As the Director of Foreign Policy and Security Studies at one of the nation’s premier think-tanks, Elina Noor certainly provides a welcomed dose of #girlpower to the largely male-dominated world of Foreign Policy. She graciously took time out of her hectic schedule to speak with MissMafia about the lessons she’s learnt working in her chosen field and what her advice is to others looking to do the same.
How did you come to find yourself working at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia?
A year before I joined ISIS Malaysia 2001, I was working with a think-tank in Washington, DC, focusing on weapons of mass destruction terrorism. I decided to return to Malaysia towards the end of my visa term limit in the US to further my professional interest back home. I had enjoyed working in a think-tank and was looking to continue doing the same. As the nation’s premier think-tank with an established track record in foreign policy, ISIS Malaysia was my preferred place of work. Good thing I got offered a position!
Given your illustrious academic background, why did you decide to work with an NGO instead of going into the corporate space?
I always knew that I preferred policy work over the corporate world in the conventional sense. I have had stints in the corporate world but can’t honestly say I enjoyed the work as much as I have in the public policy arena. The only space I really saw for myself in the corporate world, even as a law undergraduate, was in public international law – a portfolio these days glamourised by Amal Clooney and believe it or not, I had wanted to proceed in that same track! Perhaps I’m idealistic but to me, there is a more noble end goal in the latter where a greater values-driven good is served, whether it’s in contributing to national security or helping to create the rules of the road for state behaviour in an emerging domain like cyber space. Qualifier: This is not to say that corporations don’t also contribute to society!
For the most part, the world of foreign policy is very much a male dominated one. Were there any instances where you struggled to be taken seriously because of your gender?
Yes, in addition to having to battle the perception that I’m too inexperienced or look too young to be taken seriously. Those instances are not always obvious though they are discernible through facial expressions, body language or even verbally by the people I interact with. Sometimes they are more explicit, like when women are talked over by men who take it upon themselves to explain issues (i.e. ‘mansplaining’). Thankfully though, there is greater awareness of the importance of gender diversity and how poorly a meeting or conference is served by having an exclusively all-male panel (or ‘manels’ a I like to call them). I am also thankful to have bosses, colleagues and friends who are themselves strong advocates of women and the inclusion of more women at discussions on foreign policy, defence and security.
From your own experience, do you think women are under-represented in the policy-making arena?
Definitely but the women who have participated in, and contributed to, the policy-making arena have usually been strong role models and compensated for the lack of numbers through the quality of their presence.
At ISIS, you’re currently serving as the Director of Foreign Policy and Security Studies. What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt in getting to that position?
That you have to pay your dues and do the work if you want to rise up the ranks with credibility or be taken seriously with respect. That often, you just have to keep your head down and carry on despite all the BS. That “please” and “thank you” can go a long way.
What would your advice be to other women who are looking to break into the field of international relations and foreign policy?
Be patient and persistent, smart yet modest, humble but forceful. It’s like that meme: Do no harm but take no $hit.
You are an inspiration to a lot of people, young women especially. Tell us who inspires you.
I wasn’t aware I was!! Personally, I take inspiration from my parents – my mother for her strength and my father for his patience and principles. In the professional world, I had a lady boss – Dato’ Dr Mahani Zainal Abidin – whom I viewed as a role model. She passed away a few years ago and I still miss her to this day. But I will always remember her as someone who was full of light, laughter, and practical wisdom. She was warm but firm and really believed in her younger researchers. Importantly, she loved her life beyond work.
What motivates you to keep going?
Genuine interest in, and love for, my work. It’s crucial to enjoy what you do. It’s equally crucial to take a break from it all, sometimes.
What’s something interesting about you that we wouldn’t learn from your resume alone?
That I have been a corner(wo)man in a boxing match, competed in wushu, and taught pole-dancing (thus cementing how seriously I should be taken in a male-dominated world…!).
If you could liken your personality to a line from a song, which lyric would it be and from which song?
Wow, this is a tough one! I guess it would have to be “She got her own thing” from Ne-Yo’s Miss Independent
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