Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Welcome 2009

My five wishes for the New Year
  • The government recognises biodiversity research as a priority area in RM10
  • The government of to-day is more tolerant to democratic principles and more liberty to Malaysians
  • A cleaner environment
  • A better education system for the next generation
  • A corruption-free society and a complete withdrawal of ISA and AUKU

Wish all Malaysians a Happy New Year

Monday, December 29, 2008

My grandson

This is the latest image of Ilyas, my 5-year old grandson tightly wrapped in black dust-bin plastic as he is about to have his hair-cut. I assume his hair dresser is his own mother

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Digitised Malaysian Journals

In Malaysia unlike other industrialising countries there are not many scientific journals published because journal publication did not attract the Malayan when the British left in 1957, Journal publication was prolific during the colonial days as the British officers were good writers and they had wanted to inform the whole world about the natural assets of Malaya. After Independence the Malayan Nature Society, the Forestry Department and the Agriculture Department were active due to the legacy of the colonial officers of the society and government departments. The University of Malaya, the oldest university in the country did not champion this. Today there are some journals and most of them are published by universities. In the US, Europe and Japan many scientific journals are published by private entreprises, especially by the scientific societies and associations, including academies. After 51 years of Independence, science in Malaysia is 51 years behind when we compare with countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, etc, to name a few.

The respect for science and technology in Malaysia came very late. For example, the National Biodiversity Policy was only launched in 1998 and that of the National Biotechnology Policy was launched in 2005, and the priority accorded to science was just luke-warm. Hence, this is well reflected by the progress of scientific journal publication. I was told only two Malaysian journals have Impact Factor, a few others were just cited in SCOPUS and SI Thomson, and yet many university administrators are now forcing their staffs to publish in journals with IF, or else perish! What an irony!

These are some of the Malaysian journals that come to my mind:-
a) Journal of Bioscience - Universiti Sains Malaysia. I was told by its Editor USM wants to put this journal on the international circuit
b) Malaysian Journal of Science - Universiti Malaya, irregular
c) Pertanika - Universiti Putra Malaysia
d) Sains Malaysiana - Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, the Editor wants to publish 4 numbers a year beginning 2009
e) Malaysian Applied Biology (formerly Malayan Agricultural Journal) - Society of Applied Biology
f) Sandakania - Forestry Department Sabah,
g) Malaysian Nature Journal - Malaysian Nature Society, one of the oldest journal
h) Sabah Nature Journal - Sabah Parks
i) Journal of Forest Science - Forestry Research Institute
j) Folia Malaysiana - Heritage Foundation
h) Malaysian Foresters - Department of Forestry, only recently it was worth reading and subscribing to it.

Some of the problems encountered by the students of Malaysian sciences are:-

  • these journals are not up-to-date, they are irregularly published
  • the quality of articles is suspect
  • many earlier volumes were not to be found in the library
  • not all university libraries subscribed to these journals
  • many of these journals are not widely circulated

The above problems had hindered the progress of understanding the history of say, Malaysian botany, Malaysian forestry etc. greatly. Take for an example, if I want my students to write an essay on the history of Malaysian botany from the colonial days up to now. How do they begin? Where do they start to look for relevant materials as they have no way to access all these journals from volume 1 up to now. Many students could not trace the earlier publications on Malaysian biology, for instance, in any university library. Not to mention the public libararies either in Kuala Lumpur or states. All these did not augur well for the progress of Malaysian science and technology which has envisioned to utilise S & T eventually to achieve Vision 2020, which is barely 10 years away.

What I have been advocating is an effort to put all these journals within the reach of all readers, especially students via their desk-tops and lap-tops. If these journals are digitised they could access these via their PCs, anywhere they are and anytime of the day. I will be introducing you all what the Universe Digital Library wants to do in the near future.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

My grand-daughter

This is the latest picture of my first grand-daughter, Maisarah. She is the daughter of my oldest son, Ahmed Razman (Abe) and Joanna. Presently she is with her parents, Abe is reading for his PhD in Finance at the University of Liverpool, UK

Rafflesia lima-lidah, a new species?

