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Saturday September 8, 2012

Up close & personal with Datuk Zuraidah Atan

By WONG WEI-SHEN
weishen.wong@thestar.com.my


Multi-tasking is like juggling many balls without dropping a single one. It takes a lot of practice to do it well.

Datuk Zuraidah Atan is one who has been practising multi-tasking since she was a young girl in boarding school. Chairman of Yayasan Sukarelawan Siswa (YSS), honorary adviser of the National Cancer Society Malaysia (NCSM), and sitting on the board of directors in several corporate companies, Zuraidah speaks enthusiastically to StarBizWeek about the many hats she wears.

“Google calendar is the key!” she jokes. Zuraidah pulls out her three phones: BlackBerry, Samsung Note, and the iPhone4. The gadget freak, as she so aptly named herself, says she merely has them to keep up with the latest technological gadgets.

Malory Towers

As an avid reader of Enid Blyton's novels, Zuraidah was heavily influenced by Blyton's Malory Towers series to study at an all-girls boarding school. “I wanted to go to a boarding school, and I made sure I got into it,” she says.

She is extremely fond of the friends that she grew up with at Tunku Kurshiah College (TKC), and the memories they collectively made there. “We just celebrated our 40 years of friendship. Till today, the e-group for our batch is very active,” she says. At TKC, Zuraidah admits she was not very academically inclined. However, she loved the extra-curricular activities. “I was in the Dracula society, which was the other name for the drama, cultural and language society. I love the English language and I have a deep appreciation for the arts,” she says.

Even after leaving TKC, she remained active in TKC's alumni called TKC Old Girls Association. “It's a noun, not an adjective,” she emphasises. Together with other hyperactive “old girls”, they run a group that volunteers when there are natural disasters.

They also formed the Health Awareness Network Initiative group. “The network is very strong,” she says.

Zuraidah feels it is important to remain active and give back to the alumni. “I am active in all my alumni,” she says.

Although from a science background while at school, Zuraidah wanted to study law. After completing her A-Levels in the UK, she proceeded with her pre-law degree.

She later received a loan from Majlis Amanah Rakyat (Mara) to complete her studies, which she has fully paid back.

“You go as a teenager and come back as an adult. It's like a second home,” she says. In those formative years, she continued to be active while studying. “I was active in student politics, championing student issues. This includes ensuring the college's facilities are in place,” she says.

Besides playing the role of vice-president of the Malaysian Student Union at the University of Buckingham, Zuraidah was also the vice-president for the law society there.

When she came back to Malaysia she joined a bank. She thought it would be a short stint. ”But I ended up staying for five years,” she says. She went on to join a foreign bank for 10 years. She had a real appetite to learn every aspect of the bank, so her banking experience was inter-departmental. “I knew everything from A to Z,” she says.

Her banking career soared, leading her to become chief executive officer and president. Knowledge of the latest happenings “on the streets” was key in her role. “It is primarily your wits. It's not a level playing field out there, so it's really how you capitalise on your situations,” she says.

The combination of her law and banking background gave her a broad spectrum of analytical skills. Although she was called a “slave driver” while running the bank, she emphasises that she was and is still very particular about staff welfare. “You look after their welfare and they serve you well in return,” she says.

Zuraidah attributes her achievements in her banking career to her bosses. “I had good bosses. For some reason, I had more women bosses. They were more demanding and yet they challenged you to rise,” she says.

She admits having complained about them at the time, though in hindsight she is thankful for the hardships they had put her through. “Basically you stretch yourself to how far you can go and how creative you could be,” she says.

Hard work is definitely not new to Zuraidah. “I've had to work hard all round. I'm proud that I've had the opportunity to work hard or had been made to work hard,” she says.

Youngsters who are unwilling to work hard irk her. “You must work hard whether you like it or not. There will be a lot of punches, but you need to rise above that,” she advises.

Favourite hat of all

Among all the different hats Zuraidah puts on, the favourite is her role as the honorary adviser to NCSM. When she left the banking industry, NCSM roped her in to raise its profile. The cancer society has been established since 1996 and provides education, care and support services for people affected by cancer.

She is also chairman for NCSM's project, Relay For Life Malaysia. The 16-hour overnight event geared towards healthy exercise in the fight against cancer.

