The opportunity to interview M.V. Muhsin isn’t one that comes by all the time. And having received his okay, it came down to constantly checking for a convenient time to meet, which finally arrived sandwiched between a full day conference and a flight to Washington. Despite his hectic schedule, Muhsin was warm and welcoming, freely and unreservedly answering questions on life, work, family, and sources of inspiration.
The former Vice President and Chief Information Officer of the World Bank, Muhsin hails from Kandy and was educated at Trinity College, where he was awarded the Ryde Gold Medal in 1962 – an annual award for the best student. However, his dreams of being a doctor were dashed during an examination when he managed to cut the intestines of the guinea pig whose intestinal system he was supposed to expose. “With that, they decided that I was not fit to be a doctor!” he says, with a laugh.
Muhsin then opted to teach and did so at his alma mater for one year, a time he thoroughly enjoyed, after which he joined Hayleys, while simultaneously working as a freelance journalist and doing his chartered accountancy – although he failed the examination several times, he didn’t give up because he felt that “with every failure, there would be an opportunity to fight back”.
In 1977, as a result of his wife taking the initiative to send in his application despite his reluctance, Muhsin moved to Zambia with his family and served the Zambia Industrial and Mining Corporation as a financial analyst. Moving up the ladder rapidly, he was soon promoted as ZIMCO’s Group Finance Director for Zambia. He was also an advisor on state enterprise reform and a part of the Zambian economic team that negotiated with the World Bank and the IMF.
After a 12-year stint in Zambia, where he received exposure into all sectors of the economy, Muhsin decided to venture out. Accepting an offer from the World Bank, he joined it as a Senior Country Officer for Sudan and Ethiopia in 1988. Muhsin served the World Bank for 17 years, until he reached retirement age, bowing out from the positions of Vice President and CIO in November 2005.
That Muhsin is held in high regard is reflected in the recently-released autobiography of former World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn, titled ‘A Global Life,’ where Wolfensohn pays a glowing tribute to the work that Muhsin accomplished “with great skill and selflessness” to support his drive at the World Bank to transform it into a knowledge and learning organisation through “first rate innovations that enabled the World Bank to become the leader in the field among all other international organisations”.
Now, at 67, Muhsin has no regrets. Based in Washington, he says he is “very self satisfied,” especially given the work he’s done in development, believing that “what we do in human development and economic development is God’s own work”.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: Going back to the early years, could you tell us about your childhood – where you grew up, about your siblings and parents and what life was like?
A: I was born in Kandy and went to Trinity. My father was a lawyer. I had three sisters. My father died when I was 19 years old. My mother – her name was Sithy – was the one who really thereafter encouraged me to get into the professional side.
Q: What about life at school? How would you describe that time?
A: I had all my education at Trinity. While at Trinity, I was highly involved with the Social Service Union, where we treated the people in Mahiyawa, a very underprivileged place. We had a dispensary there which was sponsored by Trinity and we treated children and people who were unable to go to dispensaries. I was around 16 or 17 when I got involved in the social aspects and that was the beginning of my interest in human development. I’m very much into aspects of human development.
Trinity has a lot of history. It’s an Anglican school and when we were brought up in the school, we were exposed to the Anglican, Christian traditions and became very appreciative of the secular nature of Sri Lanka, where we were able to appreciate other religions, other cultures and so on.
At Trinity, I was the Head Prefect and I was also awarded the Ryde Gold Medal, which is awarded to the best all rounder in the school. This is an annual award for the best student, similar to the valedictorian award. The way it happens is that the entire student body has one vote, the staff has one vote and the principal has one vote, which means that it’s a very democratic process and I was privileged really to be awarded. I really appreciated the fact that Trinity offered me not just education but a rounded education.
I was a day scholar so my house was just opposite the school, but in the last year, when I became a senior Head Prefect, I had to join the boarding. So I spent one full year there as well, which again exposed me to boarding life and the challenges and joy of boarding life and the ability to make really close friends.
My intention there was to do medicine – this was in the ’60s, far before you were born. I did not succeed in that exam, simply for the reason that when I went for the zoology practical examination at the university, we had to do a dissection of a guinea pig. We had to expose the intestinal system. When I had to clean up the fat and expose the intestines, rather than do that, I just did two cuts and I cut the intestines. With that, they decided that I was not fit to be a doctor.
More importantly, because my father died, my mother felt that I had to get back with studies. I was a teacher at Trinity for one year and thereafter I decided I should do accountancy and I migrated to Colombo. That was essentially through the encouragement of my mother; she was the driving force behind this. Whilst in Colombo, while I was doing my chartered accountancy, I also took a deep interest in journalism. I was the editor of the school’s magazine as well and I was invited to do some stringers for the Times of Ceylon at that time. I used to cover a whole range of sports but that I did because I just liked journalism.
