Chief Executive Officer, Hong Leong Islamic Asset Management

Singapore & Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Who is Noor Aini Shaik Awab? 

Born with parents with two (2) different personalities – my late father was in the military forces since 18 years old; very regimented, and ran a house full of disciplinary, army type of environment and my mother, a petite, beautiful individual, great chef and a timid house-wife. My genes composition is 80% dad and 20% mom. Being the second eldest in a siblings of 9 (8 girls and 1 boy), I was sandwiched between the eldest and the rest, I decided that I must be different, more tomboyish in my personality, rebellious, courageous and able to plan escape route when being in trouble per se. Living in a kampung environment in Singapore, climbing trees, playing marbles, and staying up late during the Ramadhan month with the kampung boys are the norm for me but not for the rest. I had more male friends in my younger days and until today, even though I was placed in an all-girls-elite primary school and a co-ed secondary school doesn’t change my pool of friends. I am a person of my own and capable of being elusive and secluding or disappearing in the room or blending in or being noticed in a crowded room. The choice is always mine. Nevertheless, being an adorable and quite good-natured person, I always think that I am the favourite amongst my siblings by the neighbours and relatives.    

Your whole career trajectory started in Singapore, years ago, while temping. We love a good story like that. Tell us all about it.

My journey from taking a break after O levels to landing a job in the heart of the city, Shenton Way, Singapore is an inspiring tale of personal and professional growth. The decision to step into the unknown and seek employment marked the beginning of a transformative chapter in my life.

Starting as an Office Girl, or today’s equivalent of a “dispatch guy,” I embraced the role with enthusiasm. Despite being at the bottom of the employment hierarchy, my positive attitude and willingness to tackle any task set me apart. The daily errands took me on walks through Shenton Way, allowing me to interact with kind individuals and create a positive work environment.

My initiative and work ethic didn’t go unnoticed, leading to opportunities to take on more responsibilities. Managing the switchboard and mastering the art of typing on a manual typewriter showcased my adaptability and commitment to continuous improvement. The secretaries and personal assistants that I had worked with became my mentors, teaching 

me about navigating challenging work environments and the importance of maintaining a strong personality.

The decision to apply for a clerical job at Girl Friday Services opened the door to a stint as a filing clerk in a major audit company. Although the job came with challenges like paper cuts and heavy lifting, my dedication and helpful nature earned me a permanent position. However, I opted to decline, recognizing that it wasn’t the ideal fit at the moment for me.

My career journey took a significant turn when I joined Schroders Investment Singapore Limited as a Girl Friday on a contract basis. The six-month contract turned into a permanent position, marking the beginning of a remarkable 10-year career. Working in the finance industry, my tasks ranged from assisting in the dealing room to typing corporate finance deals and preparing various financial reports. The demanding nature of the job, with long hours and a focus on wealth management and financial regulations, didn’t scare me away from the job assignment. Instead, I thrived in a challenging environment, surrounded by like-minded colleagues with passions for producing good and reliable work. 

The pivotal role of the Head of Operations, a tough but highly competent leader, added a layer of mentorship to my career journey. The demanding nature of the job, dealing with shares and investors’ wealth daily, required accuracy and dependability, traits that I had embraced wholeheartedly. The daily scolding that I had to endure was not just criticism but rather a form of tough training, moulding me into a professional capable of handling the intricacies and pressures of the finance industry. The relentless attitude of not giving up, even in the face of tough challenges, played a significant role in shaping my professional identity throughout this decade-long tenure. 

My ability to persevere, adapt, and maintain a positive attitude in a high-stakes environment has not only fueled my growth in Schroders but has also propelled me into a key position within this reputable investment company. Being recognized as the second in charge is a testament to the acquired skills, loyal dedication, and groomed leadership qualities that I had gained with the support system from my team and the confidence earned from my mentor, Ms. Phua Ah Liang, whom the industry both in Singapore and Malaysia fondly refer to as the “Dragon-Lady” of Schroders Singapore. The promotion and recognition given to me, further solidify the impact I had within the organization. Winning Ah Liang’s confidence is an exceptional accomplishment, especially given her reputation as a tough but respected figure in Schroders Group and the industry too.

How do you persevere through tough times, Aini?

My approach to persevering through tough times is not to bicker or complain about the job or my teammates but to look into myself, identify my weaknesses and work towards closing these gaps towards through self-improvement. These have always been a driving force in overcoming challenges and thriving in my career journey. This positive attitude is undoubtedly a key factor in forcing me to take night classes in a private college after work to earn diplomas in IT and Business Administration. 

