By Ooi Kee Beng, July 2021 PENANG PROFILE
AFTER A LIFETIME in the civil service, Dato’ Seri Haji Farizan bin Darus finally retired from the powerful position of State Secretary for Penang State in 2019. Married to an engineer attach to the Public Works Department (JKR), and with long experience serving in Penang in various districts and positions, this Kangar-born father of one daughter and grandfather three times over is now the CEO for the Penang Infrastructure Corporation.
On April 15, 2021, Penang Monthly’s editor Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng met up with him at his office in KOMTAR to chat about his new job, his views on Penang’s future, and how he perceives the longer-term effects of Covid-19 will be – on people in general, and on the public service (The interview is in two parts, the second of which will be published in September 2021).
Dato’ Seri, can you give our readers a quick rundown on your early career?
Sure, sure. I was actually born in Perlis, in November 1959. I am the second in a family of five siblings, three girls and two boys. When I was four, my father, a civil servant, was transferred to Alor Setar, so we all moved. My mother was a housewife, a common situation for most families in those days. So I was schooled there. I did my Form Six in Ipoh. There were only 12 of us there, the last batch to sit for HSC (Higher School Certificate). My tertiary education was done at Universiti Malaya. I had wanted to do Law, but my mother was not happy about that. She thought that would force me to argue for things I didn’t believe in. So I took Geography instead, which made everyone advise me to go into education. That was not my interest though. What was important at that time was getting a job, and although I was open to other things, I was hoping for a civil servant position.
UMBC (United Malayan Banking Corporation) in Alor Setar offered me a position soon after graduation, and I worked there for six months. I received a letter from Jabatan Telekom one day, calling me to an interview. Now, my father and a sister of mine were both working for Telekom, so I was not keen, but my mother insisted that I went. So I went, and worked as a public relations officer there. At that time, all those with technical background were being moved out, and the non-technical people like me were being put to handle complaints, usually billing matters, front-end administration and non-technical matters.
I moved to PTD (Administrative and Diplomatic Service; Perkhidmatan Tadbir Diplomatik) in 1984 after attending a one-year course, which involved me being attached to the police and the military, and even Wisma Putra. I was asking to be posted to Penang already then, but they put me as Assistant Secretary in the Promotion and Disciplinary Division of the Public Services Commission in KL instead. I served there for five years. Coincidentally though, in that division, disciplinary matters in Penang – and Melaka – were under my purview. So I would visit Penang a couple of times a year to do training with regard to disciplinary procedures and so forth.
In 1989, I was transferred to Penang and posted to the Bukit Mertajam Land Office, where I was put in charge of land administration. I stayed there also for five years. In 1994, I was moved to Seberang Perai Utara, but now into District Development. District offices were basically divided into Land Administration on one side, and District Development on the other. In that way, I was involved for 10 years in all aspects of district office work.
A promotion offer came in 1998, and that was for a posting to Perlis. I was not keen on that, and the alternative was to go federal instead. So it was back to KL for me, to the Ministry of Finance this time. Actually during that time, many officers who had work in Penang were at that Ministry.
Among the most unforgettable incidents was when Anwar Ibrahim, who was Minister of Finance under Tun Dr. Mahathir then, was just about to be arrested. After his arrest, there was a major revamp under the new Finance Minister and that included transfers of public officers and new ways of doing things.
So that was a short stint for me. After two plus years at that Ministry, I was transferred back to Penang and posted again to do Development, but now in Seberang Perai Utara. While in KL, though, I noticed that most officers, maybe as much as 80% of them, held a Master’s degree. So I was encouraged to continue my academic education, and I put in an official application. I got the offer letter two years later to do so.
Did you feel that the younger generation was moving up faster than your batch?
Exactly, so I felt I had to go get at least a Master’s. So I did Human Resources Development at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). I found it interesting to be a mature student. One could get more out of the lecturers, and balance the practical with the theoretical. Actually, I had requested to do a course overseas, but they thought I was too old for that, so UPM it was, for two years.
After completion of my Master’s, I was made District Officer for Seberang Perai Selatan. After more than two years there, I was again posted back to the federal level, this time to the Ministry of Domestic Trade & Consumer Affairs. Well, maybe luck was on my side then, because I was made Director of Domestic Trade & Consumer Affairs for Penang.
There were some interesting vacancies in Penang, at the state level then, and I was sent on secondment to be the President of Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai (MPSP), which was not my first choice at that time. The finances there were notoriously bad.
For example, cut flowers were being placed to decorate the main roads, and this actually cost RM1mil a month, and they would not last beyond three weeks. No doubt they looked beautiful, but when you knew what they cost, it made it hard to appreciate them. So, I cut that away once the supply contract was up.
I also engaged with the officers and told them they must work together with the management to balance the budget, and to collect the revenues that were due. So, we set up a task force which included councillors, for that purpose. In some cases, we allowed payments by instalments as well.
This secondment lasted more than two years. In 2008, there was a change in the state government, as you know. Six months into his term, then-Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng asked for me to become the State Finance Officer (SFO) for Penang. I agreed, but only after telling him that if he found me not up to the job then he was to tell me honestly.
Did he choose you because he knew of your background working for the Ministry of Finance?
Maybe. He would have known that, yes. Anyway, Guan Eng and I had an understanding that the politicians should not interfere in my work. But basically, I am of the opinion that those who work for the state government should understand and implement the policies approved by the state government. If they have any doubts about certain policies, then they should discuss that with the state government.
So Guan Eng and other politicians such as Phee Boon Poh and Dato’ Lim Hock Seng, the former assemblyman for Bagan Jermal, knew how I worked, and they left me to it. I was SFO from 2009 to 2011. The Chief Minister then wanted me to be the Setiausaha Kerajaan (SUK). So arrangements with the Public Service Department (JPA) were made for me to be the State Secretary for Penang. Guan Eng knew how I functioned, I knew how he functioned, so that worked out fine actually.
New Job, New Challenges
It is important that the Chief Minister and the State Secretary can work together, and are seen to work together, isn’t it?
Exactly. So, I ended up as State Secretary for Penang until I retired in November 2019. All in all, I was in public service for 36 years and had served Penang for 26 years. A long time.
In June 2020, the state government under Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow established a company to manage its infrastructure projects and development, and wanted me onboard. So I became the CEO of the Penang Infrastructure Corporation (PIC) in August that year. The Chief Minister is the chairman, and it has two directors, Zairil Khir Johari, and the present State Secretary, Dato’ Abdul Razak bin Jaafar.
It’s a totally new company, and our main responsibilities are to implement the Penang South Reclamation (PSR) project, and manage the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). The PTMP depends on the success of the PSR. The original plan had been for the two to run parallel, but that is not the case now, after the change in government at the federal level.
Now, we have to focus on the first island. The timeline and the schedule have had to adjust to suit the new situation. It is a JV, a joint venture, with Gamuda as the private sector partner. This is on a 30-70 ownership pattern, and much depends on the success of this first island. I am optimistic that this first phase will be implemented. Gamuda is on the ball, and permission for sand mining off Perak has been given by the federal government.
We hope that the federal government will come around and support the rest of the project in the near future. It makes much more sense for the federal government to show its support for the project since it wants to create jobs in as many sectors as possible for the country. But sadly, that is not the situation now.