The reason I mentioned that is, up to today, in spite of all what I have done, there are two things that I value most – one is the teaching job that I had for a year at Trinity and the other is journalism. The reason I like journalism is that it brings into you a discipline – a discipline of analysis, a discipline of meeting deadlines and a discipline of being balanced and of verifying your facts. To me, that was my passion and the Times encouraged me to do a column so I wrote a Sunday column in the Times of Ceylon at that time, which was in its heyday in the ’70s.
When I did my accountancy, I was articled here and they give you a pittance as a sort of stipend and for a couple of years I was struggling to make ends meet. I went through deep adversity and there was a time when I walked because I had no money from Fort to Borella. I didn’t have money for bus fare. I appreciated the difficulties in life. When I did my accountancy, halfway through I had had to work because I couldn’t make ends meet.
Q: Where did you start work?
A: I was selected to work at Hayleys. I joined in ’71, when D.S. Jayasundera was at the helm. He was at the time perhaps the best corporate chairman in the country. He is the one who built Hayleys. I joined as an accountant; I was doing my accountancy and joined Hayleys halfway through.
Because I was doing many things – sports writing, accountancy and also working – I failed my chartered exams almost three or four times. But I kept going, because I felt that with every failure, there would be an opportunity to fight back. Jokingly I used to say that some of the pillars at the Institute of Chartered Accountants were financed by me because I had to pay so many times for my exams. At that time I also got married.
Q: Could you tell us about your marriage? Where did you meet your wife?
A: My wife was a family friend. She was at Ladies’ College, she was also Sithy. Sithy Saleem was her surname. It was a proposal but I knew the family. I was 32 at the time.
Having got married, I was really, really happy in my job at Hayleys because I had the pleasure of working directly with Jayasundera. I used to say that Jayasundera was the typical, quintessential chief executive, who practised Steven Covey’s seven habits of highly effective people.
He was the epitome of the seven habits, in my view. He used to do everything that Steven Covey talks about these days. To sit at his feet and learn from his way of running a company and to drink off the cup of wisdom that he used to serve around to the people who worked with him was a great privilege.
At that time I was happy and I didn’t want to go overseas or anything, but my wife felt that it was time to venture outside. I wasn’t keen at all. This was in ’77. Something strange happened – when they advertised for vacancies in Zambia, because I was not keen at all to go out of the country given that I was happy at Hayleys, she decided that she would write my application and file it with the recruitment agency, which she did.
I was invited to the interview and at the interview I was so casual and relaxed – at no stage was I interested in the job – so I just spoke my mind at the interview and surprise of surprises, they selected me. They recruited me as a financial analyst for what they called Zambia Industrial and Mining Corporation, called ZIMCO.
Having worked at ZIMCO for some time, I rose very fast there and I was selected to work in a Presidential Commission to reform the public enterprises. Soon thereafter they selected me as the Group Finance Director for Zambia. ZIMCO was the largest organisation in the country, with 125 subsidiaries. Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, President of Zambia, was the Chairman and I worked closely with the presidency and to some extent I was an advisor on state enterprise reform.
I worked in Zambia for 12 years and learnt a diverse array of skills. More importantly, Zambia was a country where the people were so good and they respected Sri Lankans. Both my children were born and raised in Zambia. While there I got exposure into all sectors of the economy and I was also part of the Zambian economic team to negotiate with the World Bank and the IMF.
When I left Zambia, the President was so sad that I was leaving that he sent his plane to pick me up from Lusaka, the capital, and take me to where he was, at the game park. There he had a public farewell for me, which was televised, where he thanked me for my service and so on.
The reason I’m saying that is because he was a foreign Head of State and he took the trouble to felicitate and say farewell to a small guy like me, which was a respect for my country. I was just an individual; he was a well-known statesman.
Q: How did you get into the World Bank?
A: Having been in Zambia for 12 years – my children had grown up as well – I decided that it might be a good idea to venture out and I got an offer from the World Bank. I decided to take it. The World Bank recruited me as a Senior Country Officer for Sudan and Ethiopia in 1988.
I was immersed into working in countries which were war torn but yet very interesting in terms of their economic issues. I worked at the World Bank in that capacity for three years and then they appointed or promoted me as the Chief Administrative Officer for the Africa region. In 1997, the President of the World Bank James Wolfensohn selected me to become the Vice President and Chief Information Officer for the bank. He wanted me to introduced reforms in the information technology area. I served there in that capacity for 10 years and retired in 2005. I retired because it was the mandatory retirement age.
Q: Could you tell us about the issue that arose post your departure?
A: After I retired there were some complaints made about some irregular awards of contracts. As far as I am concerned, what we had done there was that we went through all the procedures – the World Bank has its own very strict procedures on procurement – and I personally don’t get involved in those because there are checks and balances. If there were no checks and balances, then there is something wrong, but anyone can make a complaint.
