10 things about: Dr Harith Ahmad, lecturer, inventor and Distinguished Professor for 2014

Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Picture by Saw Siow Feng

KUALA LUMPUR, March 1 — Dr Harith Ahmad is a man of science who believes that the lack of racial harmony in this country is why there is so little innovation.

He believes that big corporations who can contribute so much to the field of science are still operating within racial silos.

Born in Alor Setar, Dr Harith made his way to Universiti Malaya where he obtained a first-class Bachelor’s degree in Physics, as well as a Master’s in High Voltage Technology, before going to the University of Wales to obtain a Doctorate in Laser Technology.

In addition to academia, Harith is an inventor, and holds 10 patents jointly with Telekom Malaysia.

He was recently named Distinguished Professor for 2014, the latest in a series of awards he’s received including the Asean Science and Technology Award and the Merdeka Award for his contributions to science.

At 60, he continues to teach and research in the Department of Physics at Universiti Malaya, where he focuses on photonics, the science of generating and manipulating light. His research includes the fabrication of semiconductor-pumped solid-state lasers and developing techniques to study laser shadowgraphy. Yup, we don’t know what that means either, so we’ll let him explain.

In his own words:

  • What got me interested in physics was that I liked doing science. If you have math skills, doing physics can be a breeze. I had the skillset, and I was curious about how things work. What got me interested in photonics was that when I was a final-year student at Universiti Malaya, I met this external examiner, this engineer from the University of Swansea, who influenced me to go into it. He was the first guy to say that photonics had a really bright future. He encouraged me to come to his place to continue my studies in laser physics (which is part of photonics). I had the opportunity to investigate something new — then it was quite a new field.
  • The British system (at PhD level) makes you very independent. It makes you build up your own system. And they leave it to you. They give you a room, they give you the bare minimum, and they expect you to come up with something fantastic. You have to do it yourself; it’s all about you. I can claim that our facilities are as good as any second-tier British university. And of late the government has given a lot of money to Universiti Malaya, about RM500 million for facilities.
  • I didn’t have any mentors. I’m a self-made person.
  • The scientists I admire the most are (Max) Planck (German physicist who developed quantum theory) and (Louis) de Broglie. You must admire Planck. At a very young age, he got a Nobel Prize. He discovered very important phenomena. de Broglie showed that waves and particles can be connected by one equation. They built the foundations of quantum physics. Einstein is over-rated.
  • I think intelligence is over-rated. More important for a scientist is the willingness to work hard, commitment, and an interest in what you are doing.
  • Malaysia is recognised as a leader in selected areas of photonics. But it’s harder to be recognised because of our location. If you are in Europe and you run into a technical problem and you’ve exhausted your resources, you can just take a train ride to another country or get your students to work there for a couple of days to overcome it. You can enrich your knowledge faster and get a faster rate of improvement. We’re also not as exposed here. In Europe they have many seminars so that the people there constantly network with each other. We are a small country, and in this part of the world the next neighbour we have that will be very good would be Singapore, but Singapore sometimes doesn’t want to share a lot of things. Opportunities to share knowledge and have a common platform can be quite discouraging. Today, you can Skype (people in other countries), but if they don’t know you and you’ve never met them before, you’ll find that they won’t be responsive.
  • I think the major barrier to innovation in Malaysia is the lack of (racial) harmony. Big companies that make a lot of profits do not have enough social responsibility. They should spare some of their profits to fund prizes for school innovation competitions. Chinese tycoons are very generous to their own communities. If they could transcend this, the whole country would feel the effects. And with enough money, an innovation culture could thrive.
  • In order to have a high-technology industry by 2020, firstly, we require a number of PhDs, which will be an important factor for multi-national companies wishing to relocate their industry [to] Malaysia. Quality will come next through the natural selection process where the best will survive. This will be the basis of improving the quality of PhD graduates in this country, which will be largely determined by market forces. It’s difficult to comment on the quality of PhD graduates in this country accurately since their output occurs across a vast array of fields, including little-known niche areas. One suitable means to ascertain PhD student quality is to require them to generate five publications in international journals during their studies. This should be the criteria that all the local institutions should practise, since the work will be vetted by international experts from renowned universities. This will definitely ensure the quality of PhDs produced in this country is comparable to that in countries such as the US, UK, and Europe.
  • It would be very good if our TV programmes and our printed media produce more material in relation to how scientific discoveries have changed our lives and will shape the future. In this aspect, we could highlight the importance and impact of physics, and how physics has become the foundation of new industries.
  • In my spare time I read about Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, to see the common platforms — why people believe in something.