Zulfigar Yasin: A Creator of Marine Parks Who Can't Help Being A Mentor

September 2023 PENANG PROFILE
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Professor Dato’ Dr. Zulfigar Yasin may be best known today as one of Malaysia’s top marine biologists, but much of his professional life has been spent in areas of great consequence to the nation. And by that, we also mean his influence as a teacher, mentor and leader of the young and the not-so-young. Ooi Kee Beng corners him for a two-hour chat just after the Penang state elections last month.

Ooi Kee Beng: Prof. Zul, I wish to talk with you about how and when people excel in life. Your own has been a very interesting one, and you continue working on environment and maritime issues. You are also a major voice on climate change, and on the need to adapt to it. But let’s start with some personal background.

Zulfigar Yasin: In retrospect, one is the sum of one’s experiences. When you’re born in Penang, you have immediate exposure to a deeply multicultural society. It is a given pillar in your life. Then you go overseas, for example, to do your studies and so on, and everybody mistakes you for this and that. Are you Chinese? Are you Malay? You realise that the presumed differences are actually quite small and incidental. Insignificant on the global stage.

You know, people and cultures are so intertwined. So, you quickly leave behind the racial baggage Malaysia leaves you with. At the same time, you also see the common problems faced by any race and ethnicity, regardless of where these are.

OKB: Do you think that your ability to adapt to any new place has something to do with your Penang childhood?

ZY: I think so. I think so. I think it’s a special trait in Penang. In fact, you don’t realise differences until somebody makes you realise them. In contrast, for someone growing up in a city that is ethnically homogeneous, anything new may appear too foreign and alien.

But I think the trait you brought up is basically a survivor trait. I went overseas when I was 18, just after MCE (Malaysian Certificate of Education). My parents were not rich people; they were teachers. Nobody met me at Heathrow—I was going to Nottingham then. But you learn to survive. You survive.

I was born in Air Itam, which was, and is, a very multicultural place. Many of my neighbours were not Malays; they were mainly Chinese. A lot of meetings would happen everywhere—in the market, and so on. You experience many surprises in your young life. People bring you food, you bring people food. In fact, they bring you culture and you bring them culture, in a way. Nobody had issues with religion back then. Nobody had the upper hand to force anyone to do what they did not wish to do. That is very important. It was a special time. I didn’t realise then how important that was in shaping us… and also the nation at a basic level.

It was a very mixed society, semi-rural, and with a strong Penang flavour to it. I still remember going to school and needing to cross the busy Air Itam Road. Ah Kao, the man whose beca I took to school would make sure I got across the road safely, and coming back from school, he would make sure everything was alright with me. This was a very, very integrated society, very open. People also understood more or less their boundaries. You don’t do this because it is sensitive to them and they don’t do this because it is sensitive to you.

I went to Francis Light Primary School in Datuk Keramat before going to the Malay College. Education-wise, you had British training, which in a way gave you the global context… global context in the sense of making you conscious of how other people perceive you, and how you perceive yourself.

OKB: And whether you liked it or not, the global context was Eurocentric. It, until today, still is largely Eurocentric.

ZY: Yeah. You were taught a history skewed in various ways. It was only much, much later that you realise that there are many stories to the same thing, and how important it is for you to learn that societies that claim to value equality, are not really acting that way. There are always many preconceived notions and ideas involved.

OKB: You did well in school, generally?

ZY: I did OK. [Laughs]. Almost everyone in my family was a teacher, or married to a teacher. [Laughs] Discussions at the dinner table were about school things.

OKB: That fosters a certain attitude towards the handling of knowledge, doesn’t it? I also come from a family of teachers. You learn to absorb knowledge in order to reformulate and to teach. That’s not necessarily the best way to manage knowledge. Was that the same for you?

ZY: I think so. The other thing important to me was exposure to a cross section of Malay society. I went to the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) for my secondary schooling. There were people who could easily get into that college, by virtue of their background—having aristocratic birth or connections to top politicians. This was in the 70s, though, and they were democratising education then. People from common backgrounds were being brought in. So, you could perceive the different ideas and capabilities. One good thing about the place was that you were treated as equals once you were in, regardless of background. You might be the son of a sultan, or whatever, but as a student there, you were equal to others.

The college was started by the British in 1905 to generate an administrative class. Military training was done at the Royal Military College in Sungai Besi. There was that separation in place.

After MCKK, I went to the UK, coming back only after I got my PhD. So, I was there a long time; 12 years maybe. A-levels at Nottingham, Bachelor’s at Birmingham and straight to PhD in marine ecology at Manchester.

The good thing about the British system is that you have a few universities in a small town, and they didn’t act like they were separate universities. In Manchester, I went to Salford. If I ran out of a chemical at Salford, I could go get it from another university in Manchester. I could use their library as well. You had this critical mass of people, and it was a very open style of education. If I felt like going for some lecture, whether or not it was connected to my course, I just walked in to participate.

I remember my course usually had 20 students attending. When we had a lesson in sexology, 400 turned up. [Laughs]

Salford has a scientific tradition. I think the steam engine was constructed there. There was no wannabe pressure like at Australian universities, where they feel they have to outdo British universities, and make life more difficult for their students in the process.

