Recently, In Real Life spoke to Datin Wira Dr Siti Hawa Mohd, director, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author of Mydin — The Untold Story to share her life story with us.
I grew up in Kota Kinabalu amongst the paddy fields
I spent my childhood in many different cities: Melaka, PJ, Penang and Kangar, but the most memorable one was living in Kota Kinabalu (KK), Sabah.
I had a fairly happy childhood. I’d spend school holidays and Hari Raya along with my cousins at my grandmother’s kampung in Melaka. My grandparents were paddy farmers and we would fish outdoors in the paddy fields and grill them with coconut husks.
I have so much respect for farmers. It is a back-breaking task. My grandfather, who was also the village imam, would toil the paddy fields, pulling his water buffaloes along, and whenever a leech latched onto him, he would use his self made tobacco cigarettes to burn them off.
At dawn, I would follow grandmother to the paddy fields and help ensure her chickens wouldn’t snack on her precious paddy which she had placed on pandan mats for sun drying.
I recall her cooking with firewood in her kitchen and stirring her famous dodol (this took 6 hours to cook!) or baking kuih bahulu outdoors using coconut husks placed on top and below the kuih.
The recipe has been passed down and today, my cousin is the one selling grandmother’s delicious kuih bahulu.
My favourite pastime was wading in the clean, clear river with my cousins. Thinking back, it was actually quite dangerous, and I’d get an earful from my mother when we got home.
The experience of living in KK was particularly important as I became aware of the sense of unity in diversity. It also planted a seed of love for travel as I had my first plane ride and first ship voyage back then.
I felt a sense of displacement when I joined the workforce
I went abroad for studies and spent 5 years in the US. Even as a student, I took on part-time jobs washing dishes, babysitting and did clerical work.
I came back to Malaysia after that with a sense of displacement. And by displacement, I mean sense of disorientation, I had changed. I had to pay back the loan from MARA, so I started working as a lecturer for a local university.
But it was neither a cultural nor emotional fit for me, so I was quite unhappy. I kept comparing the US and Malaysia.
For example, quality of life where work was not the only priority but requires a balance together with life. But today o shape my own career and am at a place and space where I am happy and contented.
How I met my husband
In the late 70s, I met my husband at Western Michigan University, USA. We became close during our senior year. He was president of the Malaysian Student Organisation.
I was attracted to his leadership qualities, his humility and his kindness. He was always helping other students with their groceries from K-Mart (a store with a similar concept to Mydin).
After graduating with our degrees, we flew home in the summer of 1979 to get married, then straight away flew back to the States to continue our Masters.
The privacy of our married life away from home was important as we were given the space to grow as a married couple.
We had our first child in Kuching, Sarawak back in 1982 and our second child in 1986.
There, I wrote my first non-fiction book ‘Strategi Belajar’ (It’s based on some research conducted in the Sarawak branch of Universiti Pertanian) and co-wrote my second book, ‘Pengantar Psikologi’.
When our second child came along, my husband was already operating our 3rd branch Mydin in Jalan Masjid India, KL.
The support of a spouse is extremely important to nourish a marriage relationship, wouldn’t you agree? My husband was a very hands-on father and when I was doing my PhD, he helped take care of the kids. I had to fly back and forth between London and LA to collect materials for research as the literature reviews were not readily available in Malaysia.
My husband and our 2 children came along with me as we did not want to leave our kids with our relatives. I recall him looking after our children while I studied in the library. Oh, there were times when I felt like giving up, but he was always there, supporting me all the way. He was very instrumental in making sure I completed my PhD.
When we did our haj pilgrimage he was very protective to make sure I was safe and completed all the rituals among the 2 million pilgrims. This meant a lot to me.
By the way, we just celebrated our 41st wedding anniversary.
I faced a lot of social expectations as a woman, a mother, and as a leader
Like most Asians, working women are still considered the minister of home affairs. Looking back, it was challenging to juggle between work, my PhD and operating an afterschool daycare, while our children were still in primary school.
Now, whenever I meet the children who used to be in my daycare, all taller than me now, we hug, and I am humbled I was part of their life tapestry.
