Datuk Ir (Dr) Abdul Rahim Hashim spent his entire 32-year career helping grow Petronas into the giant it is today. Despite having retired seven years ago, he is still very...

Datuk Ir (Dr) Abdul Rahim Hashim loves to jog. The Vice Chancellor/CEO of Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP) wakes up every morning at 4.30am and starts his day with prayers before going for his morning run. “If I’m on campus, I know what routes to take, depending on how far I want to go,” he says. “Along the way, I’ll keep an eye out for things, like, for example, whether a broken drain I’d seen earlier has been repaired. This way, I’ll know what’s happening and I can take the necessary action by the time I get into the office.”


Perhaps it’s a bit much to expect Datuk Abdul Rahim to be familiar with every centimetre of UTP’s 400ha Bandar Seri Iskandar, Perak, campus, but the 61-year-old believes in being prepared for anything and that the devil is in the details. “It’s always been that way for me. Even when I was just the Technical Manager in Petronas’ Kerteh Refinery, I always got to the office early and wandered around, just so I’d know what’s happening. From early on in my career, I always believed in keeping myself informed and it’s something I still do to this day.”

The trajectory of Datuk Abdul Rahim’s career is indelibly tied with Petronas, one of the country’s largest corporations. Malaysia’s national oil and gas company is ranked by Fortune Global 500 as among the largest corporations in the world. In 2013, Fortune named Petronas the 75th largest, as well as the 12th most profitable, company in the world. It was also the most profitable in Asia. Probably the most multinational of any Malaysian company, Petronas has 150 wholly or partly owned subsidiaries, and associated companies, with operations in over 35 countries.

When Datuk Abdul Rahim came aboard Petronas in 1976, however, the company was a fledging player in the oil industry. It would rise, though, to the dominance it enjoys today, and, along the way, it would take Datuk Abdul Rahim with it.

As he looks back, there is one thing that Datuk Abdul Rahim is certain of: he is truly blessed to have joined Petronas when he did. “I am quite certain that anyone who joins Petronas today would never be able to replicate the breadth of what I experienced with the company,” he says. The 32 years he spent there mirror the growth of the company and it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that Datuk Abdul Rahim was present when the oil and gas giant made history.

“Let’s just say it was always an interesting time,” he smiles. “I’ve had people ask me why I never left – and, to be honest, I’ve had offers to go elsewhere – and my answer was always the same: I had so many different opportunities here which I probably wouldn’t have had elsewhere.” Although a self-confessed refinery man – Datuk Abdul Rahim served, at various points, in Petronas’ Kerteh and Malacca refineries – he was also, successively, Vice President for Human Resources, the Gas Business and Research & Development divisions (see sidebar), and sat on the boards of a lengthy list of Petronas-related companies. Even after his retirement in 2008, he maintained close ties with the Petronas family, taking on the Vice Chancellorship of UTP as well as becoming Chairman of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) and Dewan Filharmonik Petronas (DFP).

Through it all, there had been many what he calls ‘turning or tipping points’, decisions large and small, that led him to what is still a richly fulfilling life. It began, as expected, with his parents. “I was born in the Sultanah Aminah Hospital in Johor Bahru,” he says. “Both my parents worked in the hospital; my father was a hospital assistant and my mother, a staff nurse. I grew up in Johor as my parents didn’t want to leave the state, even when they were offered promotions elsewhere in the country. You see, as civil servants serving in Johor, my parents were entitled to a fully-paid-for pilgrimage to Mecca after serving for a certain number of years, and they stayed on for that.”

The first of Datuk Abdul Rahim’s many turning points took place when his mother was making her pilgrimage, as part of the Malaysian Medical Mission. “At that time, the Hajj was a six-month journey as you travelled by ship and my parents decided to do their pilgrimages separately. When it was my mother’s turn, I received an offer to join Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK),” he says, referring to the country’s première residential school. With his mother away, Datuk Abdul Rahim’s father discouraged him from leaving home. “You can imagine the astonishment of my headmaster when I told him I wasn’t going to MCKK!” he laughs. More soberly, he reflects: “That was one of those ‘what if’ moments. You know, what if I had gone to MCKK? Would I have still ended up where I am today? Or something completely different?”

His mother’s absence aside, there was another reason for Datuk Abdul Rahim, the second of six children, declining MCKK. “I was offered the arts stream but I was already more interested in the sciences by then. Of course, I had done well in my arts subjects but science was my passion,” he explains. Far from disappointing him, the MCKK decision spurred him on. “After finishing my Form Five, I was one of the 50-odd students selected to do our A Levels in the UK and, this time, I went,” he smiles.