In the latest Malaysian Naturalist Vol. 62(2) : 40-42, Mathew Wong and Forest Gan reported what they thought a potentially new species of Rafflesia. The specimen was photographed in a remote part of Kelantan on 17th August 2008 at an altitude of 1,078 m above sea level. Judging from the altitude, the locality should be either on the Kelantan-Perak or Kelantan-Pahang border, for only there the hills are abpve 1,000 m a.s.l. And judging from the previous activities of the two gentlemen, it is most likely on the Kelantan-Perak border. The locality is always kept secret for fear of unauthorised collection for non-scientific purposes.
It was dubbed "lima lidah" because the rim of the diaphragm has five tongue-shaped appendages protruding inwards. Accordingly, the R. lima-lidah resembles R. kerri in general appearance, size as well as colour, only differs from it in the character of five tongues (see page 42). I sms-ed Prof Kamarydin Mat salleh about it and his immediately response was the possibility of abberation of R. kerri. However, he insisted on observing more samples to verify its true identity. Talking about abberation, the six-perigones of R. keithii in Sabah has been reported.
Earlier, I postulated on the occurrence of another species lurking in Kelantan-Perak border that resembles R. kerri. It was based on the assumption that R. kerri in Thailand parasitises the stems of Tetrastigma quadrangulum but there is no such host species in Kelantan-Perak border. Therefore, the R. kerri in Kelantan-Perak border must be another species for Rafflesia in Peninsular Malaysia is host-specific. Several months ago Prof. Kamaruddin did mention to me the possibility of a new species to be described from the area, which he cynically wanted to name after a royalty!
Coming back to R. lima-lidah, I am so curious about the so-called five tongues appendages on the rim of the flower, if it was an aberrant R. kerri, why would there be five tongues, corresponding to and opposite the five perigones, not one or two tongues, as signs of genetic monstrosity.

University Autonomy

I was really amused after reading Tan Sri Prof. Zul's column in NST pg. 32 this morning on the autonomy of universities in Malaysia. The VC of USM lamented well on the history of university autonomy, while missing many important points. I was a student st the Universiti Malaya (1969-1973) and I thought at that time of Royal Professor Ungku Aziz tenure as VC, the UM has its autonomy. Thogh in 1973 the then Home Minister, the late Tun Dr. Ismail ordered the FRU men to enter the university campus and harrassed the demonstrating students, including beating the girl students. At least that is what I thought of university autonomy. It was only later between 1974-1978 when I was studying at Reading University UK, I understood what UK university autonomy meant.
When I came back to UKM in 1979, AUKU was in place and I thought UKM was another government department under the Ministry of Education. All procedures and mechanisms od administration were regulated by the Ministry of Education. Many trivial decisions were sought from JPA. Even the number of professor post were applied from JPA and the Ministry of Finance. I grew up at UKM until I retired at 56 in 2004. Nothing much has changed, universities were further regulated with ISO, MQF, MQA and various other acronyms, etc. The 4-year system for Science was cut-short to 3-years and the university teaching was changed from Malay to English. Now I have to take the attendance of my lecture! What autonomy are we talking about.
In 1987 the VC wanted to decentralise the financial spending to the faculties but the Deans didn't want anything to do with it, the Deans were just behaving like District Officers of the university, who refused to be accountable with financial expeditures. Then there were talks of corporatisation of university as another mean of autonomy, although not much came out of it until to-day. I thought it was was simply just the subtle way of controlling and regulating the academia! Even when Dato' Pa was the Minister of Higher Education, I gave hime full hope to change some paradigms ..... alas he is gone to grow more paddy now.
Last week the parliament revised the AUKU, and reading from the NST, I felt we can't expect much from it was just another rounds of talks and talks for another 10 years.
Now I am in my fifth year of contract and I don't think I will see the light of university autonomy. All I hope USM, our APEX university will move a little in the rightt direction.
Indeed when I visited Chiangmai University on 29th November this year, the VP of the university proudly informed us that the 3rd best university in Thailand is autonomous. I was very proud of that .... and began to dream about UKM being somewhere there ....being able to decide what is best for us in our academic pursuits while remain accountable and proud as a lecturer. But then the MPs disagreed cos they believed they were the best brains in the country to run a university like what the corporate figures run a Proton assembly plant in Shah Alam.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Biodiversity and Forest Treasures

