The Grand Old Dame and a professor — Lee Yew Meng

DECEMBER 7 — I first came to know of the 2016 Universiti Malaya (UM) Master Plan Ideas Competition from my buddy Tan Sri Chan Sau Lai, who is on the Panel of Jury. Indeed, I was fascinated and wanted to know more because UM, established on Jan 1, 1962, was our first university. For a newly independent nation, it naturally represented one of our vital pillars of hope.

Chan introduced me to the jury panel convener Saifuddin Ahmad, a practising architect, to provide the competition details. The competition is open to all registered architects and town planners, either individually, as a group or through their firms. I suppose courage is the only other criteria.

Undoubtedly, UM is upholding the tenets of learning and excellence, ignoring whatever other considerations that may be applied in environments off-campus.

Saifuddin reverted it is best I hear from deputy vice-chancellor for development Professor Dr Faisal Rafiq.

Project rationale and purpose

The idea for a massive makeover in 2009 did not proceed beyond the discussion stage. It was revived in 2013 and this time it was agreed a master plan was necessary.

It was openly discussed and even published that previously developments, especially with new buildings, were built haphazardly in terms of design, use of land and plot ratio. Latest technology wasn’t incorporated, and there was insufficient coordination in green indexing and sustainability in the overall campus development.

Parking space is a perennial problem as it hosts a campus community of more than 30,000 daily. Security is also a constant nightmare as one of the inner campus roads is accessible to the public. The residential colleges only have a capacity of 40 per cent and staff quarters are colonial bungalows hardly in prime condition, but located in prime real estate in Kuala Lumpur.

The 10 focus points of the master plan are to create a Central Campus District (CCD), Eco-Campus, industry-linked research park, redevelopment of ageing academic buildings and new facilities, student housing and lifestyle, cultural hubs and routes, seamless connectivity, enhancing the quality of public realm, legible and identifiable campus, and safe and defined spaces.

The jury panel has assessed and the campus voting has been completed. The awards ceremony is scheduled on Saturday.

When the master plan is executed, UM facilities should be good until at least 2050 before any serious review is necessary.

UM has its roots with the establishment of Singapore’s King George VII College of Medicine in 1905. It was formally established as Universiti Malaya in 1949 upon the College of Medicine’s merger with Raffles College (1929). By 1959, there were two autonomous divisions, one in Singapore and the other, Malaya.

Two years later, it was decided they become separate entities and the one on the island became known as the National University of Singapore.

Presently, there is just under 3,000 academic and administrative staff serving 12 faculties, two academies and three centres.


(From left) Faisal, Chan, jury panel member Hijjas Kasturi, Saifuddin, and other members of the jury panel Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Abdul Rahman and Datin Paduka Dr Halimaton Saadiah.
(From left) Faisal, Chan, jury panel member Hijjas Kasturi, Saifuddin, and other members of the jury panel Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Abdul Rahman and Datin Paduka Dr Halimaton Saadiah.

We met at the Persatuan Alumni Universiti Malaya clubhouse and within four minutes (I was counting), Faisal’s intense intellect came through to me. I have met quite a few pretender academics who will need to hang their CVs around their necks to prove they may have some smarts. Or really brilliant ones who are also bona fide geeks.

The development of the campus premise has traditionally been tasked to the deputy vice-chancellor in charge of development. Faisal was first appointed on a three-year term from 2013 until this year, when it was renewed recently. He had seriously wanted to correct the continuous ad hoc renovations with that of long term planning goals. Seems he got his way.

Faisal, who became a full professor at age 38 (he’s 41 now), has been type-casted as a straight-A achiever starting with Penilaian Darjah Lima (5 As), Sijil Rendah Pelajaran (8 A1s), Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (8 A1s and 1 A2) and A-Levels (4 As).

He obtained an Electrical and Electronics engineering degree from the University of Manchester’s Institute of Science & Technology (Umist), Masters in Engineering Science (Erbium-doped Fibre Amplifiers) from UM, and PhD (Integrated Optical Devices) from the Optoelectronics Research Centre, University of Southampton.

His only “failure,” he conceded with absolutely no trace of cockiness, was in obtaining a second class upper in Umist.

Faisal became a tutor in UM in 1997 and literally wheezed up the hierarchy, even bypassing the senior lecturer position. I find it amazing to know of someone with a brilliant academic record who applies his intelligence cleverly and get recognised for it. UM is certainly one Grand Old Dame!

Faisal’s CV on awards and scholarships won is simply astounding.

He agrees retirement age for professors should be increased to 65 from the present 60, but insists on a proviso, that strict assessments be applied to ensure “deadwood” are retired off earlier.

He is happily married to Mazari Susanty Ibrahim, a pharmacist in government service. They have a brood comprising Muaz (16), Maisarah (14), Muntasser (4) and Muayyad (1.5). His parents were civil servants and he is the eldest of five siblings.

His favourite movie of all time is The Shawshank Redemption (1994), a prison drama which focuses on the human psyche when placed in the most challenging environments.

He abhors “apple polishing,” overcompliance, laziness, lack of accountability and finger-pointing. He considers merit above all else.


Nadeswaran aka Citizen Nades told me his employment contract ends on Dec 31. Is he retiring? He says no! Then? He gives a smirk.

He was the moderator in an International Advertising Association (Malaysian chapter)-organised debate held recently. He was his usual cherubic self and his age (65) was only revealed by his experience. He was equally deft in his movements and wit.

Nades shouldn’t hang up his spurs as yet. There are many more stories to tell. Maybe 70 is a better age to retire. That’s my goal, anyway.

* Datuk Lee Yew Meng is CEO of Genovasi Malaysia

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

Related Articles