Q: Why do you think this issue arose?
A: There can be some people who may be dissatisfied. Some vendors may be dissatisfied. But the bank also has its rules. As far as I was concerned, there was some issue about some share purchases. The issue was whether I had disclosed it or not.
At that time they felt that I had not and that was irregular, when in fact I had disclosed it and two years later the bank found that there was disclosure. I knew that I had disclosed and I vindicated myself because I said that I had disclosed, although they found my disclosure two years after the investigation started. That was negligent on their part.
However, the issue I think, to take the side of the bank, was that although I had disclosed – and this was a very small amount of shares – there was an appearance of conflict as opposed to a real conflict. There was no proof that I awarded the contract, they didn’t make any finding that I was responsible for awarding the contract, because I didn’t. I can say that very confidently.
They felt that the fact that I had bought shares – even though it was a small number of shares – violated or went against the general rule, which is a broad rule, that there should also not be an appearance of conflict. That was the issue. But I had retired so all my benefits were released, nothing was withheld. That’s the story on that.
As far as I am concerned, the World Bank is a great institution and it is an institution that works for the welfare of countries. It is a highly misunderstood and underappreciated institution. The people who work at the World Bank sometimes care more for the countries than the people in the countries themselves. As a Sri Lankan, I can say there are people who work on Sri Lanka who in fact are much more worried and have much more sleepless nights about issues in Sri Lanka than we ourselves would care for. Even to date it is an institution that means very well.
Q: As a strong proponent of the use of IT, what are your views on the Sri Lankan Government’s IT thrust?
A: I was one of the prime movers to get the World Bank involved in Sri Lanka for the work that we did with ICTA. We arranged a grant of US$ 60 million, the single largest IT-related project that the World Bank did even to this date. At that time Milinda Moragoda was the Minister in charge and he was the prime mover behind it for the Government at that time, when he was in the UNP. I would say that what they have done was path breaking. The whole idea was to create momentum.
No government can create IT by itself. The message has to get through to the masses through demonstration of the value of IT. It’s not just computers for computers’ sake. It’s what comes out of it for kids in the school, the farmer in the village and so on. The person who was really involved in it was Lalith Weeratunga.
To me, information technology is like a balloon that is blown up. For a mind to be active, the mind has to be open. A balloon is blown up because it becomes active then; it floats in the air. I think that Sri Lanka has done well – there are people who criticise ICTA but I believe that they have done quite a good job in raising awareness. I think they have done pretty well.
This is not to say that they have achieved everything. I feel that there is much more than needs to be done in schools for the next generation; that one of the roadblocks is the fact that teachers themselves are not computer literate. They are the bottleneck in a way so there must be a programme for teacher literacy.
Q: Could you tell us about your most memorable experience?
A: One of the experiences that come to my mind is something that took place when I was in Zambia. I was in an elevator and I was holding a very high position there. There was a simple Zambian who got into the elevator and I think he greeted me and said ‘Good morning Sir’. I was preoccupied and I just didn’t reply. I went up to the 12th floor and I got off. As I was getting off, he said, ‘Mr. Muhsin, I greeted you and you didn’t greet me back. One day this elevator will come down to the ground floor and you will meet me on the ground floor.’ That was an important message about humility; a simple, personal thing that resonates.
Another memorable thing I remember took place when we were at a meeting with President Kaunda at State House and one of my colleagues was coughing. Suddenly, whilst the meeting was going on, a person brought a tray and it contained a bottle of medicine. The President stopped the meeting, opened the bottle and poured out some cough mixture. Then he said, ‘In my culture and tradition, if I offer someone medicine, I need to take it first.’ And he did. He drank the cough mixture and then offered the medicine to the man who was coughing. That shows the humanistic angle of these heads of state. It is a message to us, to corporate people.
Q: Looking back, do you have any regrets?
A: I am very self satisfied. I am a person who is deeply religious so I believe that what we do in human development and economic development is God’s own work. It traces back even to the social service work that I did.
I am also involved in some foundations, one of which globally promotes the use of computer-related techniques to share knowledge. I am the Vice Chairman of World Links, a global organisation, which promotes computer literacy in schools in the developing world.
Q: What boards are you on at present?
A: I am on the Board of Dialog and the boards of some foundations, including World Links.
Q: Could you describe a day in your life today?
A: I take part in some philanthropic activities, some of which is in Kandy. I live in Washington. I am based there, but I come here often. My wife owns and runs a school.
Q: What about your children?
A: My daughter is in New York and my son is in San Francisco. I have three grandsons.
Q: What inspires you?
A: What inspires me is youth; the firebrand in people who want to do innovative work. I believe that IT is something that inspires people because of the fact that you get into unchartered territory. Most importantly, it’s the smile on the face of a child that inspires people who work in development. That’s what I witnessed when I used to work on Sudan, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka.