An Interview with
Tan Sri Dr Noordin bin Sopiee

by Parveen Mathews

 

Born in Penang on December 26, 1944, Tan Sri Dr Mohd Noordin bin Mohd Sopiee attended the Penang Free School and later the V.I. from 1960 to 1963. His father was Datuk Mohd Sopiee Ibrahim who was the MP for Kepala Batas thirty years ago. Dr Noordin obtained his Ph. D. in Political Science and International Relations from the London School of Economics in 1972. That same year, he began his career as a leader writer with The New Straits Times. He reached the pinnacle of his journalistic career in 1981 with his appointment as the paper's Group Editor. In 1983, he became the paper's Group Editor-in-Chief.

In 1984, Dr Noordin was appointed the Director-General of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia, the country's foremost policy studies institute. Thirteen years later, he became the institute's Chairman and CEO. At ISIS, he initiated many regional and international conferences including the high-profile Asia-Pacific Roundtable, now in its ninteenth year. In the late 1980s, he was also Executive Director of the Secretariat of the Group of Fourteen on Asean Economic Co-operation and Integration.

Dr Noordin was a scholar, intellectual and thinker whose views and advice on strategic and economic matters were keenly sought at home and abroad. He chaired the National Action Committee to draft the National Plan of Action on Industrial Technology Development. His roles in the National Economic Consultative Council (NECC) I and II, and in the National Economic Action Council (NEAC) were equally significant. He was the architect of the Knowledge Economy Master Plan.

He made a crucial contribution to the national blueprint Vision 2020. Dr Noordin was also chairman of Monash University Malaysia and director of several companies including Kulim (Malaysia Berhad); Reliance Pacific Bhd; YTL (Power) International Bhd; and Sunway Holdings Inc. Bhd. He passed away in December 2005.



From The Victorian 2001


What did you like about the V.I.?

went to thirteen schools in all. I had a very bad name in most of those schools because on average I spent one year in any one school. But when I joined the V.I. I started in mid-Form 4 and was streamed into 4D. They thought I was smart but put me in the worst class (laughs). I completed my Form 5, Lower 6 and Upper 6. That was the longest time I spent in one school. Thatís the best thing I liked about the V.I. The school is fantastic! The V.I. combines good teachers with good students. And we all had good parents. We had to do a lot of sports which I didnít like. I was a bit overweight. But I was active in other activities. I was Chairman of the Economics Society and Vice-Chairman of the Geographical Society and Sub-Editor of the Analekta which was a high class publication. I was also involved in the Debating and Historical Societies. These extracurricular activities taught me a lot and helped to make me what I am today. Starting in Lower Six, I learned how to conduct meetings well.

While in school did you know what you wanted to do later in life?

Absolutely not. Most people donít know what they want to do in life. I conducted a survey recently and found that more than fifty percent of graduates interviewed donít work in the field in which they were qualified. This is very normal. Most people donít end up doing what they wanted to do.

After you graduated from the London School of Economics, were you sure that you were going to work as a journalist at the New Straits Times?

Yes I was sure. Let me explain. On May 13, 1969, I was in Chow Kit Road at 11 a.m. and the riots started at 3:00 p.m. In life success depends on being at the right place at the right time. Itís just a matter of luck. Two days later, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Straits Times. I said in the letter that the government must do certain things and the editor was impressed, especially by one phrase I used which was "social engineering." To him this was a new phrase. My letter said that we must have social engineering and to start it we must establish a Malaysian Race Relations Institute (MARRI). The Editor-in-chief, Leslie Hoffman (later Tan Sri), decided to print the letter. But that very afternoon Lim Kit Siang, the opposition Member of Parliament, spoke in the Parliament and asked for the establishment of an institute of race relations. My letter was never published as Hoffman pulled my letter because the paper didnít want it to appear it was on the side of the opposition.

Leslie Hoffman invited me for lunch very soon after that. He also brought along Tun Ismail bin Abdul Rahman (later Deputy Prime Minister). Mr Hoffman offered me a job with the Straits Times. He said that he was going to retire in five years and that when he did he wanted me to take over. He said he would offer me a very good salary. I apologized that I could not take up his offer immediately as I had another two years to finish my Ph. D. studies in England. They decided to wait. I had a deal to come back to the Straits Times and an unwritten promise that I would be Editor-in-chief in five years. Unfortunately I took longer than expected to complete my Ph. D. and only finished on June 24, 1972. I joined the Straits Times on June 27, 1972. I became Editor-in-chief in 1981 after a long wait of nine years.

How did you like it in the NST?