Also, it was a time when Malaysian academia was expanding. I was supposed to do Chemistry, but I said no. I would rather do Environment. Now, Environment wasn’t anything here then, but it was a big thing in the UK. I thought that we would probably go in that direction as well. So, I specialised in that. And because of this openness in the system, you were allowed to get into any other thing that you thought might become important. For example, I went on to become the first Malaysian diving instructor, and was instructing in Manchester.

OKB: I have never associated diving with Manchester.

ZY: No, but then people say you have to have gills living in Manchester because of the rainfall. [Laughs].

OKB: At Penang Institute right now, we are discussing leadership and the phenomenon of excelling. At this point, let me ask you what you think about excelling, and the preconditions for people to excel? When you describe Manchester this way, and with the English self-confidence still remaining during that era, I think of how vital a stimulating and nurturing environment can be. A nurturing ecosystem pushes people up a gear, would you agree with that?

ZY: I agree with that. And also the openness. You spoke out. If you were wrong, you were wrong. There was always someone there to give you an alternative view. And that was okay. This influenced what were formative years for me—as an academician anyway. At the same time, you were also exposed to an international society. The University of Salford had a lot of students from the Middle East and from Europe, not only from Commonwealth countries. They came to you with their stories, and placing these against the canvas of Malaysia, you suddenly realised how lucky you were, and how peaceful we were in Malaysia. In fact, what a great background we have had for forming a new society, post-independence.

I was a student leader then, at 23 or 24 years old. Strangely, being a Malaysian equipped me to be a student leader. I was in the Middle East during the Iran-Iraq War, and as a Malaysian, I was looked upon as a very neutral person who was not coloured by whatever was happening there. You listen, and basically, you’re less of a hothead. You can talk to people, and when Manchester University wanted to say something to some of these Middle-Eastern communities, they would approach us.

OKB: I think you are being too humble. Let me push you on this point. Why you and why not another Malaysian as student leader?

ZY: Why me? I think I had the opportunity to be a student leader very early in life. I was already a student leader at the Malay College.

OKB: Let me push you even further then. What gave you that edge to become student leader at the Malay College?

ZY: Ah. My father. His nudges, his saying things to me like, “You must always be just, you don’t have to be likeable. Every time you make a decision, you must make sure that it’s a just one.”

OKB: I see. For you, it must have felt that you had to put your foot forward, not stay shyly in the shadows.

ZY: Well, I was head boy in primary school, so I suppose you are right.

OKB: Something we downplay the importance of, in recent generations, is the vital role of the family, and how it can provide the child with the vital edge, the vital nudge—or not.

ZY: My grandfather was also a teacher, and his friends were teachers. He was greatly respected. In those days, in the Malay community, teachers were the most respected people.

OKB: The Guru.

ZY: Yes, the Guru. Yes. So even now, my mother can’t eat out because she won’t be allowed to pay. Someone will always pay for her. She doesn’t like that.

OKB: We are talking about a sense of community where the Guru would technically have taught the children or grandchildren or great grandchildren of almost everybody in the community, and to whom deep gratitude is owed by almost everyone in the community?

ZY: Yes, definitely. I mean, the rise of UMNO was because of teachers. But the party went urban and pandered to businessmen and so on. That was probably the beginning of their demise. I remember that at MCKK, we had exchange students and what I became aware of was that when I don’t have food on the table, don’t talk to me about climate change, for example. There is such a mismatch in politics today. Leaders are unable to speak for the poor or understand the rural background of the voters.

Let me pick up on something you mentioned earlier. Exposure to different societies and ethnicities on a larger scale in Europe and UK also tells you to pause, before you come up with a decision.

OKB: And to not insist.

ZY: Don’t insist. There is a viewpoint here, so maybe you should listen. You cannot lead unless you take pause.

OKB: No one likes being ignored or slighted.

ZY: Yes, you may forget the argument but you will not forget the feeling of being slighted. This is lost on young people today, who think that the argument is what is always important. People do not forget being slighted. This sensitivity is very pronounced in the Malay community. We like to say we are born with a PhD—Perangai Hasad Dengki (jealous temperament). [Laughs]. But to be fair, this also relates to the very accepting nature of the community. Hospitality is everything to them, even when it is at the expense of their own people and children. So, they will treat other people better than their own.

OKB: The mirrored reality of this, then, is that a slight becomes that much more serious. That makes sense. Prof. Zul, let me ask you a difficult question. Between arriving in Nottingham and leaving Manchester—a period of about 12 years—your whole 20s really, are you able today to identify how things changed during that time?

ZY: It was a significant number of years, so I would say “Yes”. Coming back, I remember that was when Anwar Ibrahim joined UMNO. That changed the landscape for the student societies, overseas and here. There were pros and cons to it. The PAS leadership was underneath Nik Aziz Nik Mat, who was much less militant than the leaders now. And how was this reflected in society? Most people thought it was no big deal. There were common interests and we could talk about it. But you don’t have that now. Things have become very adversarial and nobody wants to discuss common interests.

OKB: What happened to poison the atmosphere?