I have always been quiet and reserved nature at home, contrasted with my active pursuit of self-improvement and determined mindset. My joy was watching TV shows and movies with my late father serves as being important to find moments of relaxation and connection amidst a busy life. 

I am in many ways a reflection of my late father, a man of few words but who rule the house with great discipline. A person who dedicated his life, starting from the age of 18 in the Singapore Armed Forces until retiring at 55, is truly inspiring. He seamlessly adapted to a change in lifestyle, transitioning from a regimented military life to becoming the owner of a bus and working as a bus driver of his own. This journey vividly demonstrates that with a responsible and never-give-up mindset, one can evolve into anything and overcome any challenges.

Through the years, you have to catalyze certain innovations. What are your challenges?

Imagine working in the early 1990s, a time when technology wasn’t a buzzword, and the most advanced tool we had for completing reports was the IBM roller-ball typewriter. Imagine the task of competing with a boss who meticulously checked your numerical calculations using a calculator, effortlessly navigating the keys without even glancing at them. This was the formidable challenge I faced at that time.

Adding to the complexity was the fact that I was entrusted with the installation of the first system at Schroders in the Asia Pacific region. Working with an American IT provider on the first American platform in Singapore brought an additional layer of difficulty, as it might not have been perfectly aligned with the local regulatory requirements for the asset management industry. This created a high-stakes, “war field” atmosphere in my white-collar job, requiring me to navigate uncharted territory and adapt to the challenges of merging cutting-edge technology with stringent industry standards. 

The most formidable and pivotal challenge in my journey was overcoming my immediate boss’s resistance to change. Convincing her that technology and innovation were not intended to replace her intellectual prowess became a daily task. This message had to be consistently reinforced, not only by me, her perceived adversary, but also by the senior management of the company. Undoubtedly, this transition wasn’t easy for her either. She had to embark on a steep learning curve, starting from ground zero to understand the intricacies of technology. This endeavour demanded a significant portion of her time, which was already stretched thin due to the ongoing need to review results. Balancing the acquisition of new technological skills and the importance of adhering to existing processes for regular work posed a considerable challenge. She had to maintain the status quo in producing work, as usual, to meet the pressing deadlines for reporting, adding another layer of complexity to the change management process. 

Successfully regaining her support and trust marked the commencement of a joyful working journey with her, particularly as we navigated new changes in the operations department. This positive collaboration continued until her retirement, and I am immensely grateful to my lady boss for being a crucial part of my successful career in this industry. Her influence and guidance played a pivotal role in shaping my professional journey, and I will always appreciate the impact she had on my growth and achievements. Thank you, Ah Liang!

How can one be a powerful leader without alienating or upsetting people?

I hold the belief that there’s no such thing as a powerful leader in the corporate world, except for business-driven shareholders. In my career, leading teams in both my current and past companies, I consistently conveyed to my superiors that I see myself not merely as an employee but as a stakeholder. If I invest significant time and effort into the organization, I expect the business to thrive, and I, in turn, should be duly rewarded, together with my team.

Approaching my role with this mindset, I’ve always strived to give my best and challenge anyone hindering the progress of the business. This perspective encourages me to question management and peers about failures and strategize for the future. Such accountability applies universally across the business, devoid of alienation, injustice, or discrimination. It’s about safeguarding the interests of the workforce and the success of the business, steering clear of personal vendettas and disdain for office politics.

While I may clash with colleagues during meetings or discussions, the aftermath is always positive for me. I can still share coffee and meals with them because the disputes are centred on work issues that we collectively need to address. I recently imparted this advice to a young entrepreneur who is struggling to communicate expectations to his team. I emphasized that, as a leader, he has the right to express opinions on work quality, as it directly impacts both the company’s revenue and the staff’s income. However, I emphasized the importance of coupling this assertiveness with empathy and a system that prioritizes the social welfare of employees. Regardless of your leadership style, the kindness and empathy you show toward your staff speak volumes about your personality. You might be surprised at the heightened dedication they exhibit when they feel compassion and support, not just for themselves but for their families as well.

How important is it to have a mentor to grow as a leader?

Mentorship plays a crucial role because mentors guide and shape the person we aspire to become, both in life and in our careers. It’s essential to recognize that mentors can come from various sources, not necessarily limited to parents, siblings, or those senior to you. A leader or mentor might even be someone younger who captivates us with their qualities and capabilities.

