If there is one quality that defines Datuk Maimunah Mohd Sharif – the newly elected head of UN-Habitat – it is her determination to make a positive, tangible difference in people’s lives.

The former president of the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (2011-2017) and until recently mayor of Penang Island City Council says she was always vocal about all the ways that she believed the UN could change things, and now she is in the position to “walk the talk”.

It’s a proud achievement for Maimunah to be the first Asian woman to take the helm of the UN agency with the mission of improving life in fast-growing cities, which will be home to two-thirds of the world by 2050.

Maimunah is excited to have the opportunity to “create sustainable, fair and inclusive cities for all”.

Just over a month into her four-year term as executive director, she admits that she’s still settling into her new job and learning “how the UN system works”. She’s still firming up her vision and mission which will inform her work at the UN.

“I know what I want, to make UN Habitat relevant. How can we help cities and local governments implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and World Urban Agenda that have been laid out.

“How can we ensure that every citizen enjoys good quality of life,” says Maimunah, who was awarded the Global Human Settlements Outstanding Contribution Award by the Global Forum on Human Settlements last October in Quito, Ecuador for her contributions to sustainable planning in Seberang Perai.

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Maimunah is in the Malaysian Book of for being the first Asian to be appointed as executive director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). Photo: MUSTAFA AHMAD / The Star.

Maimunah may have just stepped into office but she’s been a vocal commentator on the UN Settlements programme for years. As the Seberang Perai municipal council president, she was invited to sit on the Global Task Force for Local and Regional Governments in 2016 where she advocated for dialogue with local governments.

She urged the UN to provide platforms for local and regional governments and their networks within the UN as national and global sustainability can only be achieved when local and regional governments are empowered.

A town planner by training, Maimunah started her career at the Municipal Council of Penang Island in 1985.

In 2003, she was promoted to Director of Planning and Development where she was directly involved in development control of Penang city projects and landscape development.

She also led a team in planning and implementation of the Urban Renewal Projects in George Town. In November 2009, she became the first General Manager to establish George Town World Heritage Incorporated and manage the George Town World Heritage Site which was inscribed by Unesco in July 2008.

She then became the first woman to be president of the Seberang Perai Municipal Council in 2011.

Now, Maimunah is ready for her new challenge, emboldened by the support from her team in Nairobi, Kenya where she will be based for the next four years.

“It’s been very good, so far. I touched down in Nairobi on Dec 22 and stepped into my office the next day.

“I’ve been meeting my team and the heads of departments as well as our stakeholders. I’ve received tremendous support. In fact, when I delivered my address at the town hall meeting on my second day of work, the hall was overflowing … and I was told that the attendance was unprecedented.

“Hopefully, this is a sign of the support I will receive,” says the affable Maimunah.

Chance Of A Lifetime

Maimunah didn’t apply for her UN post, nor did she expect the appointment. She learnt that United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres had nominated her for the position in December last year.

“They asked me if I was aware of the vacancy and if I had applied for the post before nominations closed on Oct 21. I didn’t know anything … on Oct 21, I was busy handling the landslide in Penang. I was then told of my nomination and went through a 90-minute interview via video-conference,” she relates.

On Dec 20, Guterres informed the General Assembly of his nomination and there was a vote.

“I was watching the session live from my home. It was 4am Malaysian time and I was excited. The vote was unanimous!” she says.

Maimunah is honoured to receive such a show of confidence.

“I have spoken about sustainable urban development at conferences. I suppose they have been listening to what I have to say,” she says.

It didn’t take long for Maimunah to agree to take on the challenge. But first, as always, she consulted her husband and their two daughters.

Women, she says, can achieve wonders as long as they have the support from family.

“More than anything, I need their support. My husband asked me if I was interested. He encouraged me to think about it as it would be the pinnacle of my career … I’d served my state and country and now I have the chance to serve on a global platform. I felt the same way.

“After all, I’m already 54 … I have served Seberang Perai and Penang, what better way to retire than by taking on an international role.

“I told him I’d take up the offer if he came with me to Nairobi, and he agreed without hesitation,” she shares.

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Maimunah and her team in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Maimunah Mohd Sharif

Maimunah is well aware of the gargantuan task ahead of her: improving the lot of the billions of people living in cities around the world. But to take on the world, she knows she’ll need to engage with her staff and stakeholders.

“First and foremost I must build a strong team. I need a team that I can trust and rely on and they need to trust me too.

“I treat my staff as my assets and along with a solid system of good governance, we can make UN Habitat relevant. We must do our job and not leave it to the other agencies to pick up after us and take over our role,” she says firmly.

Her appointment, she adds, couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.

The World Urban Forum happening right now in her home turf of Kuala Lumpur – her first official event as executive director – will help inform her vision and mission.

“Our challenge will be to gather the information shared during the forum and bring it to respective countries.

“We have the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda but our job is to help cities formulate plans that work locally and regionally.

“Our agendas and goals must reach the people on the ground and have a positive impact.

“We have to create links and help local governments implement strategies that will work for them. In the end, what we want is for stakeholders on the ground to enjoy a good quality of live.

“This is what I will champion,” she says.