ZY: PAS has evolved. It was a party where there was a balance between religious leadership and professional leadership. And you need that. The alternative, which is what we have now, where you only have religious leadership, is unable to translate ideas into details. For example, say we want Islamic finance. But what is that? [Laughs].

Now we have Sanusi (Md Nor), the Menteri Besar of Kedah; the only non-religious leader in PAS today. He is different. He talks economy, he talks water… at the emotional level, he is giving these non-religious issues space. Not in the rational way Penang people might expect; he is a different creature. But that is appreciated among his constituents. I just wonder though how long he will last in PAS, given how different he is.

OKB: Very good point. But all this reflects failure on the part of the traditional politicians.

ZY: A failure that cannot be acknowledged, yes.

OKB: Like with Trump? The failure of the American elite created Trump.

ZY: People don’t want to think too much. They just want to know which pigeonhole they should go into.

OKB: Shall we look at your return to Malaysia? You came home very well educated, very much needed in the path that Malaysia had taken by the 1980s.

ZY: I wonder, sometimes, if my career path would have been easier if I had not been a Malay. I came into a society full of PhDs—the jealousy temperament we were talking about. You were not supposed to succeed, unless you were in a certain camp.

I worked in a number of places. I work in Saudi Arabia for a few months before coming back, at Jeddah City University. Even though I was in academia, I was moving about a lot. I was in USM, of course, then in Universiti Malaysia Sabah, starting Marine Science there, and then to Terengganu to start Marine Science there as well.

OKB: You were more an education infrastructure builder than an academic in the beginning then?

ZY: I did establish quite a bit. I founded most of Malaysia’s marine parks. Also, I assessed Thailand’s marine parks, that sort of thing. You got a chance to meet a lot of people, to go everywhere. Then Prime Minister, Mahathir, wanted us to go to Antarctica, and to look into the ROSES expedition (Research on the Seas and Islands of Malaysia) after that.

Antarctica was very good exposure. My group went with the Australian scientific team. We learned a lot from such a huge and important expedition. Coming back from that, and with the experience gained, we started research on the seas and islands around Malaysia—the ROSES expedition.

We mapped the islands in the contested territories. Part One was for South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca, Part Two was Sulu and the Sulawesi, and also Sipadan. This was in 2004.

OKB: We did not map our coastlines and islands until 2004?!

ZY: [Laughs] We didn’t, but it’s done now. I remember submitting the report to the Malaysian National Security Council, but I found out later that they never received it. This was because the person who received the report did not want it to go higher up. They wanted to have their own second expedition—and they had the gall to call that “the first expedition”.

OKB: Wow, they could do that?

ZY: Yup. The procedure was, you do your report and you hand it in, and that is the end of it. Unless you happen to meet the man upstairs who asks you, “Where is the report?” That’s when you notice something’s up. Intrigues at the national security level. In any case, the subsequent expeditions did not materialise or were sub-standard. My report got to where it needed to go in the end.

We also had a history, in the School of Political Science at USM, of doing expeditions for companies. We did the first expedition for Shell, and for ESSO. This was more coastal work rather than marine.

Almost all of our islands are now marine parks, in contrast to Thailand. I base that assessment on what I know from 2015. Now, because of the history of management of Malaysia’s marine assets, which has been very haphazard—it was under Fisheries, then went out of Fisheries, and after a fight, back into Fisheries—I don’t know how things compare to our neighbour up north.

So much of our processes are meant to ease things for bureaucracy and the bureaucrats, not to mitigate or solve a real problem. In the end, you always need a strong leader to cut through the red tape, cut through the hierarchy, and lead and guide the whole ecosystem.

OKB: How come you never went into politics? Student leaders are surely very political people.

ZY: My father used to say, “Do not cause harm.” When I was a student leader, people were upset with me for not joining UMNO. I just felt then that there was not just one UMNO. There were many UMNOs. Now, I thought the early UMNO had substance to it, but not since it became a business establishment.

OKB: You are officially retired, but really, you remain as active as ever. Penang Institute is very happy that you have taken the lead in getting the Middle Bank Marine Sanctuary in Penang established. How has your semi-retirement—I suppose I should call it that—been like?

ZY: My father used to tell me, “Hold power in your hand, not in your heart.” If it is necessary to let go, you let go. For example, if you have a position and things have become too abrasive and your conscience cannot tolerate that anymore, you must move on.

OKB: You now intend to focus on environmental adaptation to climate change, that kind of thing?

ZY: I would really love to focus on climate change and the environment. But in that journey, you may see something of a higher priority. And you may find that no one is handling that important thing. You will then have to give that your attention.

OKB: Your Guru-ness coming into play. It’s actually a blessing at our age to have opportunities to remain Gurus in concrete ways. Google may be effective in providing information, but knowledge is more than that.

ZY: Who else is going to mentor but we old people? One needs to understand the nature of knowledge transference: If you use something, that’s 10% gained; if you see something, you are up at 30%; if you do something, it’s 50%; and if you are teaching something, you are maybe at 90%.

When we understand that sequence, we may see that we’re not going to go very far with just Google. [Laughs].