Promoting women’s empowerment and equity is in line with Brunei Darussalam’s economic and social development agenda under Brunei Vision 2035. In the world of business, inspirational leading women in the country have blazed a trail across various industries and sectors.
In interviews with the Borneo Bulletin Yearbook, several successful women shared their insights and experience as well as key advice for the next generation of female leaders.
As Managing Director of the BDCB, Hajah Rokiah said overseeing the central bank is a big responsibility to shoulder. “The financial sector landscape changes quickly with new developments and potential risks emerging at every corner, it seems. It has been a fastpaced journey, but you must evolve yourself and continuously learn in order to keep up and rise up to the challenge.”
What helped her through her journey is the people, said Hajah Rokiah. The central bank has talented and brilliant individuals who are drivers of change and impact, with different work experiences that complement one another. “I put my utmost trust in my people, and am thankful to everyone across all levels for their support.”
She also underlined the importance of taking opportunities to further one’s knowledge and build capacity in different areas. “Be ambitious and challenge yourself to venture out to new territories where you can make a bigger impact.”
As outlined in Brunei Vision 2035, the country aims for equal opportunity for women not only in its workforce, but also to contribute towards its nation-building initiatives. “I believe that women’s contribution in Brunei Darussalam in various sectors within the economy has been well-recognised as we have started to see more women being given the opportunity to fill senior and executive roles in both the public and private sectors. In the finance sector alone, the largest Islamic financial institutions in the country are led by women.”
She believes it is paramount for women to take on more leadership roles for the country to move forward. Women are known for their ability to fulfil various roles, and having more female leaders would bring about fresh outlooks and perspectives, she said.
Her advice for the next generation of leading women in business is to embrace their naturally compassionate side, and that trust and maintaining relationships is key to ensuring an efficient workforce. Be comfortable with the uncomfortable and learn from mistakes.
A self-described “accountant turned CEO”, Hajah Noraini is the first female acting managing director and CEO in BIBD’s history. She joined BIBD over 20 years and gave her all at every task and project, aiming to contribute with the knowledge and skills that she had.
“I feel like this is an important quality – no matter where you are in the organisation, whether you are just starting at an entry level position or if you are leading people or leading the organisation – knowing that your work makes a difference to the organisation and giving your utmost commitment and best efforts are absolutely essential.”
Having worked with like-minded people over the years, she said, has set the foundation of a strong goal-oriented organisation that lives by the values of team-spirit.
“The banking landscape went through many changes, always evolving and we did our best to embrace the changes and opportunities that arose. Ultimately, we were all committed to doing what was best for BIBD and the nation. It has been quite a meaningful journey, and I am truly proud to see how far BIBD has come. Of course this is not the end point; BIBD still has a long way to go and I have faith and am excited by the opportunity to scale greater heights for the bank even further.”
Her advice for the next generation of female business leaders is to work hard and work smart. “Being a leader means it is important to work together, so trust your team and work collaboratively to manage any issues. Communication is key, but so is listening at the ground level. Don’t be afraid to embrace change and seize new opportunities.
“But most importantly, never lose sight of who you are and the values you hold as a woman, a wife, a mother and a daughter. Have faith Insyaallah that you, one way or the other, will be shaping someone’s lives and supporting their dreams and aspirations, so make whatever you do, matters!” she said.
Hajah Farida is the first Bruneian female managing director (MD) of Brunei LNG in the 52-year history of the company and the first Bruneian female MD across the Brunei Shell Joint Ventures (BSJV). The appointment marks a key step towards diversity and inclusion and marks a significant milestone not only in Brunei LNG but across the oil and gas industry.
“If I had to describe my journey in one word so far, it would be ‘exhilarating’,” she said. “Given the challenges we have seen in the past few years around COVID-19 and the impact on supply and demand globally, coupled with global efforts to transition towards a low carbon, climate resilient world, we have had to demonstrate agility in actions and decision making, in order to remain relevant as a business.”
Hajah Farida said the most significant barrier she had to overcome was to shift her thinking from a local to global perspective. This does not necessarily relate to being a female leader in the industry but a recognition that they cannot operate in isolation and be in control of everything.
“Changing my perspective and embracing a global mindset has opened the way I see the world and helped develop greater creativity in my thinking and decision making. It has taught me to be agile and adaptive in my behaviours and decision making to the realities of the global marketplace – one that is very diverse and ever changing – making me open to always trying new ways of doing things.”
