Seven power tips for civil servants


Datuk Halim Shafie, Chairman of Telekom Malaysia

By Alvin Ung

Dr. Halim Shafie spent nearly forty years serving the government. He rose from a junior officer studying musty documents at the Federal House to become head of the Ministry of Energy, Water and Communications, and subsequently chairman of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission. In an exclusive five-hour interview conducted inside a car, I gleaned from Dr. Halim seven power tips for civil servants who aspire to deliver breakthroughs within the government system.

  1. Always ask, “What’s something new I can do to improve the organization?” If you don’t think this way, you cannot grow. According to Dr. Halim, this question helps you to focus your mind’s eye on opportunities rather than complaints.
  2. Try to create your own opportunities to excel. “Never, ever wait for opportunities to come your way — you’ll wait forever,” Dr. Halim said. The opportunities come when we read the environment, talk to people, and listen to challenges faced by others.
  3. Be responsible for your learning. “Never put the responsibility for self-development on other people,” asserted Dr. Halim. While Dr. Halim tells me that he’s not “intelligent,” he has chosen to learn from the work of the world’s best. His doctoral dissertation at Syracuse University – a study on organisational information processing – was built on research carried by American social scientist Herbert Simon, a polymath and  winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics.
  4. Develop a hearty hatred toward an authoritarian leadership style. “You kill off people by pointing out things for people to do,” Dr. Halim said. Instead ask questions that begin with “Why not…” and “What if we….”
  5. Cultivate a discipline of conscious listening. “If you empathise and people see that you are paying attention to them, they will tell you more and more,” said Dr. Halim.
  6. Think of great ideas first, then only think about the money. When you create and communicate a compelling vision, the money will come. Which means that you need to…
  7. Always tell a story to accompany a Big Ask. Whenever you ask for something big, tell a story that delivers emotional impact. “When government officers come to me and say, ‘We’ve no money for this or that,’ I say to them, ‘If you have a compelling story to tell, you’ll get the money.’”


Alvin Ung is a facilitator, executive coach and author of the bestselling book Barefoot Leadership. To view more videos, photos and insights on Halim, please visit The column and multimedia content are a collaborative effort between the columnist and the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP).


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