Datuk Dr Wong Lai Sum
CEO of Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (Matrade) 2011-2015
“The different settings of each ministry have given a rounded education and experience that money cannot buy.”
Taking the lead in a challenging industry such as international trade is not an easy task and one that not many can boast of. Datuk Dr Wong Lai Sum is one such leader who had led the industry to greater heights during her service as the Chief Executive Officer of Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE) under the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.
Having spent decades in the public sector, Wong has held various capacities in several ministries which she believes was a privilege. “The different settings of each ministry have given a rounded education and experience that money cannot buy,” she said of the various departments she had worked in.
She first started out her career in the Ministry of Health (MOH) as an assistant secretary in the Contracts and Supply Division and later the Budget Division. “I learnt the length and breadth of planning, budgeting and supplying in a government setting from the beginning,” she said.
It was also while holding that position that she discovered civil service is not a nine-to-five job but one that demands more. “It is full of challenges especially when MOH is such an important part of the social sector,” she said. After serving in MOH, she eventually went on to serve in other ministries including the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Home Affairs and finally, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.
She was the Chief Executive Officer of MATRADE up till June 2015 but during her tenure there, she had successfully led the execution of over 100 events domestically and internationally each year. “Over the 2012 to 2015 period, I was involved in many projects domestically and internationally,” she said. Amongst the projects within the country that she had led included conferences such as the World Trade Promotion Organisations (TPO) Network Conference, developmental programmes such as Youth-in-Trade and Mid-Tier Programme and international exhibitions such as MIHAS and INTRADE. “I also led numerous ‘buyer-seller meets’ for international events such as International Construction Week (ICW), Offshore Technology Conference Asia (OTC) and Kuala Lumpur International Aerospace Business Convention (KLIABC),” said Wong.
Internationally, Wong took charge of major projects in the likes of Malaysia Night at Trafalgar Square in London, Discover Malaysian Art in Melbourne, China ASEAN Expo (CAEXPO), Malaysia Week in Myanmar and India. “My last 6 months being with MATRADE was the World Expo in Milan, where I was the Deputy Commissioner General for Malaysia,” she said.
“The greatest challenge is creating a balance. The government is not without limitations and as service providers we need to prioritise and stay focused on our kpis for appropriate results.”
Taking charge of such a large and important organisation is not a bed of roses as Wong can attest to. “The greatest challenge is creating a balance. The government is not without limitations and as service providers we need to prioritise and stay focused on our KPIs for appropriate results,” she said. Being a woman in a man’s world also carries with it some challenges but Wong said this was also to her advantage.
“Admittedly, it is still a man’s world especially at the top and women must stay strong to get there,” she said. While it is true that a woman needs to put in extra effort to show their capabilities as leaders and managers, she believes that it is women’s passion that drives women to success. “I believe that women are creatures of passion and this passion is what drives them to achieve the unexpected. Contrary to common thought, women of today handle things differently and are capable of controlling their emotions,” she added.
On facing up to the challenge of promoting Malaysian products and services to the world, she said it is no easy task because most Malaysian products are not outstanding in terms of quality and finishing. “Malaysians are slow in terms of branding and differentiating their product and service offerings,” she said. While Malaysians generally provide better after sales service, Wong said Malaysian products are simply not competitive enough especially in a price war. “For certain exports which are agro-based, the supply situation is still wanting and certain domestic processes still need to be improved,” she said.
“Malaysians are slow in terms of branding and differentiating their product and service offerings.”
Even for the services sector, it is another challenge to move Malaysian service providers out of their comfort zones to venture out overseas. “For some who are more adventurous, they face stumbling blocks such as accreditation, job experience overseas and adequate financing,” she said. Therefore, it is not easy to promote Malaysia to the world especially in countries that have very high technical barriers in terms of standards and procedures. “For such countries, a market presence is essential and events and programmes must be done repeatedly to gain attention and mind share,” she said. “It also requires a lot of intervention with the authorities, industry association, chambers of commerce and the trade community in the host country,” Wong added.
Now that Wong has retired from MATRADE, she is not sitting on her laurels but continued to provide service and this time, through education. ”Currently, I am spending a lot of time engaging with the young through teaching at universities,” she said. Together with some friends, she had started a finishing school called Le NouveauPro (The New Professional). She explained that it is a training platform which is aimed at filling the gap between the academia and working life.
“It is not just about eating right and dressing right but about the soft skills needed to fit into the work environment. So, I hope to make a difference for both employers and employees,” she said. The Le NouveauPro is open to university and college students, as well as young recruits. Wong is also actively contributing to the private sector and holds positions on several boards of large corporations.
CHT Pursuit of Excellence (Business : Government) Award 2013