In the New Sunday Times, 14th December 2008, Ms Elizabeth Jones wrote about two recent books on the flora and fauna of the Peat Swamp Forest of Malaysia. The books are as follows:-
1. Rusea Go & Khali Aziz Hamzah, "Orchids of Peat Swamp Forests of Peninsular Malaysia". The peat swamp forests of Malaysia are known to be rich in flora notably members of the Orchidaceae. The orchids are mostly epiphytes perched high up on the branches of the trees. They have been constantly collected by the Orang Asli, exhibited under the road-side small huts, sold to the passers-by. I have observed the Singaporeans patronising these stalls bargaining for these orchids. Noting that the Orang Asli need not apply for the permits from the Forestry Department to collect these orchids, the epiphytic orchids and also the epiphytic Huperzia were readily sold to the outsiders without any concerns to the survival of these species, including their conservationl
2. Melvin Gumal, Jason Hon & Daniel Kong, "Birds and bats of Loagan Bunut National Park". I have yet to see this new book, hence no comment.
Earlier Faridah-Hanum Ibrahim, Shamsul Khamis & Khali Aziz Hamzah published the "Flora of the Peat Swamp Forest of Peninsular Malaysia" illustrating with excellent pictures and good descriptions of the common flowering plants of the peat swmp forest, This book went unnoticed. All the above publications and others are legacy of Dr. Efransyah, the former CTA of the Peat Swamp Forest Conservation Project in Malaysia.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Forest Biodiversity of Bintang Hijau

The Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia and the Forestry Department Perak organized a scientific expedition to Bintang Hijau Forest Reserves from 17-22 December 2006. More than 175 researchers and their students/assistants from local universities, research institutes, NGOs, including officers from government departments participated in it. The expedition areas covered include the Bintang Hijau Virgin Jungle Reserve, Ulu Kenas Recreational Forest, Lata Kekabu Recreational Forest and Gunung Bubu Forest Reserve (18,213 ha). The latter locality which represents the hill dipterocarp forests has its highest point Gunung Bubu (1657 m above sea level) which had been explored by many Europeans naturalists in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Bintang Hijau Forest Reserve which covers about 119,143 ha had been gazetted in 1925
Many significant findings on the flora and fauna were made during the 5-day expedition which was highlighted at the seminar on 10-11 December 2007 at Damai Laut Spa and Country Resort, Lumut. One of the most significant discoveries was that of a new record of the magnificient Rafflesia, R. hasseltii. To-date, there are only three species of Rafflesia found in Peninsular Malaysia, namely R. cantleyi Solm-Laubach., R. kerri Meijer and the latest discovery at Sungai Halong, Temenggor Forest Reserve, R. azlanii Latiff & Wong. The species R. hasseltii Suringar was described from Liki and Lompatan Andjing, Sumatera in 1880. It is a species whose flower measures 35-50 cm diameter, perigone lobes 14-17 cm wide and 10-13 cm long, with 5 snow-like whitish blots across and the blots are extremely larger than those of the other Peninsular Malaysian species. In the early 1900’s, both Ridley and Corner lamented on the occurrence of this species in Perak but no evidence surfaced until recently. What both Ridley and Meijer called R. hasseltii is most likely R. cantleyi. Apparently, Gunung Bubu area is also the type locality for R. cantleyi.
Its discovery has two scientific significance. Firstly, it extends the geographical distribution of the species from Sumatera to Peninsular Malaysia, and secondly, it proved a century old assumptions of Ridley and Corner that the species occurs in Perak, Peninsular Malaysia. This makes the conservation of Gunung Bubu Forest Reserve and the areas in the Bintang Hijau Range more valuable for biodiversity of Rafflesia and also the flora on the whole.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Forest Biodiversity of Gunung Angsi

The Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia and the Forestry Department Negeri Sembilan organized a scientific expedition to Gunung Angsi Forest Reserves from 2-6 July 2007. More than 120 researchers and their students and field assistants from local universities, research institutes, NGOs, including officers from government departments participated in it. The expedition areas covered include Ulu Bendul Recreational Forest and Gunung Berembun Forest Reserve. The locality of the expedition represents a lowland dipterocarp forests and possibly a low hill dipterocarp forests with its highest point Gunung Angsi. The area has been visited by many naturalists and biologists alike. Geologically it is quite interesting and in the vicinity there are many evidences of megaliths.
Many significant findings on the flora and fauna were made during the 5-day expedition which was highlighted at the seminar at Klana Resort, Seremban on 4-6 May 2008. At the seminar more than 30 scientific papers on the management of forest reserves, physical environment (geology and water quality) and biodiversity were presented. One of the most significant discoveries was that of a new record of the magnificient Johannesteijsmannia lanceolata (Palmae) on Gunung Angsi. In Malaysia there are only four species of the this beautiful genus; J. altifrons is the most common and distributed throughout Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak including Sumatera and South Thailand, J. perakensis is a peninsular endemic species and is only know from Perak and Kedah, J. magnifica only from Selangor and Negeri Sembilan and J. lanceolata is previously known only from Ulu Langat, Selangor and Pahang. It is a species whose habit is solitary and stemless, with leaves large about 50 cm long but narrow and lanceolate. The inflorescences are fewer and have sparse branches and the flowers have broad, papillate petals; the fruits are 3.4 cm in diamtere with short warts.
The species was first discovered at Sungai Lalang Forest Reserve in 1968 in Ulu Semenyih, Selangor and described by Dr. John Dransfield in 1972. This type locality has since been submerged by a dam. The Pahang population was observed in 1923 at Ulu Sungai Tekal Besar near Temerloh but was believed to be destroyed by deforestation. According to Lim (2000) this is the rarest of the four species. However, En. Shamsul Khamis, a graduate student at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia believed he observed another population at Kanoboi Forest Reserves but yet to be confirmed.
Its discovery at Gunung Angsi has two scientific significance. Firstly, it extends the geographical distribution of the species from Temerloh, Pahang, Ulu Langat, Selangor to Negeri Sembilan, and secondly, it proved an that the species occurs in only in Ulu Langat until now. This makes the Gunung Angsi area and also Kanoboi Forest Reserves a very high conservation forest area in Negeri Sembilan for biodiversity of the genus and also the flora on the whole. This rare species is highly sought by palm fanciers as a prized ornamental plant.

Figure 1. The habit of J. lanceolata at Gunung Angsi

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Qualification of a Vice Chancellor

I am compelled to respond to a letter to Editor, NST 9th December, written by one Dr. M. A. Nair from Bandar Muadzam Shah, Rompin, Pahang, regarding the academic credentials for a Vice Chancellor. Dr. Nair was commenting on a so-called claim by a VC that the public perecieved a VC who is not a professor and holder of a PhD is not qualified to lead a university. Dr. Nair and the public should know that the VCs of USM and UKM don't have a PhD but they are excellent academic leaders, that is why both universities are amongst the four Research universities. Granted there is no set of criteria for selecting and appointing a Vice Chancellor or deputy Vice Chancellor of universities in Malaysia. In the early days the Vice Chancellors were appointed directly by the Minister of Education or even the Prime Minister, without considering their academic credentials. The criterion, if there is any, was acceptability by the Minister and he/she must be a person of good character. To-day, the Minister of Higher Education appoints a Search Committee to assess the candidates for the post. However, the Minister has the prerogative to accept or reject the candidate chosen by the said committee. The process used is hoped to be transparent and democratic, but it is far from it because ultimately the candidate must be politically acceptable and correct. Those who are preceived to be of different colour will never be considered.
To my mind the following academic criteria should be considered:-
a) Good teaching experience. The candidate must have taught effectively both at the pre- and post-graduate levels. In other words he/she is a good lecturer.
b) Good supervising experience. The candidate must have supervised successfully MS and PhD candidates.
c) Good research experience. The candidate must have conducted research projects successfully and be a holder of research grants. Successful research projects must be substantiated by research papers published.
d) Publications in journals. The candidate must have published continuously his/her research results in reputed journals.
e) Public services. The candidate must have served his/her scientific/academic communities or public at large effectively. In other words he/she must be known to his/her peers.
f) Good networking. The candidate must have collaborators. In addition, he/she must have been appointed as external examiners of MS/PhD candidates, papers refree and must have been invited to speak at conferences as Plenary or keynote Speaker.
g) Good fund raiser. The candidate must be actively involved in procuring public and private funds for university
Am I asking too much for a candidate of a Vice Chancellor? May be, but I am sure there are many who could fulfil those criteria without being politically acceptable to the power that appoints him/her. Or at least these are what I would like to see implemented to ensure good governance and accountability as a CEO of a university.
Concerning the influx of foreign students to Malaysian universities, which has become one of the criteria a university is judged, I have my own reservations. No doubts there are excellent MS and PhD candidates who had come to Malaysia and gone back to their cpuntries with Malaysian degrees, but there are many who are on the border line. These border line cases normally are weak in their BS backgrounds and could not communicate in English adequately. There might be universities which offered these border line students for financial and mere number gains. What is lacking in Malaysia to-day are excellent and productive foreign faculties. NUS for one is successful in attracting foreign faculties because NUS offer good salaries and research endowment grants. I have served the university since 1974, and I am pessimistic about the governance changes that could happen to government universities in my life time.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Life-long Marriage to Vitaceae

