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Power to the people

by Elizabeth Gasiorowski Denis on
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One of the best ways to avoid being poor as an adult is to obtain a good education. This is a philosophy of life for Ratna Devi Nadarajan, who believes that everyone deserves a chance to succeed. A staunch supporter of the underdog, Ratna is fighting for the rights of consumers, helping them to get their voice heard in standardization circles. Here, as the new Chair of the ISO Committee on consumer policy (ISO/COPOLCO), Ratna shares her story and her aspirations.

With my younger brother in our family home in Port Klang, Malaysia.

My parents instilled in me the values of a good education and hard work. They said that being successful would open up a whole new world for me – and they were right. My parents also taught me the importance of helping the less fortunate. I recall feeling so much pleasure lending a hand to the underprivileged children in my neighbourhood. I paid their tuition fees to help them with their studies but, most importantly, I gave them access to a basic education and hope for a brighter future.

As a student in university, I visited the region’s plantation workers and their families and empowered them to reach out of poverty. My support included advice on access to education and income-generating ideas, among other things. Back then, raising children meant imparting good, solid values. I would like to think that this is still the case today.


It’s a hard-knock life

A number of life-changing experiences shaped who I am.

Come to think of it, a number of life-changing experiences shaped who I am and what I do today, namely events related to consumer issues and household products. Consumer issues began to plague my life even before I was born – hard to believe, but true. My mother was seven months pregnant with me when she was electrocuted touching an exposed radio cable which was being retrofitted for an extension. Thankfully, we both lived to tell the tale.

There was also the time when a loosened guard rail of a moving lorry knocked me off my bike, or when a petroleum tanker exploded near our family home. It didn’t take long for me to discover, with help from my father’s collection of Reader’s Digest magazines, that the world was fraught with danger : chemicals in household products, growing environmental problems, LSD drug abuse and the real-life story of Robbie Wayne – a victim of child abuse.

During my adolescence, I continued to help others by joining the St. John’s Ambulance uniform body. I learnt first-aid and emergency response, not to mention the importance of discipline.

I was also fascinated by archeology (propelled by my uncle’s archeological story books), including the South-East Asian civilization of the Khmers, the Pharaohs of Egypt, the Incas and the Mayas. Like many children growing up in the 1980s, I wanted to become an archeologist – no doubt the result of the Indiana Jones films that flooded the movie theatres at the time.


Leaping into unknown waters

Me (far right) with a group of university friends. Pursuing a Master’s degree opened my eyes to the gravity of our environmental problems.

Fast-forward to the 1990s. My first job was a boon for any career-minded woman thanks to the ­mentor-prodigy relationship I had with my boss. The company’s general manager had single-handedly built the only bakery supplying bread to fast-food outlets in Malaysia and Indonesia.

This was also the time I discovered ISO 9001 for quality management. In my role as the company’s first Quality Management Representative (QMR), I was responsible for the safety of food products supplied to vendors and, ultimately, for the safety of thousands of burger lovers.

During my tenure, the company lived through a string of high alerts brought on by customer safety complaints. I recall one incident when a wire was found in one of the burgers. A lawsuit loomed, but thankfully never came to fruition. The investigation revealed that the wire had come from a restaurant utensil and not from the bread (thus bakery) as originally supposed.

My role as a QMR was a challenging one. The company was a small business with a mission to provide our customers with high-quality, low-cost products. What’s more, becoming ISO 9001-certified meant tonnes of paperwork and traceability issues to contend with. No easy feat, to say the least.


Environmental wake-up call

My first job in the laboratory of a bread company consisted of ensuring the safety of food products for thousands of customers.

Fast-forward again to the 2000s. For my parents, education is everything. So, in 2001, I pursued my Master’s degree in Environmental Science while holding down a position as a management consultant. During my project work on clinical waste management, I soon discovered the gravity of our environmental problems, such as our inability to manage waste in an environmentally sound manner.

This is how I came to find my calling. I knew my purpose was to raise awareness of the impending problems that emerged from our society’s unsustainable consumption patterns. In 2003, I completed my Master’s and began to search for my higher-end goal.


A new chapter

A post at the Malaysian Association of Standards Users dealing with consumer interests in standardization became available. The job description perfectly fitted my skills and qualifications, so I applied and was recruited a few months later.

On the job as the first quality management representative in a Malaysian bread company.

My first project involved developing educational material on standards and standardization, including a series of workbooks for students. In the beginning, I was overwhelmed by the assignment simply because I had no idea where to start or how I would manage. Writing quality manuals and procedures is one thing, but compiling a children’s workbook and a teacher’s guide is quite another.

So I drew on all my past experiences such as my work with the children in my neighbourhood. I also reviewed dozens of activity books for children, researched endlessly on Google, and sifted through numerous ISO publications and specific content for children (including material developed by ISO members, which was little or non-­existent at the time).

It dawned on me just how complex and important standards were to the general public. For me, it was like the threads that hold the fabric together, but no one sees the detail – just the fabric !

The importance of standards and conformity assessment to trade, and thus the movement of goods across borders can never be overstated. This area – for all its intricacies – has a great impact on the everyday life of the average consumer or person on the street.

The more research I did for my project, the more I discovered the vast “unknown” world of standards and accreditation. It was then that I realized how long it would take to digest and advance my knowledge in standardization and accreditation – which has considerably evolved over the 60 years since ISO’s creation in 1947.

The workbooks were finally published in the first quarter of 2006 in time for the 28th ISO/COPOLCO meeting and workshop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The workbooks and the World of Standards were among the first of their kind in standards education for both students and the general public.


Notable mentions

Economic disparity is no longer limited to developing countries.

Over the last 18 years, I have drawn my inspiration from many people, including my first and current bosses, as well as all the dedicated people of ISO/COPOLCO.

I was also spurred on by the hard work and dedication of the experts in the working group on social responsibility who were developing ISO 26000 – a monumental feat given the number and groups of people involved. After the standard’s publication, I put together a training module on ISO 26000 and social responsibility – another pioneering work.

I learnt from the best in the business. Hundreds of people whom I met and worked with in my home country, regionally and at ISO have helped me grow and expand my knowledge of standards.


I have a dream…

As the new Chair of ISO/COPOLCO, I would like to see more consumer interests brought to the attention of the relevant ISO technical committees, particularly from developing countries that must stand up and become the standards makers of tomorrow. These days, however, economic disparity is no longer limited to developing countries – it is a problem that advanced economies are also facing as a result of the financial crisis and tough austerity measures.

Consumers (i.e. the general public) are at the receiving end of the belt-tightening measures, wherever they are. If standards and conformity assessment can help in these situations, then this too needs to be brought to the attention of the relevant technical committees. After all, consumption is the lifeblood of the economy. I believe that safeguarding the environmental and social well-being of consumers and the quality of their consumption will drive the economy and ensure a sustainable environment.

My new position as ISO/COPOLCO Chair will give me the opportunity to meet more like-minded people and, at the same time, enable me to give back what I have learnt over the years. And also, perhaps, inspire young standardizers in the way I was inspired by those before me.