Sunday, September 6, 2009

MERDEKA AWARDS: The Environment Is In His Blood

By: Koh Lay Chin
Source: NST Online

AS one of the prestigious Merdeka Award winners for this year, Prof Datuk Zaini Ujang does not only have ideas as to how he will use his RM500,000 cash prize but has detailed plans. The 44-year-old academic and vice-chancellor of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), who has contributed to environmental initiatives and research on water supply, sewage, river rehabilitation and industrial ecology, is bubbling with proposals about his "greatest passion" - the environment. He will be using part of his prize as seed money for the UTM Merdeka Endowment Fund which will support academic and scholarly activities, as well as contribute to the establishment of a professorial chair on environmental sustainability. The fund will also help in the publishing of academic books, their distribution around campus and also to buy bicycles for use around the campus. "We want to encourage a healthy lifestyle and create environment-friendly green initiatives on campus. This is part of UTM's initiative to follow the concept of free bicycle rides in Copenhagen, Denmark" he said in an interview.
And while his main ideas resonate around the university, which he has helmed for the past year, Zaini also has plans for the country's rivers. At the forefront of what he hopes to contribute to the nation is a shift from difficult-to-understand environmental performance parameters into an integrated index that will allow people to know how clean or dirty their rivers are. The idea is akin to giving marks to rivers instead of having complicated data on different aspects of a river's cleanliness. "You see, when it comes to rivers now, there are many different parameters maintained by different departments in our country, whether it is the National Hydraulic Research Institute or the Department of Irrigation and Drainage."I would like us to use an integrated index -- an Environmental Performance Index (EPI) -- that can be understood by the man on the street, and not just professionals or academics." He said UTM would work closely with the government on the index and its related processes, and in collaboration with the University of Yale and Columbia University in the United States. Zaini has also volunteered to start an environmental strategy for the Klang River Rehabilitation Project, and has written to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak to offer his expertise to lead the initiative.

He wants the project, he said, because he believes Sungai Klang can be turned into one of the cleaner, more vibrant and beautiful rivers that many developed cities have in their midst. Prof Datuk Zaini Ujang will be using part of his RM500,000 cash prize as seed money for the UTM Merdeka Endowment Fund which will support academic and scholarly activities. "You can see significant improvement in five years if we can focus our efforts on the river. We must put our priority on the tributaries and the causes of pollution. We must look at everything, whether it is construction or even predatory fish which we must get rid off," he said. While his foray into water and wastewater research came as an unintended consequence (he could not bear the smell of benzine as an engineer in the oil and gas field, later moving on to his scholarly pursuits), his love for the environment runs deep."I have been around rivers all my life. I was born and lived between two rivers. My school was near a river and I even married near a river. Even now, when I have time, I love to go horse riding and jungle trekking so that I can be close to nature." Zaini is also the chairman of the Environmental Quality Council, deputy president of the Malaysia Water Association and a commissioner in the National Water Services Commission. He has written books such as Minda Lestari, which he says "puts the environment as a priority and strategic initiative".

The Merdeka Awards, now in its second year, will be held at Dewan Philharmonic at the Petronas Twin Towers on Oct 19. For all the glitz and glamour of the awards, which will also be presented to leading woman leader Tun Dr Fatimah Hashim, lawyer and diplomat Datuk P.G. Lim and scientist Prof Dr Halimaton Hamdan, Zaini sees it as a great opportunity to push for further action."Not many academics have this sort of chance in his or her field, so I do want to take part in the action." He may be the only man on the award list this year and the youngest, but Zaini still maintains he is a simple person who is somewhat obsessed with planning. "To me planning is important because my aim is to deliver and get results. I spend 70 per cent of my time to plan and the rest to implement, monitor and deliver." He also believes in encouraging a result-driven culture among academics and researchers, and subscribes to renowned chemical engineer Kazuo Inamori's precept that "Success > Ability x Effort x Attitude". "If your attitude to life, career, society and nature is negative, you will falter and your efforts will be abysmal. With this equation, all of us, regardless of our IQs (intelligence quotient), can achieve our goals." He admits that he started from humble beginnings and was "neither the cream of the crop in school nor a first-class university graduate". However, he made sure he planned, strategised, prayed and, very importantly, he said, surrounded himself with people who were great thinkers and had the right attitude. Names of many academics and prominent Malaysians roll off his tongue as inspirations, among them Malaysian Nature Society president Tan Sri Dr Salleh Mohd Nor ("the first PhD holder among my kampung folk"), the late media icon Tan Sri A. Samad Ismail, Prof Sidek Baba, Royal Prof Ungku Aziz, Prof Yusof Othman, cartoonist Datuk Lat and AirAsia head honcho Datuk Seri Tony Fernandes.

He smiles as he mentions his family, thanking his children and especially his wife, whom he says has sacrificed her career as a medical doctor to ensure the home remains an "intellectual eco-system" while he is often away or busy. And what does he think of the current scenario in Malaysia in light of this year's Merdeka, and what does he hope for? After pausing briefly to reflect on the question, Zaini said he hoped that Malaysians would continue to contribute to the nation in their own ways and expertise. "I think people should concentrate on their own fields, and not think of politics as everything or the destination for change. If you are good, remain where you are, contribute and build up your expertise." Contributions to the country, he said, do not need to be big or flashy. "Sometimes, we put people where they should not be in the name of promotions. However, I think we should allow people to develop their main expertise. "Achieve the best in your field, benchmark yourself against the best, and as you grow, mentor the young ones around you. In your own little way then, you are contributing to society and the nation."

Note: I love the last quote "Achieve the best in your field, benchmark yourself against the best, and as you grow, mentor the young ones around you. In your own little way then, you are contributing to society and the nation".

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