In this heart-touching interview, we present a leading personality in IBF, who frankly shares with us his journey to becoming a successful Islamic finance professional. It is the interviews like this, which inspire the new generation of professionals in IBF. Nik Norishky Thani dwells into some of the most important intellectual issues, with great wit
and sense of humour. Referring to Islamic teachings and Shakespeare in one breath defines the character of the man who is one of the most accomplished young Islamic financial professionals in Malaysia.

What kind of education did you have when you were growing up?

My late father was in the teaching profession so you could say my education was the experience of growing up among the lower to middle income group of people. Growing up I was very much independent, exploring KL with my buddies when I was just a kid – something you cannot possibly allow a child to do today. Earning my own money instead of getting parental allowance by trading in comics, working at a 7-11 as a teenager, a waiter and even a bartender in my youth and many other experiences that keep reminding me to be humble to all folks. Thinking about my early life also constantly reminds me that many are still struggling out there to make ends meet. For me this is the ultimate objective of Islamic finance and Islamic economy. We have to uplift the standard of living of the people around us and those we share this planet with. Those early life experiences made me want to make a difference to the people, any kind of positive difference. It turned me into an idealist.

As for formal education, I went to the Malay College, Malaysia, did my A-Levels at the New College Cardiff, read law at Cardiff University and did my LLM at Georgetown University. I’m also a Fulbright Scholar and Petronas Scholar.

Who was your mentor?

Perhaps too many to mention as I have been lucky enough to be working with many great folks. So, firstly my father when I was young but my father became ill early in his life. Then my older brother, Datuk Dr Nik Norzrul Thani, took over the role of becoming my mentor, whether he meant to or not! I still go to him for advice. He must be wondering at what point will I stop disturbing him but he has guided me so much that I can never repay that kindness.

My mentor in Islamic finance was and still is Dato’ Dr Mohd Daud Bakar. I started out as a conventional banker but it was Dr Daud Bakar who introduced me to the world of Islamic finance and the positive difference it would make in this world when Islamic finance was fully operational. Well I did say I am an idealist!

In my first-ever public presentation, Dr Daud Bakar was the moderator; I think I was just a blood clot away from getting a stroke, which was how nervous I was. But Dr Daud Bakar congratulated me afterwards and encouraged me to go further in our industry. That is exactly what I did, and he has given much guidance to me since then. There is much more that I owe to this towering personality in IBF. Alhamdulillah, I am grateful to the Almighty for surrounding me with great people like him. Such as Dato’ Noorazman when I was in Bank Islam, Abdullah Al-Awar when I was in Dubai, John Chong of Maybank Investment Bank who taught me a lot about investment banking and was always patient with me and of course Tan Sri Hamad, my current boss, who has taught me much about leadership and what nation building is really about at the grassroots.

The one quality that I admire about my brother Nik Norishky Thani is his willingness to try new things – studied law at university, then pursued a career in investment banking and now venturing into Islamic finance. I guess he embodies the spirit envisioned by Yoda from Star Wars – “do or do not – there is no try.”
Datuk Dr Nik Norzrul Thani,
Managing Partner of Zaid Ibrahim & Co.

How would you describe your managerial style?

First, I have the “No Jerks Rule” in place. I do not care how good you are but if you cannot get along with the team then you are not needed. Perhaps it is the hadith on being conceited that influenced me or the origination story of mankind when Adam was looked down upon by Shaitan as a lesser creature. I simply cannot tolerate such conceited behaviour. I believe in teamwork and camaraderie among the people I work with.

