, overseeing over 2,000 staffers who are specialists and academics on the issue of urbanization and sustainable development.

She has a heavy task in front of her, as a UN projection showed that from the present number of 3.7 billion people living in cities, the figure will reach 7 billion by 2050.

Maimunah must incorporate the UN's goals in sustainable living for all urban habitats in the world – an awesome challenge to say the least.

Maimunah was head-hunted by the UN and Penang is beaming with pride that one of its own officers can lead a UN agency, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng told a press conference.

He said the state does not want to overshadow such an achievement, hence Penangites will have to wait until next month to find out who will be their next mayor.

Her husband, retiree Adlin Lai, 60, will be joining her on the global leadership job while her two young daughters would remain in Malaysia to complete their studies.

She has enjoyed a strong legacy in Penang's local government, having lead the Seberang Prai Municipal Council (MPSP) for over six years, and having formed the George Town World Heritage Incorporated office here.

Known as an engaging leader, Maimunah shared that she had scored big points on her abilities in strategic management, leadership and partnership.

"I do not like to come across as boss but as a partner to my subordinates. Only then, can I inspire them to be creative and innovative. If they are mere followers to the boss, they will just rely on one person. I believe in a shared partnership virtue."

She leaves the council with one big project left unfulfilled, the integration of the 44 work systems in the MBPP, where using big data analysis and the internet of things, the council had planned to deliver better performances to the ratepayers.

On the worsening traffic jams in Penang, Maimunah said that the council has no choice but to offer quality public transport to ease the congestion.

Only through an effective public transport system can the island offer cycling and more public open spaces to enhance the quality of life among the urbanites.