Datuk Abdul Rahim ended up in Bournemouth, where he believes he thrived because, paradoxically, he didn’t go to MCKK. “Most of the students in my batch were from residential schools. We were 17 and this was the first time most of us had to live entirely on our own,” he explains. “I think because I stayed at home, it was easier for me to adapt. I didn’t have the regimented experience of being in a residential school, where if you were not told, you wouldn’t do it. In Bournemouth, however, this wasn’t the case; it was up to us to decide for ourselves and, fortunately, I had the self-discipline to ensure I did what was important.” Doing well in Bournemouth led to an acceptance by the University of Birmingham and a Bachelor of Science in Electronics and Electrical Engineering.

With both parents in the medical field, it is, perhaps, surprising he did not venture down the same path. “My parents advised us against going into medicine,” he reveals. “They understood the nature of the work and how tough it could be.” With his strong interest in science, then, engineering seemed the obvious answer. “I was pretty good at pure mathematics; it was my forte, something I could do with my eyes closed. Electrical engineering was about differential equations, calculus and algebra, and that was something I was comfortable with.” He was also fascinated by the fact that electronics and electrical engineering involved abstract thinking. “It wasn’t something you could see with your eye – you needed to figure it all out in your mind.” It was this that schooled him in the importance of critical thinking and getting into the details, which would serve him so well later.

Returning to Malaysia after graduating in 1976, Datuk Abdul Rahim applied for and received job offers from leading electronic companies such as Motorola, RCA and Texas Instruments. Somehow, nothing enticed him until Petronas popped up. “It sounded interesting and oil and gas was something new, so I went for an interview and got the job. It wasn’t about the money – Petronas didn’t pay any better than the others – but it was more than just about designing circuits and systems, and that appealed to me.” That the appeal would last 32 years never crossed his mind. “At that time, all I wanted was a job. I certainly never thought about where I was going to end up!” he says.

Starting out as an electrical engineer in Petronas’ Processing and Manufacturing Division, Datuk Abdul Rahim soon arrived at another tipping point: he turned down a position in Petronas subsidiary, Malaysia LNG Sdn Bhd, and opted, instead, to go to Kerteh, Terengganu, where the company was building its first wholly-owned refinery. “When I arrived, it was just being built; there was nothing there but a fishing village,” he remembers. “We had to go to Dungun or Chukai to get our dinner!” He began as the plant’s Technical Manager before, eventually, overseeing its entire operations. The experience stood him in good stead: when Petronas decided to build its second refinery, this time in Malacca, Datuk Abdul Rahim was one of those the company turned to. “You can say that this refinery was my baby,” he says. “I was there from the beginning, when the site was just a rubber estate, working on the design, construction and, finally, plant operations.” He spent 10 years in Malacca, rising to the role of Managing Director/CEO. By 1998, with its headquarters soon to be ensconced within the gleaming Petronas Twin Towers, the big city beckoned and Datuk Abdul Rahim returned to Kuala Lumpur.

There is nothing easy about being a Corporate Vice President at Petronas. “The Petronas system is such that, the higher you are, the worse it becomes! I recall Tan Sri Mohd Hassan Marican (former Petronas President and CEO) saying, now that I’m Corporate VP, my job was to do whatever I was asked to, even if it’s beyond my official remit,” Datuk Abdul Rahim remembers with a laugh. “It certainly did not mean you could relax and play more golf. It’s like a inverted pyramid, where you are expected to deep-dive down to the details and, at the same time, see the breadth, or what you call the helicopter view.”

It was something exemplified by those he worked with, including former Chairman, the late Tun Azizan Zainul Abidin, who was famous for his eye for detail. “I remember there was this event at the Malacca refinery, which the then-state Chief Minister, Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Thamby Chik, was attending. Tun Azizan personally spoke to me, asking me if we had adequate parking space and whether we had any contingency plans in case it rained!” This impressed upon him the importance of how, regardless of your position, nothing was too mundane for your attention.

Datuk Abdul Rahim’s first role as Corporate Vice President was in Human Resource Management and no one was more surprised than him. “When I asked why, they told that it was time for someone from the ‘line’ to take the position, as previous incumbents were ex-civil servants. And the first task I had to undertake was a voluntary separation scheme! But that turned to be quite smooth as I had the advantage of knowing the people and how things really worked in the company.”