I also like to provide my colleagues with as much exposure and different experiences as possible. I find that among the weaknesses of Islamic bankers are their lack of general knowledge and also a lack of confidence. So I try to give them a lot of freedom in any assignment. I encourage ideas; there is never a bad idea in our brainstorming sessions but you will never know until you test your idea against your colleagues’ thoughts and perhaps rebuttals. So be confident to express and argue your ideas. I love a healthy discussion before we reach a decision on anything particularly important. I avoid ‘spoon feeding’ and allow enough freedom and creativity for a team to solve a situation or complete an assignment. I would like to think that encouraging their critical thinking and motivation, and guiding them will build their confidence over time, in sha Allah. But it is easier said than done. We sometimes seem to be producing graduates who need literal guidance and lack critical thinking; at least this is how it is in Malaysia in quite a lot of instances. But as a leader, that is no reason to give up of course. It only makes training them harder. But it needs to be done for the sake of the people we care about.

Ambition or talent; which matters for success?

Well, firstly how do you define “success”? To some, it is founding the largest Internet search engine while others may find running a tuck shop on the seaside exciting. It is not easy to find what your definition of success is; perhaps this is part of the Greater Jihad. But knowing what you define as success is important to your personal and career growth, because then you have a clear objective in life.

But to answer your question, ambition and talent are just two of the ingredients that matter. It is also ordained upon us to put in our best effort and to be patient in accepting the outcome. Never give up.

So I would say you need both ambition and talent. Ambition is the drive whereas talent is what God has given you and it is only up to you to push for constant improvement on oneself so that your talent continues to grow. Without one the other would not happen. If you lack the drive or ambition for example, then you will not have the desire to work hard and earn your scholarship.

What was your earliest ambition?

When you say earliest how early are you talking about here? Because my earliest ambition was to be a Jedi. Imagine my disappointment when I found out last month that this is not at all possible. I’m just joking but yes, that was the earliest ambition – swinging an imaginary laser sword whilst wearing my oversized late father’s bathrobe.

But when I reached certain maturity, I am not quite sure at what point that was – perhaps after my Grand Tour of Europe (assisted with the coolest sunglasses and little else) or it may be when I started having to live on my own upon graduating. I realized what my ambition was then and it has not changed since. Whilst not as clichéd as ‘world peace’ my ambition is certainly in the same corny territory here – my earliest and current ambition is to reach contentment with what the Creator has given me from whatever effort I put whether at home or at work and then to strive and work ever harder when you reach that sought after contentment. Because as nice as it is to be content, to be in a comfort zone and be grateful – we have to realize that we still can do more. It is an awfully boring answer, I completely agree with you.

But for me, it is important to be content because you are where the Creator has put you. But at the same time you have to do better with your efforts if you desire to improve your situation. You have to continuously make the effort to do better in your chosen calling but for me, at the same time you have to be content with what the Creator has given you as well because not all that you strive for will be successful all the time and if you fail and that makes you depressed or despondent, that would be the wrong approach. Learn from the failure, and be content. You still have the opportunity to either try again or try something else. In sha Allah, success awaits. And if not in this world, then maybe in the next world. This idea inspires me to do better each time. My late father used to tell me “If something is worth doing then do it well, give it your best shot or don’t bother doing it at all”.

Perhaps my late Father was a Jedi after all.

In what place are you the happiest?

That’s quite hard to answer because there are so many places on this God given earth that I can find happiness in. Perhaps it is more a case of ‘whom’ rather than ‘what’ place. For example with my wife Erin and our kids. The day the munchkins were born – that was happy place to be at. Escaping from doing diaper duty, that is an even happier place. And to see these kids now – we have a small corner outdoors at home, a small gazebo of sorts with a koi pond surrounding it and a comfy hammock and some table and chairs. Being there with my family, reading a book, taking a nap with my kids on the hammock, listening to my wife’s reminder(s) that I still haven’t fixed the garage lights – that to me is my slice of heaven on earth.

But when I am alone, I am happiest when I am in a mosque. No word can explain that kind of tranquillity. There is peace that comes from such solitude, joining prayers with my fellow brothers. Especially perhaps in times of difficulties, when you have worldly problems. It is selfish perhaps to only be a regular at the mosque when you have a problem. But I have no trouble with that. At least we are at the mosque. So I find when seeking solace, forgiveness, mercy and guidance it is best at the mosque. I am one hundred percent certain that I am not the only one who feels that way. I’m sure many of my Muslim brothers and sisters share similar sentiments.

