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The Penghulu Program: Pivoting to a new Paradigm

By Alvin Kanniah, HR-Employee Relations

Since its humble beginnings in 2011, Westports’ Direct Feedback mechanism has grown from strength-to-strength like many of its Penghulus. The brainchild of Westports’ Tan Sri Datuk G. Gnanalingam (Tan Sri G.), incorporating the familial/communal concept of the Village Headman; i.e. The Penghulu, into an operational environment provided Westports with a colloquially elegant yet pragmatic framework for soliciting quick and unfiltered feedback from the workforce. This feedback would enable the organisation to mitigate if not eliminate many operational and employee wellbeing issues over the years. 

The backbone of the Penghulu Program are the Penghulu’s and their ability to earn the trust of their charges. The process of building, and more often than not, earning trust varies according to group dynamics, especially among younger, newer employees who’ve yet to appreciate Westports' Team-oriented culture. However once the ‘bridge-of-trust’ forms between the Penghulu and his/her charge, it is a bond that lasts. This is evident in the tendency of charges seeking continuous advice and counsel of trusted Penghulus even when assigned to a new Penghulu Group.

To help Penghulus manage the sometimes complicated subject of people dynamics, Mentors (from Senior Management) are assigned as guides and sounding boards in their role. Guided by a Mentor Committee, the Penghulus hold monthly informal meeting(s) with their charges, usually over a meal, to update and obtain feedback on the pertinent goings-on at the ground level, where unlike desk-bound employees at the port, the Terminal Equipment Operators and other wharf-side employees have no means of communications like e-mail. Hence, the face-to-face time with the Penghulu is all the more important. Penghulus would collate feedback and for Tan Sri G.’s reading. 

The Penghulus have along the years, grown adept at soliciting all manner of feedback from the ‘boys’. Initially, no feedback is too insignificant to be reported and resolved. In its 6th year running, as each issue is resolved, we now observe a decrease in matters of grave importance, but rather smaller matters of less significance.

This then leads us to the question, “Is the Penghulu still relevant?”

The answer is still, a resounding YES! Albeit a pivot towards a more proactive conversation between the Penghulu and charges, with a focus on Port Improvements for the longer term and to leverage the Penghulu for quick data gathering. To this end, the Mentor Committee has initiated the ‘Effective Penghulu Program (EPP)’ which aims to help Penghulus to re-orientate the conversation. The EPP also seeks to address the over-dependence on communications technology (i.e.: Whatsapp, Text Messaging) which erodes ‘face-time’ between Penghulu and his/her charges, which in turn diminishes the fundamental currency of the Penghulu Program, ‘TRUST’.

The success of this ‘Pivot’ lies not only in the execution of initiatives like the EPP but also in the hearts and minds of all Penghulus. In the words of Tan Sri G. “The Taj Mahal was built not by the Emperor Shah Jahan alone, but by the thousands of artisans working in unison”. Such is the culture of Westports Malaysia.