Interview

Prof. Datuk Dr. Asma Ismail

Vice Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM)

USM is the only APEX (Accelerated Program for Excellence) University in the country. This means that we hold an APEX mission – to strive for excellence with soul.

ASEAN BUSINESS LEADERS: Datuk Dr Asma, you occupied a top role at the Ministry of Higher Education prior to your appointment as VC of USM. What motivated you to join the university?

PROF. ASMA: Prior to my appointment as Vice- Chancellor of USM, I have co-steered the national higher education blueprint in my role as the Director-General of the Ministry of Higher Education.

Over the years, we have consistently unlocked new phases of the education blueprint, such as easing the transition from colleges to universities, enabling flexible education, allowing our students a gap year, and many more, which all contributed to increasing the quality and competitiveness of Malaysia’s higher education sector. Many industry professionals have also studied the blueprint, and they have lauded it as a fine and comprehensive strategic plan.

The implementation, however, can be challenging. To ensure its successful execution, it is very important that everyone, whether in the Ministry or at the university level, understands the blueprint and follows the strategic direction so that we are on the same page.

I had many ideas on how to translate the blueprint into concrete action. But, as the Director-General in the Ministry, I didn’t have an team to execute the strategy. Therefore, after completing my first term as Director-General, I decided to come back to the university that gave me the opportunity to start my academic journey and I knew that my team is here at USM. I want to work on the implementation of the blueprint with my team, to see if the strategies actually work under the leadership of someone who fully understands the blueprint. So, here I am now.

ASEAN BUSINESS LEADERS: What are the cornerstones of USM while implementing the higher education blueprint?

PROF. ASMA: After almost three years of helming USM, I focus on USM being a Preferred University that is respected, referred and relevant. We plan to achieve this by being sustainability-led, values-driven and focusing on delivering our KPI (key performance indicators) and KIP (key intangible performance).

USM is the only APEX (Accelerated Program for Excellence) University in the country. This means that we hold an APEX mission – to strive for excellence with soul. This is why USM emphasizes on going beyond the ranking game and is focused to help the poor, the marginalized, and the underserved of society. All technology that we are using and developing in USM has to be high tech and high touch.

ASEAN BUSINESS LEADERS: Can you explain more about “high tech, high touch”?

PROF. ASMA: Sure. Take my academic and research background in rapid diagnostics as an example. Right now, the molecular diagnostics in the market are too costly, hence not available to the poor. So, at USM, we established the Institute for Research in Molecular Medicine (INFORMM) to cater for development of diagnostics for low resource settings.

In the past, not many researchers are interested to offer high-tech services for the people who cannot afford to pay for it. But we see this as an opportunity. This is our blue ocean strategy – to boldly explore where research traditionally would not go, and offer solutions that are affordable, available, accessible and appropriate to the culture of the people in the low-income segment of our society.

Developing technology platforms and innovations for low-resource settings means we have less competition, hence it is easier to develop patents. Now, we own 133 patents, and we have successfully commercialized our technology round the world due to its accessibility and affordability for the low-income groups.

ASEAN BUSINESS LEADERS: How do you steer the university and its student population towards creating social impact?

PROF. ASMA: We teach students to have values through our experiential learning programs, such as volunteerism and community engagement. Our students have to learn to communicate and collaborate with different stakeholders in the community, because you cannot bring about sustainable change if you don’t know what is happening on the ground and not connecting to the right people or agencies.

We call this ‘HEBAT’, which is an acronym for Holistic, Entrepreneurial, Balanced, Articulate, and Thinking. Hebat in Malay language means ‘great’, so we hope that by incorporating it as a part of USM’s DNA, inter-cultural and 21st century skills competency with knowledge and good values will come naturally to our students. Its also important to teach our students to be independent without subsidy mentality. Jobs available on campus have been advertised via JORAN (Job Opportunities Recruitment Networking) so that they can earn while learning.

Other than that, we have to walk the talk by creating research, new knowledge and opportunities that benefit the less fortunate segments of society. For instance, USM is now offering a multi-disciplinary education approach and employment skills to the differently-abled (individuals) on campus.

ASEAN BUSINESS LEADERS: In your opinion, what are the strengths and advantages that Malaysian universities should leverage on?

PROF. ASMA: I believe that if we follow what the West is doing, we will be 20 years behind. But if we embark on something that the West is not interested in doing, we will be 20 years ahead. We cannot compete with international universities that have a wealth of resources. To have the competitive edge we need to tailor our research and innovation to the availability of data and research samples, needed for low-resource settings. This is how we can remain relevant in our part of the region.

But we do have accessibility to the global market in terms of commercialization of our research. For example, if we focus our research on health issues among the local poor communities, the result will be relevant to other developing countries too. At least 80% of the world’s population lives in poverty, so it makes sense to concentrate our research to tackle the “diseases of the poor”.

From an energy point of view, we can also commercialize research around solar energy, and this will be marketable in many countries around the equator that enjoy plenty of sunshine all year long too.

ASEAN BUSINESS LEADERS: How is disruptive technology affecting higher education in Malaysia?

PROF. ASMA: Now that we are going through Industry 4.0, people may ask: is it still relevant to balance between knowledge and character? The answer is yes. Many are worried about disruptive technology, but to me, this is not the real problem. Technology is here to stay and we have to learn to embrace it.The real problem is the lack of trust among people, corporations and governments. As our society increasingly depends on robots and AI, the future is about collaborative economy and sharing information. To collaborate, trust and trustworthiness becomes important. In other words, we have to create individuals who can balance deep knowledge with honorable character – this is, in fact, part of our national higher education blueprint.

So, this comes back to values. How do we implement values into higher education? This is why USM is now implementing experiential learning. A university education is no longer about acquiring knowledge in the classroom because knowledge is available at their fingertips through Professor Google. But students come for the learning experience. They learn to be flexible, they learn critical thinking and inter-cultural competency, and these are skillsets that you cannot get from the Internet. We train our students to be lifelong learners so that they remain relevant to developments in the industry.

At USM, we also embrace the change in student mindset by hiring young academics who are more in tune with new technologies, and are aligned with experimental learning.

ASEAN BUSINESS LEADERS: How do international students fit into USM’s aspirations to become a world-class research university?

PROF. ASMA: With the advent of globalization, being of global mindset is an important learning experience for students. This year with our QS ranking at 165 and the THE Rankings of Impact against SDGs at 49, we have managed to attract good international students to USM. Currently we have International students from 73 countries in the university. Their presence enhances Internationalization at home. We emphasize on development of inter-cultural competency via USM’s global village concept. No more separating the international students from the locals. To inculcate respect and understanding amidst diversity, we have remodeled the student quarters to ensure that the students unwind, eat and share their culture together. We believe that by increasing respect and understanding amidst diversity, only then can we provide relevant solutions appropriate to the needs of the global society.