The managing director also said she is excited that more locals are taking on leadership positions in various sectors. Brunei’s small human capital base sets the country apart from the rest of the region, specifically in how it adapts and integrates respective business agendas with Brunei Vision 2035.
Her advice for the next generation of leading women in business is to practise resilience and be kind to themselves. Step outside their comfort zone, trust their gut and do not be afraid to take risks. Always have a perspective and be prepared to share that perspective.
Describing her journey in the world of business so far, Suzannawati said, “It has been quite an interesting challenge having to take imagine, a new entity, to set up all the way from building a management team, the whole organisation, setting up a new culture that befits the new brand and image as well as taking imagine into what was then a newly established competitive market with a model of wholesale versus retail business.” Two years in, she said she is proud of what the telco company has achieved as a team and organisation, not only in the market but also in terms of contributing to society.
“I am proud of how we, as imagineers, had to work together day and night. Knowing that everyone is fully committed in wanting and knowing what it takes to ensure imagine is a success. As the CEO of the organisation, to achieve this in such a short space, and this dedication from most imagineers, is something to be proud of!”
As a female leader, Suzannawati had to overcome barrier of stereotypes in her career, at times even up till today. She disagrees with the notion of women being emotional as a negative trait. “We can communicate effectively in situations, manage conflicts better, always be self-aware of our environment and able to adapt. These are skills that can make a real difference to the bottom line. Happy people equals higher productivity which equals a good bottom line! This is certainly a competitive advantage for women.”
Imparting some advice to the next generation of leading women in business, Suzannawati said, “Know that how you are, who you are, is an advantage. Never succumb to the gender biasness or judgement. Whilst at times it does feel that you have to shout louder, it’s not a matter of shouting but a matter of what you say. We can also be ambitious and assertive – this is not being bossy. This is having a voice and sharing it!”
While woman are built to play different roles at home and at work, no one expects them to do it alone, she said. Have a support system and ask for support when needed.
“To all the future leaders out there, be confident in your thoughts and abilities. Be open to opinions, thoughts and ideas of others. We benefit from listening and learning from each other. Regardless of who and what we are.”
With over 17 years’ experience in the telecommunications industry, Hajah Nurul Haniah is the CEO of telco company Progresif Sdn Bhd. “I have had the privilege of expanding my role in the organisation from being a legal officer, regulatory, public relations, administration and operational functions and now, CEO. Alhamdulillah.”
She said she feels fortunate to have been raised with the notion of if she wants something, she has to work hard and earn it. When she landed her first job, it was the experience and exposure that she was after and despite the challenges, she said she doesn’t regret any of it.
Regarding barriers she’s had to overcome in her career as a female leader, she said there seems to be a view that because women tend to be more emotional, caring and compassionate, they are less suitable as leaders.
“I would like to prove that wrong, because these are the characteristics that help give you that healthy balance, giving good grounding and purpose. I am proud to be a compassionate and caring leader, and even though that may attract criticism, I can only be true to who I am, and the form of leadership that I believe in.”
Hajah Nurul Haniah said she feels encouraged to see the number of women business leaders growing in Brunei. While men and women are treated equally in general, the number of female leaders is relatively low compared to men.
“As a woman, I am of the view that we bring a different perspective and approach to the business, in the way we organise ourselves and the team, through our leadership style, coupled with the natural instincts that we inherit as women.” She said female leaders also serve as role models, which is critical to not only advancing careers but also to generate societal impacts that contribute to the community and economy.
Sharing some advice for future female leaders, she told them to lead without fear and learn from mistakes. “There are no shortcuts to success. If the men out there can do it, we as women can too! So let’s have more of the ‘I can do’ attitude. Sometimes the best ‘man’ for the job is a ‘woman’. Dare to dream bigger and dare to do. Impossibility is a limitation we give ourselves.”
After many years of working at various companies abroad, Haslina returned to Brunei and was appointed CEO of Dynamik in 2007, contributing to the country’s digital transformation. As a woman business leader, she said her journey has been exciting, insightful and full of learning opportunities as she evolved throughout her career.
