A Teacher at Heart
From a young age, Dato Paduka Mohammad Alimin Abdul Wahab had a crystal clear idea of what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to become a teacher, just like his uncles who were among the pioneers in the field of education in Brunei. This was his passion.
But as fate would have it, life seldom turns out exactly as we envisage, however it can deliver some very rewarding surprises. Back in 1966, Dato Alimin was given a scholarship to study in the UK. On his return to Brunei, Dato Alimin had a short stint of practicing teaching at SOAS College, but within a short period after obtaining his PGCE, he was promoted to school principal.
Back then, there was a shortage of qualified personnel in the country and because of his deep sense of accountability and stellar work ethic, Dato Alimin’s career accelerated as he moved quickly up the career ladder and within two years became Superintendent of Secondary Education.
During his working career, Dato Alimin held key positions in both corporate and public offices including being the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence and the Prime Minister’s Office; Chairman of Royal Brunei Airlines as well as CEO of Brunei Petroleum to name a few of his key roles. Despite all the success Dato Alimin explained in the interview that all he ever really wanted was to be a secondary school teacher.
What began as a conversation about best practices for leadership, evolved into a surprising life story of a reluctant but well respected leader in our society. We talked to Dato Alimin about his challenges, his spiritual journey and the importance of his family as his pillar of support and confidence.
“Great leaders give themselves to the community. We become what we are because of the community.”
What is the key difference between being a CEO of Petroleum Brunei and a teacher?
It’s the same at the end of the day because you are still essentially guiding people. However, as a CEO, if you carry yourself as a teacher figure to guide your employees, you nurture in them the right attitude and steer them in the right direction, and people are more receptive to you. This way of guidance and sharing can be a lot more effective than just giving out orders like a CEO.
How has your faith helped you to become a better leader?
The world is full of complexity and everyone has their own agenda. My agenda is straightforward. If I can be a better person today than I was yesterday, if I can continue to be aligned with the teaching of my faith, that would be great. As my work responsibilities increased, I was able to find some balance through my spiritual journey. It gave me guidance and it gave me confidence. I tried to understand the teachings of Prophet Mohammad while not trying to be prophetic – that’s why I don’t want to be prescriptive about what another person’s journey should be.
How important is it for a leader to be accountable?
I feel that once you’ve been given the trust (and trust is the most difficult thing to establish), you need to level up to the task, to that trust that is being bestowed upon you. If you are not able to do it, you must be willing to say so. I remember when I was promoted to being the principal at the Malay College, I told my superior that I have no training for this position. He answered that … “no principal in the world is ever trained, it is just like being a father…. There is no training.” You have to be willing to step into to the role, own up to the role and you work it out to make it happen.
What sacrifices did you have to make while your career was being fast tracked?
I sacrificed a lot of time away from my children, while pursuing my career. All of this would not have been possible without a supportive wife and family. Right now, I am trying to catch up on the things I’ve missed. But you can’t catch up through your grandchildren. It is not the same. It is not right to take over the parental responsibility of raising your children’s children. I have been very fortunate that there has been a lot of understanding between me, my wife and my family and I am thankful for that.
Who influenced you the most?
My father. Although to a certain extent, he left us alone while we were growing up. Not because he didn’t care but he knew the limit of his ability; in that he did not know how to read or write. Even signing his name was difficult. For him, he was always at peace with what he got or achieved. My father provided me with the moral compass, the stability in perspective and a baseline for my value system.
You have another brother (Dato Hamdillah) who is also a very high profile figure in the society. With the two of you being outstanding achievers, it’s surprising to learn that your parents did not push you and your siblings to become “successful”.
We tried to live up to their expectations although they did not necessarily have a specific expectation for us. Not in a spoken way. We came from a very religious family. My mother would make sure that there were rules we had to follow
Do you have any expectations for your children?
I want my children to be happy, to be at peace with people around them and to have the desire to help when they can.
Is being successful not a priority?
I think I am more concerned with their happiness and them relating to the people around them; and that they have reliable and trustworthy friends. As for the notion of “success”, I believe I have gone down that path before. It involved being pushed around by circumstances. To me success is the ability for them to find their happiness in doing what they enjoy to do.
What in your opinion are some of the qualities that make a great leader?
Great leaders give themselves to the community. We become what we are because of the community. Even within the family. Leaders must have the tenacity to pull through. You come back to the issue of popularity – I don’t feel that success necessary equals popularity. It is temporary. It would not be an end to itself.
Looking back at your career, were you happy?
During the period when I was not able to be a teacher, and that was what I wanted to do, this initially disturbed me. However, I told myself that I should make a success of the role that I was trusted to perform. I had to change my psyche from aspiring to do things I would have loved to do, to loving the work that was given to me.
Which is more important: Passion or Commitment?
Well, the world is not made for me only. However, whatever I have to do, nobody can take the teacher out of me. Throughout my career, I have been more a teacher plus, plus, plus.
A great leader is a great teacher too?
You have to be!
This is an excerpt from an interview for SMU’s Asian Centre for Oral History by Shaun Hoon.
Dato Alimin is the Senior Trustee of Pusat Eshan. His vision is for Pusat Eshan to be another centre of excellence, “measured by all the programmes they have, for learning and education for the disabled, and the rehabilitation for the kids. A centre of excellence which Brunei can be proud of.