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In Conversation With ...: ‘Give your best to your country’

NATIONAL Academic Award 2013 recipient Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Mohd Rashdan Baba, 79, is the first vice chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and the then Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (now Universiti Putra Malaysia). He shares his views on the early days of the tertiary institutions as well as the current national education system:

Being the founding vice chancellor of two public universities — Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (UPM) — was no easy task. Who mooted the idea and why were they established?



Mohd Rashdan Baba and his family.
Being the founding vice chancellor of two public universities — Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (UPM) — was no easy task. Who mooted the idea and why were they established?

UKM was established in 1969 when the government under the leadership of former Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak wanted a university to use Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction. The universities in the country used English language at the time. Bahasa Malaysia was made the medium of instruction with the aim of developing it into a language of knowledge.

At that time UKM was viewed as a second-class university because Malay was its medium of instruction. So his (Abdul Razak) wish was to see UKM become a world-class university.

He wanted to appoint (the then) Institute of Medical Research director Professor Datuk Dr Ungku Omar Ungku Ahmad as the first UKM vice chancellor but unfortunately Ungku Omar passed away before he could assume the position. I was appointed to fill the position. At that time I was head of Kolej Pertanian in Serdang.

UPM was established because there was demand for trained agricultural graduates to serve the country. Under the Felda schemes, more Malays were given the opportunity to study at the universities so there was a lot of demand for graduates in this field. Between 1965 and 1969, there was a four-fold increase in enrolment to meet demand.

At the same time, the government felt there was a lack of teachers as well as manpower to meet the needs of the agricultural sector. The government chose Serdang as a centre of excellence and agriculture as its focus.

Initially, there was an agriculture faculty at University of Malaya but it moved to Serdang. What started off as Kolej Pertanian became UPM in 1971.



Some of Mohd Rashdan Baba’s biographies and books.

How did you manage the obstacles in establishing these two universities?

It took hard work, a lot of hard work. We sat down and worked, and bonded through it all. I was fortunate to have good team members whose focus was similar and our aim was to establish the universities. We shared the same passion for the work. Together with former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Tan Sri Abdullah Ayub, Tun Syed Nasir Ismail and Dr Agoes Salim, we stood at the forefront in the establishment of the universities to enable students from Malay medium schools to continue their education up to the tertiary level.

Did you encounter difficulties finding manpower?

Not many reputable professors and lecturers wanted to join UKM then. To solve the problem, I encouraged UKM teaching staff to continue their education, provided them with scholarships and hired lecturers, who taught in Bahasa Melayu, from a number of reputable universities in Indonesia.




Mohd Rashdan Baba reminiscing about the past.

You are regarded as a role model for current university leaders. How do you feel about it?

I am honoured to be anyone’s mentor. Anyone who is given the task of setting up the universities should take it as an opportunity to give his best to the country and its development. If you are given a task, give it your best — not for personal gain but what the country can gain. I took the opportunity to develop higher education in the country as a challenge, expecting no reward in return, other than what the country can gain in terms of future development.

The development of human resources is key to achieving national development objectives — to eradicate poverty and make higher education more accessible, especially in the rural areas. It was imperative that the twin aims were achieved. The provision of higher education ensured that certain communities were not left behind and also increased the pool of trained manpower, not only at the graduate but also postgraduate level. I sent students to pursue their postgraduate education overseas. In my estimation, both UKM and UPM achieved these two goals very well.

I found this opportunity of helping to enhance manpower most satisfying. I identified some top 40 UPM students to be awarded scholarships to study overseas so they can become lecturers when they return. I also looked for scholarships opportunities, for example from Ford Foundation, Australian Development Agency, Public Services Department and scholarships from Canada for these students. All of these efforts were to send them to study abroad.

This proved to be a workable concept — sending our best and brightest abroad, educating them and bringing them back to teach students here. We didn’t have enough teachers then due to the expansion of the higher education system in the country.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has mooted four main tasks for local tertiary institutions to fulfil as Malaysia moves towards becoming a high income nation. One of them is creating a “knowledge-generating centre”. What are your views?

The Prime Minister has mooted a good idea. It’s the role of the university to be at the forefront of knowledge. This is not easy as information is increasing at a rapid rate, and knowledge together with it. The universities of the future will have to find new ways of doing things, and to do them efficiently. That means they will have to keep pace with an explosion of knowledge all over the world.

It has been said that our local graduates can’t function at the workplace. Perhaps one way to overcome the problem is to ensure our universities function as knowledge-generating centres, not only for the duration of the student’s association with the university, but even after he leaves its portals.

To remain meaningful, universities must not only impart knowledge, they must also be deeply involved in research. Research is vital to the university. It is what differentiates universities from other teaching centres. Teaching without research is like a “no push” so that’s why you have to encourage faculty members to create new things. A high percentage of time should be allocated to research, both fundamental and applied.

Which is more important for students to achieve at university? Is it getting a good Cumulative Grade Point Average or the experience they gain along the way?

One has to look at a university in the context of its ecosystem. It is pointless to have ivory towers of excellence in a swamp of inactivity. Universities must develop on the basis of their relationship with industry. Having a good relationship between the industry and the university is a win-win proposition.

You gain both ways. The industry will work with the university so that the latter knows the type of students in demand. The industry will also indicate the research it likes to be conducted that will be of value to it.

The public sector has an important role as well in identifying incentives for universities — staff training, internships and tax rebate. By working together, industry and universities can identify new frontiers of growth and development for the nation.

Every cluster of enterprise, be it Silicon Valley, Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, Route 90 in Massachusetts to name but three American examples, benefits from this synergy between universities and industry.

The industry can provide incentives, say laptops or research grants, for students. Projects can be crafted to benefit the industry while at the same time provide research opportunities for universities and their students.

As for the students, they will have an idea of the skills required by the industry. When they undergo their internships, they will also know the skills and requirements needed upon graduation. During their internships, they will have put to good use what their universities have taught them, and learn more from the industry to boot.

By engendering such relationships, students will know the fields of research which will further increase their productivity and value after they graduate and, at the same time, enhance the relevance of the research programmes of the universities.

Can you foresee what will happen to the education system in five years? What are some of the things you want to do differently?

This explosion of information and knowledge all over the world will mean students will become less exam-orientated and become truly educated individuals, who think critically and analytically, and are less dependant on learning from books. For all you know, much of what they know will be outdated 10 years after their graduation. The challenge of modern universities is to inculcate in students a devotion to a lifetime of learning, through a range of modalities, both new and old. In so doing, universities will continue to be relevant and continue to add value to the development and integrity of the nation. ZULITA MUSTAFA NST Learning Curve - 26 OCTOBER 2014 @ 8:02

Tags: education
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