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A RESILIENT LEADER IN MALAYSIAN BANKING
Datuk Haji Abd Rani Lebai Jaafar is one of the Malaysian banking industry’s celebrated personalities. He recently concluded his tenure as Bank Rakyat’s chairman in what was an immensely successful period for the bank. Called up to lead the bank of the people, there could not have been a more fitting appointment than Datuk Haji Abd Rani Lebai Jaafar, a man of the people. In an illuminating interview with Top 10 of Asia, the former Chairman of Bank Rakyat talks about his background and his journey so far, as well as his pride in having led Bank Rakyat, Malaysia’s biggest Islamic cooperative bank.
Datuk Haji Abd Rani Lebai Jaafar was born in Bandar Baru, Kedah on 24th October 1957. He grew up in Yan, Kedah – receiving his primary school education at Sekolah Kebangsaan Laki-Laki Yan before going on to secondary school at Sekolah Menengah Yan. He left Kedah to pursue a Diploma in Accountancy at ITM Shah Alam and then left Malaysia altogether to study for a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University Bloomington in the United States. His education then culminated in him earning a master’s degree from the New Haven University of Connecticut.
Reminiscing on his career path leading up to his appointment at Bank Rakyat, Datuk Abd Rani says “I started my career as an officer trainee in Standard Chartered Bank in 1985, where I was an Account Relationship Manager of its Corporate Banking Division. In 1989, I was offered the position of Branch Manager at Affin Bank Bhd and I climbed the ladder there until I was appointed Deputy CEO of Affin Islamic Bank from 2006 until 2011.
“In 2011, RHB Islamic Bank appointed me as the CEO/Managing Director, a position I held until 2013. I later became the Director of Public Sector and Business Development at RHB Capital till 2014. From 2016 to 2017, I was invited to Zikay Factoring Sdn Bhd to lead the development of its Shariah framework, structure and processes as Director and Chairman, before then beginning my journey with Bank Rakyat in 2018.”
His tenure as Bank Rakyat chairman was a fruitful chapter in the bank’s history. Sharing how it came to be, Datuk Abd Rani says, “I joined Bank Rakyat in January 2018 as a member of the Board of Directors and was later appointed as Chairman of the Board of Directors for its subsidiary, Rakyat Management Services, and held this position until April 2022. Whilst on the Board of Bank Rakyat, I held several memberships on board committees such as the Board Risk Committee, Bank Investment Committee, Bank Financing Committee, and the Nomination and Remuneration Committee.
“I was appointed Acting Chairman from 28 July 2020 until 31 December 2020 and later as the Chairman on 1 January 2021. I also concurrently held other positions within the Bank Rakyat Group, such as Chairman of the Board of Directors for Rakyat Holdings Sdn Bhd.”
A man of vision and determination, Datuk Abd Rani leveraged these qualities to their fullest extent in his stewardship of the Bank. Upon his appointment as chairman, he had a clear designation for where the bank was headed and wasted no time at all in setting the foundations of his ideas. “When I became Chairman of Bank Rakyat, I worked on the vision of the Bank. The objective was to really focus and go back to the basics, which is enhancing the economic well-being of our members, customers, and nation.”
A career as distinguished as his certainly doesn’t come about easily, it requires a certain character underpinned by select qualities all working together in perfect harmony. For those looking to emulate his success in their own undertakings, Datuk Abd Rani has the following advice, “The number one thing you must have is integrity. Integrity is of the utmost importance. If you cannot stay and uphold integrity, don’t stay for another minute. Of course, along the way, you must also develop your skills, competency, and be able to understand all issues. You must understand and relate to the people. You have to be passionate about the job and commit to achieve success.”
“You must also continue to enhance your own knowledge – continue to learn, reskill, and upskill yourself in line with the digital world now. It is important to keep pace with the development and technology today as the environment is changing very fast. The challenges are different and you must be prepared,” he elaborates, emanating a sage air as he speaks.
Over the course of his long and illustrious career, the resolute and indomitable banker has seen a great number of challenges come his way. Touching on some of the ones he faced in his most recent capacity, he shares, “Bank Rakyat is a Development Financial Institution (DFI) which has a mandated and non-mandated role. We have to adhere to several regulations such as the Bank Rakyat act, as well as the directives of certain authorities. These are some of the challenges and complexities that I faced at Bank Rakyat.”
Looking back on the milestones he managed to achieve along the way, Datuk Abd Rani beams with pride as he recalls, “At a personal level, my greatest achievement is receiving The BrandLaureate Transformational Corporate Leader Brand Icon Leadership Award 2022 and the 2022 Global Muslim Business Distinguished Entrepreneur Lifetime Achievement Award. At the bank level we received many awards as well, living up to our vision.” Among these awards was the Overall Sustainability Excellence Award at the recent Sustainability and CSR Malaysia Awards 2022, awarded for Bank Rakyat’s continued excellence in serving the community.
When asked for his thoughts on guiding Bank Rakyat to achieving this award, Datuk Abd Rani has this to say, “Bank Rakyat is committed to giving back to the community and believes that giving back should be a demonstration of what an organisation stands for, outside of profit and reputation. Hence, sustainability is integral to the Bank as it plays a pivotal role in the Bank’s ongoing success.
Pivoting from the topic of social responsibilities to professional ones, Datuk Abd Rani gives some insight into the world of a chairman of a major bank and all that entails, revealing, “My commitment was to deliver to all the stakeholders. I had fiduciary duties where, standing guided by the board, I had to balance all expectations. We had accountability, but at the same time, we had to be sure not to encroach on the executive level.” Such a delicate balancing act was of course aided by his leadership qualities and management style, of which he says, “I would describe myself as a principle-centered leader. I believe in principles. Of course, action is always based on institutional leaders so I blend between those. I can say that I’m quite open, I’ll listen to ideas.”
With the magnitude of the role he had been thrust into and the countless hours put into strategising, one wonders how Datuk Abd Rani managed to have much of a personal life. Asked about how he achieved this ever-elusive balance, Datuk Abd Rani says, “I always believe you must have a balanced life. Whatever you think, whatever you feel, and whatever you do has to be consistent. That is important. In my professional life, I held to my fiduciary duties. I always regarded myself as a professional and as a professional, we follow process and governance. For me, I already consider it a success in terms of my career and professional life.
“As for my personal life, I live a good life with my family. A normal life. A simple life. I love travelling, meeting people, and empowering people to see them move for the better. I cherish my relationships and I’m always passionate in what I’m doing, I speak from my heart. I try to live according to my values and principles to the best of my ability. The person is only complete when he or she can balance the intellectual capacity with those of the emotional and spiritual in their life’s daily conduct.”
On what kept him going as the chairman of the bank, Datuk Abd Rani reckons it was a sense of patriotism as well as a sense of personal duty. “This was my national service. I had already passed my retirement age when I was called to the position. As I’ve been a professional banker all my life, almost 40 years, I’m sure I can pass on and share some of my experience with all the youngsters all my knowledge and experience in this industry.”