Four years later came another change. “Gas became a business by itself and I was put in charge. It was all new to me as well but I learned how to set it up and get it running,” he says. Then, the company set up a Research & Development Division and, again, he was tapped to head it. “I think the management decided someone with a technical background would be suitable for this,” he says. “It was all a very interesting time. In the gas business, for example, we ventured overseas for the first time, investing in Egypt and the UK. There was always something new coming up and I was never bored. And I believed in making a difference wherever and whenever I was given an assignment and giving my very best.”

Post-retirement, Datuk Abdul Rahim, a father of four, seems as busy and as ever. One of his immediate roles after leaving Petronas was the Presidency of the International Gas Union from 2009 to 2013. An extension of his role as President of the Malaysia Gas Association (from 2003-2013), one of his proudest achievements was bringing the World Gas Congress to Malaysia for the first time in 2012. Currently, he is on the boards of, among others, SIRIM Bhd, Deleum Bhd and Institute of Technology Petronas Sdn Bhd, as well as Commissioner of the Energy Commission Malaysia and Advisor to the Institute of Materials, Malaysia. His time now is mainly focussed on UTP and, together with the MPO, they both represent yet another component of his association with Petronas, albeit a more altruistic one.

His ties with the university began well before he became Vice Chancellor/CEO. “I was on the steering committee that looked at what kind of university and programmes we wanted. It was pretty structured and we adopted a detailed approach, which is how we do things at Petronas.” He had also served on the university board before taking on his current role, bringing with him his wealth of industrial experience. “We run the university on a corporate basis, with all the associated systems and processes. All the Vice Chancellors are ex-Petronas, and I think this gives us a different perspective and has made us very successful.”

For Datuk Abdul Rahim, though, the most important aspect is the students who walk through the university’s doors. “Not everyone who studies here will end up working for Petronas,” he says. “It’s not a money-making operation either. It’s about nation-building.” And the same holds for the MPO. “My key role here is to ensure that the MPO and DFP provide Malaysians with the opportunity to experience world-class ‘live’ classical music in the best architectural and acoustic environment. We also work and collaborate with the community, through educational and outreach programmes, and other cultural activities to enrich the lives of those we touch.”

Already recognised as one of Asia’s top orchestras, he would like to see the MPO develop into one of the best in the world. “We are also enhancing our efforts in training members of our Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (MPYO), which will, hopefully, provide a pipeline of potential musicians for the MPO. Aside from being coached by MPO musicians, we have also created Weekend-Intensive Training programmes and given them ample opportunities to perform live. We are also working on securing sponsorship for some of these young talents to further their studies in music overseas, so that, in time, they may join the ranks of the MPO as professional musicians, thereby increasing the numbers of Malaysians within it. Classical music is still a niche here and it’s a challenge to recruit locals who can play at an international level, which is what we strive for. This is a long-term effort for us here.”

In the meantime, he is looking forward to Season 2015/16, which opens this month. “The key attractions include a two-week ballet festival featuring the Stars of the Moscow Ballet in Giselle and Romeo & Juliet, Mozart’s Requiem to celebrate his 260th birthday anniversary and Malaysian pianist prodigy Tengku Irfan performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 3. On the non-classical side, we’ll have multiple Grammy-Award winner Diana Krall, an orchestral tribute to music from Queen, jazz saxophone master Branford Marsalis, as well as circus-inspired Cirque de la Symphonie. Zainal Abidin will also be performing with the MPO, so there’s literally something for everyone.”

Being Chairman of the MPO, it’s not surprising that Datuk Abdul Rahim loves music. “I don’t play any musical instrument but I have taken singing lessons. I’d often been asked to perform on stage at events or fundraisers, so I decided to make sure I can do that well. I believe that you have to try your best at anything you have committed to.”

It’s another lesson he’s absorbed from his time with Petronas, having worked closely with Malaysian oil and gas giants like Tan Sri Azizan, Tan Sri Mohd Hassan, former President/CEO, Tan Sri Shamsul Azhar Abbas, and Tan Sri Ngau Boon Keat, currently Executive Chairman of Dialog Group Bhd. “Boon Keat was my first boss,” Datuk Abdul Rahim reveals. “And it was he who sent me to the Mobil Oil Refinery in Singapore, not long after I joined Petronas, for project management training, where I also did refinery turnaround. He gave me a choice – Singapore or Port Dickson – and that was another turning point because that experience really helped sculpt what I went on to do. There have been so many of these turning points and, looking back from where I am now, I think I’ve been very lucky.”


For more information on the MPO’s new season, please visit www.mpo.com.my

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