My neighbour (who meant well) once asked, “So you think you can do all this?” He was right, it was not easy. But you can manage and do it if you focus.
In general, people assume that I do not work, and that I am a woman of leisure! I was once asked, “Do you have to work? Why are you working?”
Nobody would ask a working man, how do you balance work and family! When CEO Pepsico. Inc. Indra Nooyi was asked this and she replied, “It was just not possible, one of it has to go!” Today, I may be a director, but when I get home, I am still a woman, a wife and a mother.
While I was not directly in operations as all our male family members were, I was often in male-dominated situations. Being the MD’s wife has made it even more challenging.
At social events, I introduce myself as “Hi, I am Siti from Mydin.” Usually, this is followed by a polite silence. Later when they discover I am also the MD’s wife, and that I work with Mydin, they apologise and treat me better.
Sometimes people want their photo taken with our MD, and not me, this is understandable. Often I will volunteer to take their photo.
And when my husband introduces me as his wife, I get one of these two different reactions, either they don’t care, or they invite me to join them. Usually, my husband will ask that I join in a group photo.
What I Learnt As A Leader
1. Leadership by example.
During our first team building when none of our staff volunteered to go for high rope or up scaling, I offered to go first. The rest of the staff then said, “If Datin can, I can!” Honestly, I was just as scared as they were!
2. Life is about making choices.
I just do the best I can with the choices I have. I have always loved and worked with children so parenting was mostly fun as a young mother.
We took the children for umrah pilgrimage and travelled as much as we could. Because of the exposure, our children are very comfortable mixing with people from all walks of life, can eat all kinds of international cuisines and even handle chopsticks like a pro.
3. We live in an ecosystem.
The family, the people I work with, the community, the public. We are all one big family. When I greet people with a “Good morning!” I like to chat or give feedback on their customer service, whether to our family, in-laws, maid, driver, secretary.
I enjoy walking around our store, making contact with customers, mall tenants, cleaners, security, cashiers, sales assistants, buyers, HR Practitioners and office staff. I love seeing them grow and develop and make a difference in our company and country.
And as HR Director, I actively helped to expand our company’s ‘Kelab Rekreasi & Sukan Mydin’ (KRSM) to many humble community projects aimed at the less fortunate. We don’t really publicize this but I feel that it’s important for people to know that there’s a need out there that needs to be met.
4. It’s the little things that count.
I always wish I can do more things, bigger things. So I have to keep reminding myself to be grateful for the little things I can do.
For example during festivals, I like to give duit raya to our cleaners (70 of them), leave hot tea, a donut, box drink, chocolate or a fruit on our staff desks or workstations.
To the nurses and physiotherapists in the hospital where my mother-in-law and I go, I give them snacks like nasi bungkus or during festivals dates and cookies.
Small things like smiling (now with our masks on, the eyes are definitely the windows of our soul) greeting and listening to others, that’s what makes us human.
5. Faith is very important in decision-making.
I begin each day with morning prayers. I pray to God for guidance and to help me make wise decisions when the days are filled with challenges, regardless of whether it is my personal life or/and career-wise.
And at the end of each day, I thank God for another opportunity in life.
6. Our first relationship is always with ourselves.
Loving oneself, became a fresh perspective. It was a very powerful experience. Suddenly books by Ekhart Tolle and Esther Hicks made sense, I finally began to understand what they meant by being present and conscious.
I also attended the ‘Heal Your Life’ workshop in Australia. The workshop is based on Louis Hays’ philosophy which emphasizes on loving yourself. I would definitely recommend this to everyone!
One day, a realization came. It hit me like a ton of bricks that my two brilliant children are their own individuals, they are “not children anymore”! I feel like I can continue to give them the space to be the best expression of themselves.
Being a grandmother is an indescribable emotional experience, as I had been waiting so long to be a grandmother. This led me to write my new novel, ‘Waiting for Salima’. It is especially dedicated to my grandchild.
For more stories like this, read: Meet Tim: Entrepreneur, Businessman, and Dad, and How I Went From Bully Victim To Meeting Barack Obama in Person.
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