The most significant barrier one can face is their own thoughts, said Haslina. “We create a belief that we are not able to reach where our counterparts have accomplished and live in a mental state of not believing in ourselves. But once we can overcome this within ourselves and decide to embrace and change our perspective, we can do anything we want.” Challenging each other and collaborating with people who think differently can also breed creativity and innovative ideas.
“There are distractions such as discrepancies and perception of women. We need to learn to confront various types of discrimination for being female which is the same as many other types of discrimination regardless of gender.”
On the prominence of female business leaders in the country, she said, “We are very fortunate to have equal opportunities in Brunei. In fact, we have a significant number of female leaders holding leadership positions in government, corporations as well as business owners. There are also charities being led by women and we are in various places such as legal, STEM-related fields, finance and more.”
Regardless of who leads in a business, she said what matters is the support and the arms and legs of those sitting in leadership positions. “This support behind a business leader can be more prominent than who is holding the post. They are the quiet leaders and I must say women are perceptually more supportive.”
Imparting some advice for future women leaders, Haslina said to follow their passion and there are equal opportunities out there. “On your journey, don’t forget to acknowledge people at work, those by your side, that make significant changes to the way things work; the movers and shakers and silent leaders in your organisation for your current and future generations.
“We often forget that we, as women, are naturally selected to raise kids and that should be, at one stage in your life, your first choice. Employers should provide solutions such as the work flexibility to balance the demands of our careers and looking after our family.”
Noorhafizah binti Haji Rashid, Founder of Big BWN Project Noorhafizah is the founder of Big BWN Project, a Bruneian social enterprise and non-profit organisation, and has initiated multiple community campaigns from supporting and developing local businesses to issues on environmental awareness, and building sustainable communities to empowering women entrepreneurs within the region.
Under Big BWN Project, she is the founder of Womennovation Brunei, the Brunei Young Entrepreneur Project, Zero Waste Brunei and the co-founder of the Brunei Womenpreneur Network. Noorhafizah is also an inaugural member of the US ASEAN Innovation Circle.
With regards to the prominence of female business leaders in Brunei, she said, “It’s truly remarkable and inspiring learning that more and more Bruneian women are taking up senior roles and leading large organisations, especially in the non-conventional fields like aviation, engineering and telecommunications. I hope this paves the way for the younger generation of female leaders to be more empowered and believe they can reach whatever goal they set their heart to in the future.”
Sharing some advice, she said she believes it is crucial to have the right mindset and intentions to survive and sustain not only in business but also in personal lives.
She said, “It’s high time more women stepped out of their comfort zones to try out different things, and not let the fear of failure get in the way. Consistency is also very important in success, you need to show up in order to succeed!”
Shinny Chia runs a social enterprise called The Collective, which she explained “creates awareness and addresses various social justice causes through marketing and CSR activities”. Their biggest project to date is the CSR platform with Bank Islam Brunei Darussalam (BIBD) called Community for Brunei.
Describing her path through the business world thus far, she said the journey has been hard but meaningful, with a lot of amazing experiences and achievements. While she is honoured that they have won several international awards, she considers the most meaningful highlights the “personal moments you have with your team, when you’ve achieved a goal that you all really worked hard for together, or when a social cause you were championing gets the support you hoped for”.
Speaking on the most significant barrier as a female leader, Chia said stereotyping has been difficult to overcome and can come from both genders. Just being strong and ambitious tends to be portrayed negatively compared to men. “When people are extremely set in their ways and adamant their way of thinking is correct, that makes it hard for women to just exist outside the expectations of ‘normal’ female behaviours.”
She said it is exciting to see a surge in corporate female leadership in Brunei, especially as role models of young girls to see just how far they can go. “There’s definitely room for more though – we need more women in board of director positions, or more female ministers. That would be an amazing advancement for female empowerment in Brunei.”
Sharing some advice for the next generation of female business leaders, she said perseverance is key to breaking through the glass ceiling. She also encourages finding a mentor and a supportive group of work-related friends “because being a high-powered female in business especially entrepreneurship can be a really lonely road to travel, and that’s something which is often glossed over and sugar coated”.
She added, “Don’t forget where you’ve come from and always look to pay it forward, and help lift up the women around you rather than tearing other women down because of the mindset that there can only be opportunities for a limited number of women. A rising tide lifts all boats and we need to really work together as a gender if we want to achieve female equality.”
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