What opportunities do you believe can arise for Malaysia, now that the country is the chair of the ASEAN?

Malaysia chairing ASEAN in 2015 will bring a lot of opportunities in education. I believe Higher Education can bring ASEAN together. This is because before the ASEAN, among the institutions of higher education there was already an establishment called the ASEAN University Network (AUN). The University of Malaya is also one of the members of the Board of Trustees. Through this network a lot has already been discussed on how the relationship between ASEAN universities can be strengthened such as credit transfer, student mobility, etc. These are good strategies among the universities which will strengthen our partnerships in the region.

Through higher education we can help our countries improve the economic status of the people too.

The government has also taken this opportunity to set the Centre for ASEAN Regionalism University of Malaya (CARUM) – a policy research institution which will be an asset to the Malaysian government.

How is the availability of talented human capital developing in Malaysia?

Brain retention is a big challenge and we want to avoid a brain drain! 15 years ago we had the first brain gain policy in which I was also involved, and we managed to attract a lot of Malaysians abroad to come back to Malaysia. However, this was an unsuccessful operation as in terms of infrastructure and research facilities Malaysia was not ready, so the program was not very successful.

In the second nation brain gain initiative, we managed to bring a number of Malaysians back from overseas. We convinced them not to return to work in developed countries as a lot of infrastructure is now available here. As you can see in the University of Malaya for instance, we have the  High Impact Research Building and the University of Malaya is the only university in Malaysia that received more than half a billion ringgit from the government  to establish laboratories for High Impact Research.

With this in place we have managed to bring talented Malaysians home   The other initiative we have is TalentCorp which is now in its third cycle. The objective of this project is to facilitate the return of talented Malaysian professionals to meet the needs of the country. The Malaysian government has done great things, but now the question is the sustainability of these programs and also whether these professionals who have returned will stay.

In the University of Malaya we have also established a Nobel Laureate laboratory which allows us to invite Nobel Laureate winners to come to the University of Malaya such as Prof. Barry Marshall. Prof Marshall is a recipient of the  Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in proving that the bacterium Helicobacter Pylori is the cause of most peptic ulcers. We also have Prof. Ryoji Noyori with us, a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry. In other words, we have good researchers and by bringing in these experts, as well as having the world-class facilities, it will help us  develop our research and contribute to knowledge.

Research and Development are currently very important in Malaysia, aside from R&D however, is also commercialisation. How is UM commercialising?

Commercialisation has two aspects to it: one is to produce the money and the other is entrepreneurship, especially social entrepreneurship that has been somewhat overlooked in the past.

There are a lot of researchers in the University of Malaya, and in the past, researchers would publish their work and not proceed beyond that. However, in the University of Malaya, we are now assisting our researchers to patent their products. We are also looking for industry partners and we are working with venture capitalists. We want to upgrade our University of Malaya Centre of Innovation and Commercialization (UMCIC) to be part of the Malaysian Innovation Hub. This is in the process, and we already have about a dozen products ready for commercialisation. We are looking for venture capitalists where our research output can be translated into products, but for the commercialisation of these products, we need partners. The industry partners are needed not only for commercialisation but also to contribute to teaching too.

The industry and the education sectors must work together to produce very creative and critical thinking students, and in that way we can help improve the students employability.

This is why if we look at the tenth shift of the Blueprint, the University of Malaya is already adhering to this shift.  In fact we are enhancing the tenth shift, not merely following. Instead of walking, we are running: we are already working towards the achieving the objectives in year 5.

In addition, in the University of Malaya we have 4 major projects which will help us in commercialising. One of our objectives is to achieve financial sustainability. At the moment the University of Malaya is the only university where 30% of its expenditure is from its internal income and the other 70% of the expenditure is provided by the government. With other universities, income from internal sources varies between 10-20%. This internal income is not generated by increasing the students’ fees, we get money from other sources. We are the oldest university in Malaysia and one of the sources of income is from our private hospital. We currently only have 79 beds in the private hospital but we have plans to expand it to become the University of Malaya Health Metropolis. We have the land available and the expertise – this project will generate a source of income for us. We also have the International University of Malaya – Wales which is our private university; a plantation down south which produces palm oil and other ventures from which we get revenue.

I have promised the government that UM will be financially sustainable by the year 2025.

If you allow yourself to dream, where do you see UM in 5 years time?

University of Malaya is the  leading the university in Malaysia, so our dream has been  achieved, now we need to sustain our position. We are currently positioned 151 in the QS World University Rankings, hopefully we will get closer to 100 and by 2025 be in the top 50. We have the best medical school in the country. In research, the University of Malaya produced 3400 research papers in 2014 and the next target for this year is to produce 5000 papers. However, these must be high quality research papers.

We want our university to be globally recognised. We are now the Top University in Malaysia, among the Top 200 in the QS World University Rankings; 32nd in Asia; 3rd in ASEAN. We want to be first in ASEAN.

So in summary…we want to become a self-sustainable, world recognised university and keep our current collaborators as well as seek new ones. In the next ten years we want to reach the Top 50 and remain at the top.

What is the added value UM offers against other universities?

We offer high quality education to our students. Also we have international collaborators who are our partners.  We work with the industry to close the gap between academia and industry. Now the demand from employers is graduates that are holistic, that are critical thinkers, yet who are also creative. This is why we as a university have to change, we have to give our academic staff more freedom and we have to work with the industry. If possible we want a 50:50 ratio; 50% academic input and 50% input from the industry. We also encourage our staff to work in their specific industry for two years and then come back to teach and combine their knowledge with their experience from industry. We also have industry specialists coming to the university to share their knowledge with our students. For instance, we currently have Tony Fernandez who comes here to give lectures. In addition to this, entrepreneurship and nurturing said entrepreneurship is part of the curriculum. In this way, the approach that we have adopted gives added value to the courses that we conduct. 

What would be your message of confidence for international investors coming to Malaysia?

Globally, we want our partners to work with us. The University of Malaya wants to be the first in the country to produce the first Nobel Laureate in Malaysia – that is also our dream. And if we can contribute by producing quality graduates who will be part of the workforce, and in turn contribute to a knowledge-based economy, I am sure we can attract international investors.