In a rather distant second though, or is it third, I’ve lost count now – the happiest place I’ve been was when I was at the Attaturk Stadium, Istanbul in 2005 when my team Liverpool FC overturned a 3 goal deficit to win the Champions League. I think that will always be the best football I’ll ever see – but who knows, still time left, in sha Allah.

What ambition do you still have?

Well, now that being a Jedi is out of the question, I’m going to go for the next best. To be a Muslim who is a making a positive difference to our people. That’s it. There are so many things we have not explored or done yet – an Islamic finance crowd funding for example to assist Muslim refugees. Just how far are we from being able to do that? I recall a conventional bond the proceeds of which went into the efforts of clearing up mines in places that finally discovered peace. To me, the possibilities for Islamic finance are endless but getting there however has been a slow process so far.

We cannot look at or work on Islamic finance in isolation. In my opinion there are four positive projects Islam is engaged in now – but these projects are working in silos and not in tandem – we need to connect them if we are to have a chance to be successful in achieving our ambition of a united and successful people. The four that I refer to is Islamic Finance, the Halal Industry, the preachers that are popular among laymen such as in social media and our sisters who are doing Jihad to improve the status of women in today’s modern, reformist Islam. When these 4 important ‘dots’ are connected and then leverage on each other for strength and inspiration, I am confident we will eventually see a tipping point among Muslims. A positive one, no longer a society feeling under siege but one that can go back to our roots as knowledge seekers.

What drives you on?

My mortgage!

What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?

That’s a loaded question. I have been very happy in my career thus far and life outside the office is equally just as satisfying. I suppose it’s the old maxim “Work hard, play hard”. So that to me is my greatest achievement so far. Alhamdulillah, the balance between work and life outside of that grind is satisfying, and bring my family and me much joy. There is much for my family to be grateful there to the Almighty.

What has been your greatest disappointment?

That we as ummah are fighting all the time about every little thing, not to mention the bigger issues involving violence, but we fail to see the big picture. For example, there seems to be this idea that the period of classical Islam is what we should aspire to be because it was a time that was perfect for Muslims to excel. But that is not entirely true. The period of classical Islam was not a utopia. They had major problems of their own too; they committed atrocities too against other people and sometimes even among Muslims themselves. In some ways the Classical Period were what the West is today. Classical Islam produced a lot of great things but also bred some major flaws that do eventually affect the world till we find ourselves today arguing on issues such as whether or not it is ok to murder a Shiite? We need to come to terms with our weaknesses, recognize our history, get educated, be united again, before we can fix our society and restore the pride of the ummah. In my country for example, Muslims are polarized into three political camps, each with their own agenda. The amount of time spent on politicking here in Malaysia is unbelievably ridiculous and yet real issues such as education and housing remain mere talking points. Meanwhile the Malaysian Muslims continue to be at the bottom of the pile here in Malaysia.

I’m not a Shari’a scholar so I’m not going to quote scripture, but Shakespeare’s Macbeth seems apt here:

“Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Macbeth Quote (Act V, Scene V).

If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10 what would you score?

That’s a tough one. Well I suppose it has to be a 9/10. As I said earlier, I am content and I, god willing, will work harder to do more for our people as well as provide for my family. It would have been 10/10 but there is this little problem called Liverpool FC. Maybe that should be my ambition – to be the manager of this underachieving football team.

If your 20-year old self could see you now, what would he think?

I attached a photo of a 20 year old me so you can see for yourself and perhaps get some idea of how I was then. I did say I’ve been an idealist since I was young. Also anti-establishment, also a bit of a rebel – but that is probably just teenage angst. So I think the 20-year old me would first wonder, “What the heck happened to your dreadlocks”. And when that 20-year old me finds out I’m working with a government agency I think there will be physical violence. Fortunately, I’m more buffed now than that scrawny dreamer of a kid.