In 1975 when I wanted to read for my PhD at Reading University, I consulted Dr. Benjamin C Stone, my mentor, then at Botany Department, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. He suggested Vitaceae, Rutaceae or Bambusoideae. I decided on Vitaceae, David T Jones (now in Florida) took Rutaceae and later K M Wong (now a professor at University of Malaya) took the banboo.
Never did I realise that would be my life-time association with the grape family. I revised the genus Pterisanthes Blume in 1982 with a total of 19 species in two sections, and Nothocissus (Griff.) Latiff in 2007 with four species. There are only two species each of Ampelopsis Michx. (A. cantoniensis and A. glandulosa), Vitis L (V. vinifera, cultivated and V. flexuosa) and Pathenocissus Planch. (P. heterophylla and P. brevipedunculata) in Malesia. The genera Cissus, Cayratia, Ampelocissus and Tetrastigma are more speciose. There are no new species in Cayratia, and in Cissus, I described a new species C. sumatara from Sumatera, recorded C. aristolochiodes in Malesia. In Ampelocissus, I described A. madulidii from the Philippines and A. complanata from Borneo. In Tetrastigma, I described T. steenisii and T. megacarpum, both from Borneo and made one new combination T. diepenhorstii (formerly Vitis diepernhorstii Miq.). The revision of these genera are forthcomig.

Monday, December 8, 2008

A Brief Encounter with Cistaceae

In 1975 for my MSc dissertation I decided to evaluate the taxonomic significance of seed coat morphology of Cistaceae. The Cistaceae is a small shrubby Mediterranean family of rock-roses. I had observed the rocks and roses (Rosa : Rosaceae) but not rock-roses. It was a very brief encounter because I only procured the seeds from the herbarium specimens lodged in the Herbarium, Plant Science Labs, University of Reading, and subjected them to light microscopic and SEMicrocopic observation of the seed coat or testa ornamentation. The genera involved were Cistus, Halimium, Helianthemum, Fumana and Turberaria. This study did not last long since then I did not revisit the family.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

First Encounter With Botany and Biodiversity

I was first introduced to biodiversity studies in 1973 when I conducted a life history study of Mikania micrantha (Compositae) for my Honours Project at the Botany Department, University of Malaya, under the supervision of Dr. N. Prakash, a well-known embryologist. I was informed Dr. N. Prakash, now at the University of New England, Armidale, Australia, was a student of the eminent Indian embryologist, Dr. Maheswari.
After my graduation in 1974, I went back to my home town, Kota Bharu to teach at my alma mater, Sultan Ismail College, as a temporary teacher. I taught mathematics for Form 5 students and biology for Lower and Upper Six students.
While teaching at SIC, I received a letter from the then Dean of Science Faculty, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Dr. Ghazali Abdul Rahman (who died as Datuk Prof. Dr. Ghazali Abdul Rahman in 2007), invited me to join UKM as a Tutor in Plant Taxonomy. When I received that letter I asked my late father as to what I should do. Candidly he said, "Bila kita duk di atas kita boleh duk di atas atas atau duk di bawah, tetapi bila kia berada di bawah susah nak naik atas". Literally it means, "when you are at the top you can stay there or at the bottom, but when you are at the bottom, it is difficult to go up". Hence, i decided to quit teaching in August 1974 and by September 1974 I was in Plant Science Labs, University of Reading, pursuing my MSc in Pure and Applied Plant Taxonomy. I graduated in 1975, and continued to read for my PhD studying, "Malesian Vitaceae" at the same university under the supervision of Profs David M. Moore and Vernon H. Heywood.
I have my viva voce before Christmas of 1978 and was home before the end of the year. On the insistence of my family, I reported at Jalan Pantai Baru, Kuala Lumpur and was appointed as a lecturer in January 1979. In 1980 I was appointed as the second Head, Unit of Botany and remained till 1982 when the Department of Botany was formed in June 1982, when I was made the first Head. I continued my studies of Malesian Vitaceae by publishing the "Taxonomic revision of Pterisanthes Blume" and the Peninsular Malaysia revision of the genera Cissus, Cayratia, Ampelocissus, Ampelopsis, Parthenocissus and Tetrastigma. It was in 1982 I published a new genus, Nothocissus (Griff.) Latiff, after I decided to elevate the Section Nothocissus within the genus Ampleocissus, to a generic rank.