I was told that a lot of people were very worried when I joined the NST. They expected me to join the queue which I did. I had a lot of trouble because there were very few people with degrees. At that time, even in England, if you wanted to be a journalist, you had to be a cub reporter first. It was an apprenticeship system where you learned your trade. I came in as a graduate without going through the mill. There was a big division between graduates and non-graduates but later I brought in more graduates.

To be honest when I came in I tried to do the best job that I could. I didnít know very much and I had to learn a lot. I thought I was very humble and I am happy people did not think I was very arrogant as people with degrees tended to be labeled as arrogant. Everywhere in the world, even in England, if you have a Ph.D. people try to knock you down because they think you are too big-headed and arrogant.

Being a very busy person with so many responsibilities, how do you cope?

I am obsessive about planning. Every day when I get up I look at my diary. I not only look at what I have to do today, I also look at what I have to do tomorrow, next month and this year. So I am very obsessive. I spend so much time planning but there are some people who spend as much time planning as doing and that is crazy. I think you should spend only up to five or ten percent of your time on planning or preparation. Scheduling and time management are important. You must also delegate. You must never do anything that somebody else can do it better than you. You must be clever enough to know who it is who is cleverer than you. Most people tend to make use of people who are not as smart as them. I know it is difficult to make use of people who are better than you because you feel insecure. Push people to produce things for you. You must also manage people as a team. You can never do everything on your own.

As a Malaysian, what was your greatest contribution to your country?

The greatest satisfaction I got was from the fact that I fought for poor children to be given free textbooks. This was in the early 1970s. The government said it couldnít afford this. All I did was some calculation and said it did not cost much and that we could afford it. That to me was the most satisfying thing I ever did. The most important thing I have ever done for my country is my input for Prime Mnister Datoí Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamadís Vision 2020. In 1989/1990 we Malaysians were quarrelling very badly because some people were uncomfortable with the New Economic Policy and wanted to get rid of it while others were very committed to it. UMNO and MCA, for example, were quarrelling like cats and dogs behind closed doors. There was a lot of bitterness and anger and we wanted to do something to heal the wounds. There are many ways to bring people together. One is to bring them in common hatred of something. Another way is fear. When people fear a common thing, usually an outside common thing, they come together. We wanted to rally everybody and unite them. Malaysian unity has always been the most important thing for us. We also wanted to do something for the next generation. From 1957 to 1990 is 33 years. Thatís one generation. From 1990 to 2023 is another 33 years, another generation.

As a father of three sons (now adults) and a grandfather, how have you managed to spend time with your family?

I havenít. Unfortunately I neglected my family most of the time. I was too busy with my career. Whatever you do never be a journalist (laughs). Itís too demanding, there are too many things to do. In the last ten years I have become a much better father. I have been able to allocate more time for the family. There is nothing else in my life I want to do more.

Do you have time nowadays for exercise or hobbies?

Yes. I swim several times a week. I play tennis and watch hours and hours of tennis on TV. I have a great love for music. In the V.I. I was known as the Chubby Checkers (a pop star of the 1960s) of Kuala Lumpur. I was also a great dancer.

If you were given the chance to do everything again in the V.I. what would you do?

I would have liked to spend more time on sports in the V.I. In my working life I would have liked to work less.

As a successful Malaysian and Victorian, whatís your advice to all the Victorians?

When I was in the V.I. we worked hard and played hard. The teachers always said work hard and play hard. I think one should work hard, play hard and be as good as you can.

To be a scholar, a sportsman and a gentleman?

Yes

Thank you very much, Tan Sri, for your time.




From the V.I. Archives

 

Noordin Sopiee's geopolitical interests were already foreshadowed in the V.I. Annual School Concert of 1963. He played the lead role of President Kennedy in Upper 6 A1's winning item Kennedy's Birthday Party. Noordin/Kennedy (at left in both pictures) has his hands full separating the various feuding guests, including Mao Tze-Tung, the Dalai Lama, President Soekarno and Tunku Abdul Rahman. Other leaders at his birthday bash included General Charles de Gaulle and Nikita Krushchev.

The play was later restaged along with another V.I. item, U6A2's Sunset in the Visayans, for the Sultans at the Conference of Rulers. At first only the latter was to perform as it was a (Filipino) cultural thing. Then the organizers heard that there was this political satire and invited Noordin and his troupe to what was, literally, a Royal Command Performance - arguably the first ever for any school pupils.

[The V.I. boys were warned that these were dignitaries watching them and they might not really show any laughter. However, the Victorians brought the house down when the schoolboy "Tunku" made an impromptu change to his lines. Staring at the audience of Cabinet Ministers and Sultans, he rubbed his eyes through his fake spectacles (which had no lenses) and, pointing to the real Tunku, declared, "That man there, he looks like me!"]




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