“The Luminaria ceremony is an emotional time because it is in memory of those who have passed on, or those who are still fighting. The whole idea for that relay, is for life. It's the celebration of life, thinking positive, and in memory of those who passed on,” Zuraidah says.

The event draws between 4,000 and 6,000 people each year, including cancer survivors, care-givers, volunteers and participants. It is the only occasion where other cancer non-governmental organisations can get together.

“I am privileged that I have a whole bunch of dedicated colleagues who are actually managing NCSM as well as Relay For Life. They are the backbone of the organisation as they work really hard to get things going,” she says.

“Even though at the end of the day it's a fund-raising event, but it's more of a fun-raising activity because it's more for the survivors,” she says. The next Relay For Life event will be held at Stadium UKM in Bangi from Oct 13-14.

Inculcating voluntarism

Volunteering can often be a touchy subject among some. One may empathise easily with the less fortunate, but it is known that a resulting action is less likely to be taken. Zuraidah is working with YSS (Yayasan Sukarelawan Siswa) to help the youth take the first step towards volunteering.

“It may not cost us much in time, effort or money, but it could make a world of difference to someone else. Anything that makes a world of difference to someone else is a good thing, and it doesn't hurt to be nice,” she says.

YSS is a trust foundation primarily formed to inculcate voluntarism among students of higher education or tertiary education. She likens YSS to the Peace Corps in the United States, but adds that the focus is more on the region. Participating students will receive credit hours for voluntary activities endorsed by YSS.

She adds that the student volunteers need to be trained and guided so that they are able to have a more meaningful participation.

Zest for life

Zuraidah takes her hat off to the ladies of Pink Unity, a support group for cancer survivors under NCSM. “They are truly fantastic. A lot of survivors are a lot more hardworking than you and I,” she says.

She adds that somehow, the push and drive in cancer survivors is incredible. “Their zest for life is amazing. It just rubs off on you, how positive they are,” she says.

People who help themselves inspire her as they show that they put in efforts towards achieving their goals.

Zuraidah had the opportunity to attend the International Association of Traffic and Safety Sciences (IATSS) forum held in Japan in the early 1990s. Since returning she has been active in the alumni and now chairs the Malaysian national committee.

She also runs her own law firm, and was recently elected to be on the board of governance of Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang. “I am not an academician, so I think outside the box, and am more realistic in approaching things,” she says.

The process in doing something is important as it will show the person's game plan. “You must enjoy the journey, if not you never know what hits you,” she laughs.

For any board or project she participates in, she likes to contribute and make a difference. “In some cases, I am quite vocal about it. So, that may not go down well if you invite me on the pretext or assumption that I'm going to keep quiet,” she warns.

Challenges of juggling

One of the biggest challenges in wearing so many hats is scheduling meetings. “These kind of things needs to be planned a year ahead, and sometimes the dates are so close to each other,” she says.

Lethargy is a norm, while being busy is relative, she says. “If you enjoy what you do, then it shouldn't be too tiring. The key thing is to enjoy the process. There have been times I have either resigned or didn't seek for re-election because I no longer enjoy it,” she says.

Although Zuraidah's personal formative years were in the UK, she adds that she is nationalistic and patriotic to her home country, because she is indebted for the opportunities given to her.

The youngest of six children, she inherited several traits from both her parents. Her love for reading was influenced by her father. “I was always reading books. I used to read my dad's book,” she says. Her mother, on the other hand, although uneducated was brilliant in understanding different languages, numbers, and music. She was also a generous person which Zuraidah clearly resembles.

BORN: March 17, St Patricks Day

PERSONAL: Single

HIGHEST QUALIFICATION: LLB Hons from The University of Buckingham UK, The Qualifying Board (CLP), Malaysia

CAREER: Lawyer, banker, volunteer, social activist

NOTEWORTHY: Tenacity in nature and single minded in what you do, and having zest for life

FAVOURITE FOOD: Japanese and Italian, among others

FAVOURITE PLACE: Wherever my cat is HOBBY: Catching up on things in cyber space

VALUES: Ha rdwork, and traditional values e.g. being conservative on investments. Cultural values are still traditional

INSPIRATION: Inspiring moments, particularly in women who have made it despite being in an unlevel playing field.

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