The decision to choose a mentor is based on alignment and dedication. Finding someone whose values resonate with your own, who is passionate about their work, has clear objectives in achieving success not just for themselves but also for the broader community, team, and social welfare is key. In my experience, my mentors have often been individuals whose biographies detail struggles in their younger years, overcoming hardships, unwavering dedication to their beliefs, and a resilient commitment to achieving personal satisfaction, success, and objectives. The common thread among them is the resounding proclamation, “I did it.”

During my formative years, my late father served as a profound inspiration, but I also found motivation in the biographies of notable individuals such as Muhammad Ali, Maradona, Pele, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Tun Mahathir Mohamed, Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, and Obama. Witnessing the challenges, they endured before achieving success and reaching the light at the end of the tunnel was truly fascinating. In addition to political and sports figures, I delved into the stories of spiritual leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, Oprah Winfrey, Mother Teresa, and the narratives of various prophets. These stories have consistently served as beacons of motivation, highlighting that perseverance, dedication, and a clear sense of purpose can lead to significant accomplishments.

Continually seeking self-improvement and adapting to evolving management styles in collaboration with diverse colleagues and bosses, I have found great guidance in inspirational management books. These resources have proven invaluable in shaping my leadership approach and helping me navigate the complexities of working with individuals from diverse backgrounds in the professional realm.

One of the most gratifying aspects is observing that my collection of books has now become a source of knowledge for my children, including my daughter-in-law. It brings me immense satisfaction to know that the insights and wisdom I’ve gained from these books are being passed on to the next generation. I hope that the knowledge they acquire from these resources will contribute to their personal and professional growth in the years ahead, creating a lasting impact on their career and lives.

What advice will you give to your 25-year-old self, Aini? 

If I were to offer advice to my 25-year-old self, I would emphasize the importance of resilience and continuous learning in life. 

· Embrace challenges as challenges and setbacks are inevitable parts of life and turn them into opportunities for growth rather than obstacles. 

· Don’t fear failure, as it provides insights and lessons that contribute to our personal and professional development. 

· Stay curious and open-minded to cultivate a mindset that welcomes new ideas, experiences, and perspectives. 

· Set clear and achievable goals for you and your team by breaking tasks into smaller steps. Track the progress and celebrate small victories with the team. 

· Embrace lifelong learning, be adaptable to change and stay relevant.

· Invest in and prioritise relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. These are indeed enduring investments that will continue to provide support, guidance, and a sense of community while you are working and in your life.

· Prioritizing and taking care of both physical and mental health is paramount. Taking proactive steps toward a healthier work-life balance can lead to a more fulfilling and satisfying professional journey.

What are the secrets to your success?

The mindset of continuous learning and drawn inspiration from a diverse range of sources, including biographies and literature on productivity. The influence of my late father and the exposure to watching movies every night with him series like “The Combat,” “Wild Wild West,” and “The Samurai” have contributed to the development of a warrior spirit within me.

Apart from the many books I have read, Graham Allcott’s book, “How to be a Productivity Ninja,” seems to have resonated with me, emphasizing the importance of being ruthless in pursuing one’s passions and taking an unconventional approach to optimize efficiency in work and duty. This mindset aligns with the principles of focus, adaptability, and proactive problem-solving.

My journey of self-improvement, guided by the wisdom of mentors and my own tough experiences, develops my commitment towards personal and professional growth. This combination of diverse influences, a warrior spirit, and a productivity-oriented mindset positions me for success and continuous achievements. Still at my current age leading towards retirement soon, my mind continues to keep forging ahead on the journey of learning and development!

Can a woman have it all, Aini?

The idea of “having it all” typically refers to a woman’s ability to successfully balance and find satisfaction across various aspects of life, including career, family, and personal fulfilment, indeed involves making choices and setting priorities. The acknowledgement that achieving excellence in everything that we do, may not be realistic underscores the importance of understanding one’s limitations and focusing on what truly matters. It is of utmost importance to have supportive environments is particularly crucial. 

Having support from friends, mentors, loving partners, and family creates a foundation that enables women to navigate the complexities of multiple roles more effectively. This support system not only aids in pursuing professional and personal goals but also contributes to a sense of fulfilment and well-being. A strong support system is instrumental in empowering women to thrive in different areas of their lives be it for personal and/or professional success. 

