By June Ramli
Dear readers, an audio version of this article is available below.
Chitra Devi Ramiah decided to follow her innate aspiration to be of service to her country.
Seemingly, a combination of sheer luck and blessings paved the path when timely opportunities continually presented itself.
Whether it was being in the right place at the right time or being optimistically opportunistic, making the transitions in her career seamless and jolt her to where she is today.
Chitra (pictured above) was a project manager in a foreign multinational company before entering public service.
Despite the interesting job with wide-ranging exposure and a handsome salary, she decided to follow her heart and join the Malaysian Civil Service.
“Since I was a child, it felt good to help and impact lives and bring about positive change around me,” she told DailyStraits.com in a recent interview from Warsaw.
“As a child, I grew up watching my father help countless numbers of people in his capacity as a High Court Bailiff. He was my hero and I aspired to be like him.
Understanding the passion of Chitra who is the eldest of six children, her father dissuaded her to leave the corporate sector, as she had done well for herself.
He consciously said: ‘there are no quick wins’ explaining the contrasting realities between the private and government sectors, emphasizing the steep drop in salary, patience to endure the measured speed in promotions, high expectations in the job, resilience and long term commitment required to rise in the Civil Service.
Noticing how Chitra did not relent, her father thought it would be a good idea if Chitra met his then mentor hoping he would echo his opinion.
Much to his surprise, her father’s mentor was taken by Chitra’s passion to serve her country and people.
He asked her if she knew the salary scales in the government in contrast to the opportunities in the private sector, Chitra convinced him that money was not the key driver.
Reassured by her spirit, her father’s mentor arranged for the application forms and cautioned her about the waiting period in the government sector for the right opportunity.
Heeding his advice she decided to take the forms and head home to prepare for a long wait.
Perhaps it was preordained, but merely three weeks later, Chitra spotted an advertisement for an opening and applied immediately.
The formal process kicked in with several rounds of rigorous panel interviews and multiple levels of assessments followed by written examination. Much to her surprise, she sailed through the process smoothly. The selection and success came so swiftly that she had to pay her then employer notice to exit her contract to make it on time to report for duty.
Chitra joined the Malaysian Civil Service in 1994, she had to undergo formal training at the National Institute of Public Administration (INTAN) which is the training arm of the Public Service Department (JPA). During that period, it meant eleven and a half months in intensive training in order to qualify as an Administrative and Diplomatic Officer (PTD).The Civil Service training was comprehensive and a complete immersion intended to expose future officers to various departments of the government machinery, roles and responsibilities.
The incumbent gains first-hand insights of the sacrifices of uniformed bodies such as the military, police, the prison department and the fire department through short rotational stints.
At the end of the course, officers are given a choice to choose the Ministries that they would like to serve.
“If not mistaken, I chose the Finance Ministry as one of my choices.”
Eventually, she was posted to the Ministry of Human Resources.
“It was an interesting six and a half years working there, as it was the peak of growth and full employment in Malaysia, a huge contrast to the mitigating steps the ministry was challenged to formulate a few years later under the Asian Financial Crisis period in 1997.”
After the stint in Human Resources, Chitra was transferred to the Ministry of Works where she was assigned to several notable projects namely the 7th and 8th Malaysia Plan.
She recalls fondly her travels to remote parts of Sabah and Sarawak as a Budget Officer with colleagues from the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Works and Jabatan Kerja Raya (JKR).
“I was truly amazed by the generosity and hospitality of our fellow Malaysians during my working visits to Sabah, Sarawak and the Federal Territory of Labuan.”
“The Public Service Department (JPA) adopted a proactive outlook to continuously upgrade civil servants in service and offered various Masters and PhD Programs.
“I visited JPA one morning in 2001 as I was keen on pursuing a master’s program in Japan. However, that morning, God had other plans for me,” she said.
At JPA, I was enticed by the Director of Training with an alternative prospect.
“He told me to come back the next day with my resume and photos, which I did,” Chitra said.
As fate would have it my career took a trajectory in another direction.
“I received a letter of transfer to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“It took me some time to report at the new ministry as I wanted to wrap up what I had started at the Ministry of Works before moving to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“When I first joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 2002, I was assigned to the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) Division and leapt into action to gear up for the 10th OIC Summit as Malaysia was the host of the OIC Summit. Chitra and her team worked around the clock.
“I remember camping in my office for a month to familiarise myself with the inner workings of the division. My colleagues and I would return home at 3 am almost every day and turn up at work later in the morning as there was no time to lose.”
A few months later, she was sent for a compulsory six months Diploma in Diplomacy (DiD) training program at the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations (IDFR). IDFR is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs training arm which conducts programmes for Malaysian diplomatic officers and the Prime Minister’s Department in two broad areas, diplomacy and foreign relations, and foreign languages.
The programme aims to create comprehensive learning on the roles, responsibilities and dynamics of the Foreign Service.
The six-month course equipped me with the necessary knowledge and skills required in performing my duties at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and prepared the skills, essential roles and responsibilities as Malaysia’s representative at Malaysian diplomatic missions abroad. After the six months of training, I was back to continue at the OIC Division to be involved in the 10th OIC Summit and it was a very important conference for Malaysia.
In 2005, her first overseas posting was to Budapest, Hungary.
This was her first posting to Europe, she recalls Budapest fondly, its location and childhood songs about the River Danube and she remarks how beautiful this place is in reality, a city everyone must visit.
My husband followed me on all my postings.
“I have a very supportive husband who understands me well, being much attached to my work. Without his support and understanding, it would have been challenging.
Her following postings were to Chennai and Timor-Leste.
“Both postings had different charms to them and I am glad I have been able to work there to represent my country,” she said.
“I went as the Consul General of Malaysia to South India, office in Chennai, and it was a proud moment for me as I speak Tamil and language is a powerful tool in diplomacy.
“My linguistic proficiency offered me an advantage and as a result, I received immense support from everyone, the State Governments, local authorities, dignitaries, business circles and Chambers of Commerce, and the proud natives of Tamil Nadu.
Everyone gave a warm welcome as we spoke the same language and in turn, I received much help in many aspects of the execution of my diplomatic assignment in Chennai” she said
In Timor-Leste, Chitra said that her posting had been equally as memorable as her posting to South India.
“Malaysia has been very instrumental in helping Timor-Leste and they hold us in very high regard,” she said.
Chitra, who is currently the Malaysian Ambassador to Poland, has been busily engaged with activities commemorating 50 years of Malaysia and Poland diplomatic relations this year.
Malaysia and Poland enjoy very friendly and cordial bilateral relations.
“My first ambassadorship posting at age 51 was to Timor-Leste,” she said.
“In recent years, many senior Ambassadors retired, providing opportunities for the younger officers to be promoted to ambassadors. Nowadays, ambassadorships appointments are common at 40 to 45 years of age.”
On whether there was gender bias when it came to women in holding such posts?
Chitra said there was no such thing.
“Malaysia is among the countries with high numbers of female ambassadors and there are more than 12 of us, women Ambassadors at present representing the country, ” she said.
In Timor Lester and in India, Chitra had benefited as a woman head of mission equally, receiving full support and accorded accolades from the host countries.
“As long as you are a Malaysian below 50 years of age, you are eligible to join the civil service as a PTD officer and simply render your best.”
She shared that there are many reasons for one to choose a career in the Civil Service, representing the government and serving the people.
For me, there is an innate satisfaction and feeling of accomplishment when the service to the country and people has been delivered in a timely manner to meet their needs.