Tun Ahmad Sarji began his career in the then Malayan Civil Service in 1961. After less than 3 years of service, he was appointed to the coveted post of District Officer, first at Rembau, and later Port Dickson. He was perhaps among the youngest civil servant at the age of 25 years to be made a DO, where he managed rural development, local government and security matters during the “Indonesian Confrontation”. In 1965, he was appointed to be the Secretary to the Commission of Inquiry “into incidents of maladministration and malpractices in the Seremban Town Council since 1st January 1959”. He was also Secretary to the State Executive Council and the State Legislative Assembly of Negeri Sembilan, which exposed him to the system of Cabinet government and parliamentary democracy. He was gazetted as the Registrar of Titles, Negeri Sembilan, and this post enhanced his experience in land administration.
At the Federal level, Ahmad Sarji was appointed by Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak as the founding Director General of the Farmers’ Organisation Authority in 1973, and was responsible for the promulgation of the Acts leading to the establishment of this organization and the formation of farmers’ organizations throughout the country. This post gave him the necessary experience to be an institution builder. Earlier, he had served as Under Secretary to the Cabinet under Tun Abdul Razak as the Prime Minister. On 1st May 1981, he was appointed as the Deputy Chairman and the Director General of the Council of Trust for the Indigenous People (MARA) after holding the post of Deputy Director General of the Economic Planning Unit in the Prime Minister’s Department (1979 – 1981). After nearly 5 years as the Deputy Director General of the Public Service Department, where he implemented the Look East Policy, he was appointed as the Secretary General, Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Chairman of the Malaysian Industrial Development Authority (MIDA). In those two positions, he implemented the “Malaysia Incorporated policy”, and accelerated foreign and local investments.
On 1st February 1990, Ahmad Sarji was appointed to the most senior position in government service as the Chief Secretary to the Government, and concurrently the Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Civil Service which he held until 1996. The reform of the civil service gained momentum under his leadership through the issues of “Development Administration Circulars” on performance indicators, quality and productivity measures, clients’ charter, the micro accounting system, a new set of general orders on conduct and discipline, clearing work backlog, electronic data processing and the implementation of the ISO 9000. To improve the quality of the diplomatic service, the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations (IDFR) was formed; and for the judicial and legal service, the Institut Latihan Kehakiman & Perundangan was also formed. In 1992, he was appointed as the Chairman of the 3rd Bumiputera Economic Congress, the first civil servant to hold the position. He was elected as the second President, the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management for a period of 2 years. The Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad gave him the sobriquet as “The Father of Circulars” which provides the guidelines on civil service reforms.
In 1996, Ahmad Sarji was appointed the Chairman, Permodalan Nasional Berhad having been a member of the board since 1985. Under his chairmanship, the company emerged as the biggest fund manager in the country, with equity stakes in 200 companies, a statutory fund amounting to RM271 billion, 11.9 unit holders, and 15.9% market capitalization of Bursa Malaysia. In 1999, he was appointed by the Government as the Chairman, National Economic Consultative Council II (MAPEN II) a 155-member council to provide inputs for the 2001 – 2010 Vision Development Policy. His other major corporate appointments included Chairman of the conglomerate Sime Darby Berhad, Golden Hope Plantations, Malaysian National Insurance, Malaysian Industrial Development Finance, Northport, and Island & Peninsula.
In the field of Islamic development, he was appointed by Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in 1992 as the founding Chairman of the Institute of Islamic Understanding, Malaysia and served until 2009. Ahmad Sarji is a member of the Board of Trustees, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. The Government in 1999 awarded him the ‘Tokoh Maal Hijrah 1420H’ for his contribution to the restructuring of the Islamic Affairs Division of the Prime Minister’s Department and the Islamic Judiciary to their present status, and his initiative which led to the development of the Common-User Service for the Islamic Religious Affairs officers and the Common-User Services for the Islamic Courts.
In the field of sports, he is the founding Chairman of the Professional Golf of Malaysia in 2010 which lead to the formation of the PGM Tour. He is the current President of the Malay Cricket Association of Malaysia. During his chairmanship of both Sime Darby and Golden Hope Plantations, he helped establish the Bayuemas Cricket Oval, the Indoor Cricket Stadium (the first in the country) and the Tuanku Ja’afar Cricket Academy for the development of cricket in the country. Ahmad Sarji was the longest serving President of the Malaysian Lawn Bowls Federation. He founded the Asian Lawn Bowls Federation in 2000. Malaysia was the top team in Asia and South East Asia during the period (the Golden Period of Lawn Bowls 1999 – 2012) and once became third ranked country in the world in 2008. He won the National Sports Leadership Award in 2007 (“…with four national players in the top ten world ranking, it is a reflection of a well-managed program producing results. Under his leadership too, Malaysia became the first Asian country to break the dominance of European players in the Australian and the New Zealand Open.”). Ahmad Sarji was also the country’s Chief-de-Mission to the London Olympic 2012.
In the field of NGOs, he has been President of the Heritage Trust Malaysia for 17 years, where the Trust won several international awards, including 2000 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award, 2003 ASEANTA Award for Best Preservation Effort, 2008 UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation, and 2010 Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Together with PNB, the Trust undertook the restoration of Stadium Merdeka to its original architecture. He is now President of Yayasan Jantung Malaysia (The Heart Foundation of Malaysia). He was the longest serving President of the Harvard Club of Malaysia and the founding President of the Eisenhower Fellows Association of Malaysia.
In the literary and education fields, Ahmad Sarji is Chairman, Yayasan Karyawan Malaysia, a foundation responsible for publishing the great Malay classics (Karya Agung). His major books, include “The Chief Secretary to the Government, Malaysia”, “P. Ramlee – The Bright Star (with James Harding)”, “Hang Tuah – Tokoh Epik Nasional” and “Lawn Bowls in Malaysia – The President’s Memoir”. His memoirs “Given In Trust” was awarded the prestigious Tun Seri Lanang Premier Award 2012 as the “Tokoh Buku Negara” by the National Book Development Foundation and the Oxford Centre for Excellence, United Kingdom. He was the Chief Editor of two landmark volumes entitled “Sports and Recreation”, and the “Rulers of Malaysia” in the Encyclopedia of Malaysia series. He is now Chancellor of UNIRAZAK, and a pro-Chancellor of the University Kebangsaan Malaysia. He is also a member of the board of governors of the Asian Institute of Management, and the Chairman of the Malaysian Commonwealth Studies Centre at the University of Cambridge.
He is probably the longest serving public servant, having served the government of Malaysia uninterrupted since 1961 until this moment, a period of more than 53 years.