An incredibly inspiring woman dear to my heart is my younger sister, Ms Laila White, who holds the fifth position in our sibling lineup. Following her divorce at a young age, she made the courageous choice to carve out a successful career in the realm of health, fitness and wellness. Similar to the resilient genes we share, Laila refrains from dwelling in self-pity and seeks no handouts from the family. Instead, she embraces any mistakes made, taking them as lessons from decisions during her business career and personal life. Despite not having undergone military training, Laila manages her life and guides her children with a discipline reminiscent of an army sergeant, perhaps inheriting this trait from the strong genes passed down by our late father. Her ability to navigate challenges with unwavering determination and learn from setbacks stands as a testament to her resilience and determination.

What do you want to achieve next?

As I continue my journey in the capital markets industry, I am eager to seize the opportunity to play a role in recruiting and nurturing young talents for the Islamic asset management business. This venture promises a different nature of work, presenting unique challenges that require aligning the intellectual prowess of the smarter, tech-savvy generations with the evolving landscape of technology in its end-game phase. 

Looking ahead, I am enthusiastic about exploring new opportunities in diverse business areas. This shift offers the chance to engage in personal activities that have been put on hold, fostering a deeper connection with my family, particularly my two children. Additionally, I aspire to dedicate more time to social work, contributing positively to the community and making a meaningful impact beyond the boundaries of my professional life. The ongoing geopolitical situation in Palestine holds a special place in my heart, influencing and affecting my life in profound ways.

Best book you’ve read this year

Presently, I am reading Compelling People by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut. A book that has been on my shelf for a few years and is now getting the attention it deserves. The book emphasizes the importance of looking ahead and recognizing one’s strengths in achieving goals. Whether approached with reluctance or enthusiasm, strength commands respect, especially when it contributes to effective leadership and competence. The book delves into the central theme of unwavering commitment, or “will,” to progress, face challenges, and overcome resistance without succumbing to over-analysis. Interestingly, my son has already made a reservation to be the next reader of this insightful work! 

The last music you downloaded

I have a deep appreciation for soulful voices and singers who capture the essence of the real world through their music. Recently rediscovered my favourite artist, Tracy Chapman, while driving and downloaded some of her songs. At the moment, my top picks include “Talking about a Revolution,” “Behind the Wall” “Why” and “Give Me One Reason”. The song “Why” resonates deeply with me, particularly about the ongoing conflicts in Palestine. Chapman’s poignant lyrics and soulful delivery provide a powerful connection to the current state of affairs in that region.

The music that changed everything for you

My all-time favourite singer is Whitney Houston, and her song “I Have Nothing” resonates deeply with me. The idea of having nothing implies a lighter journey forward, unburdened by baggage, and open to the exploration of life. 

When you need to feel inspired

When I seek inspiration, I turn inward and feel a deep sense of pride in my life’s achievements, reflecting on the incredible journey in my career and the significant decision I made to migrate. I cherish being surrounded daily by the love and warmth of my immediate family, and witnessing the success stories of my children. Additionally, the freedom and joy I experienced as a daughter, then as a wife, and mother, and being a supportive companion to many great friends further contribute to my sense of fulfillment. 

Things you’ll always have in your fridge 

Butter, Eggs and Milk. 

Your morning routine

No breakfast, 2 tablespoons of faithful Palestine Olive Oil, a few supplements, head off to work and must have a good cup of coffee to start the day! 

A fabulous day for Aini Shaik Awab

A fabulous day for me involves heading to my regular spa in a casual, sporty outfit and a simple hijab, all without makeup. With the day to myself, and no husband or children around, I return home after lunch, stretch out on the sofa, and indulge in watching a good movie—be it Korean, English, American, or Arabic.

What have you come to appreciate in the last 2 years? 

Over the past two years, I had the privilege of taking on a new challenge in advancing the Islamic asset management business, a journey that unfolded amidst the turmoil and challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the uncertainties, I firmly believe that this venture will be instrumental in shaping the landscape of the Shariah capital markets industry. This period has been particularly fulfilling, characterized by the recruitment of a vibrant and talented group of young individuals from local universities in Malaysia. The opportunity to contribute to the growth of these bright minds and witness the unfolding of their potential has added a profound sense of purpose to this chapter of my professional life.

Best gift you’ve received

On our 10th wedding anniversary, my husband, my best friend, and the love of my life presented me with a special diamond ring. Crafted with care and adorned with the words “Heart of Fire,” this precious gift symbolizes not just a decade of shared love and commitment, but the enduring flame that continues to ignite our journey together until now. 

Best gift you’ve given

The most meaningful gift I’ve given in my life is the act of adopting and supporting a young Palestinian girl named Tamim, who was 8 years old at the time. This compassionate gesture was carried out through a charitable program organized by the official Palestinian Refugees camps organization here in Kuala Lumpur. The modest contributions I sent to Tamim played a role in enabling her to attend school, fostering the hope that she would blossom into an educated young lady with a bright future. Tamim regularly wrote to me, providing heartfelt updates on her progress. Sadly, the program came to an end after six years due to changes in the money transfer process. The organization now required donors to directly transfer funds, and the camp would correspond with us directly. It was a poignant moment for me, but I remain hopeful for the chance to reconnect with my Palestinian daughter, Tamim, one day.

Biggest inspiration comes from 

My greatest inspiration emanates from a remarkable colleague, Puan Suhara Supian. I hold deep admiration for this resilient woman who has dedicated over 25 years to her work, managing a middle-income wage while being a mother to five children. Her strength was profoundly tested when tragedy struck, and she lost one of her eldest twins in a highway accident at the age of 18. Despite the heartbreak, she accepted the loss and moved forward with life for the sake of her remaining children. Five years ago, Puan Suhara was diagnosed with breast cancer. Without hesitation, she opted for a mastectomy, demonstrating her unwavering determination to survive for the sake of her young family. Even in the face of adversity, she continued to come to work every day without seeking sympathy or asking for anything in return. Recently diagnosed with a relapse of cancer, she remains a steadfast presence in the office, starting her job early each morning without a second thought. I am continually amazed by her resilience, and I frequently express to her that she is truly my inspiration. I’ve also conveyed to my other colleagues that coming to work might provide her with the extra energy needed to overcome her current state of mind, especially being surrounded by good friends at the office. 

One gadget you can’t do without  

A gadget that has become indispensable for me is my smartphone. It’s not merely for receiving calls from family and friends but serves as a crucial tool for staying connected with the world and, in turn, sharing my experiences with the world through social media.

Country you can’t wait to go back to 

Being a sailor’s granddaughter, I have had the privilege of going onboard ships that occasionally docked in Singapore in the 1960s. While my heart harbours a deep love for the seas and meeting people, the scorching sun is less appealing to me. Nevertheless, my passion for exploration extends to a desire to visit numerous countries. Exploring Istanbul and venturing into many more cities in Turkey holds a prominent place on my bucket list.

Favorite podcast(s)

I occasionally listen to Simon Sinek, and recently my son, Nazrul, introduced me to many more inspiring podcasts on health and wellness, particularly the insights shared by the legendary scientist Andrew Huberman on Huberman Lab.

Something you’ve recently discovered

During my recent holiday in Melbourne, I showcased my continued proficiency in handicrafts by crocheting two bags for my daughter, completing both within just one week. 

Philosophy in life 

My life philosophy is to acknowledge there are always two sides to a coin. I advocate for the practice of looking and listening from both perspectives without passing judgment. 

Your style icon

As a modernly dressed individual with a conservative approach to fashion, I’ve always admired beautiful Muslim fashionistas, and one who particularly stands out is Halima Aden.

Best things about living in Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur has been my home since 1996, and it’s where my life has flourished alongside my life partner and children. The experience is enriched by the bonus of being surrounded by extended family members and cherished friends. 

Best things you missed about Singapore

I miss the camaraderie of my group of great friends from our former secondary school in Singapore. Nowadays, we come together whenever a friend’s son or daughter gets married, and these gatherings transport us back to our teenage years, creating a nostalgic and cherished atmosphere.  

Favourite movie 

My current favourite movie is “Mission: Impossible,” featuring Tom Cruise, a thrilling choice that never fails to captivate my attention. 

What’s in your glass and plate for afternoon tea

For afternoon tea, if I indulge, will be a cup of latte paired with the delightful crunch of ginger biscuits.

An indulgence you’ll never forgo

An indulgence that I consistently look forward to is spending a day at my regular spa for a rejuvenating facial and massage. This delightful routine has been a cherished part of my life for the past 21 years in Kuala Lumpur, ever since I gave birth to my daughter, Farah Ain Adriana.

Work of an artist you collect or would (collect) if you could

I have always had a deep appreciation for Arabic calligraphy with a Chinese influence, particularly the work of Hajji Noor Deen Mi Guangjian.