FULBRIGHT PROGRAMME: Where pioneers are born

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MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING: Five decades of educational exchanges between Malaysia and the United States have resulted in an enduring impact on bilateral relations and scholarship

MALAYSIA Book of Records names him the longest serving zoo veterinarian from Oct 1, 1981 to June 1, 2008.

But few people know that Associate Professor Dr S. Vellayan of Mahsa University College is also the first Malaysian to conduct an ultrasound on a pregnant elephant — a skill he learned in the United States as a Fulbright scholar in 2001.

“I visited many zoos throughout my stint in America to research into the breeding of elephants and rhinos in captivity.

“I also gave lectures on wildlife conservation in Malaysia, besides attending workshops on ultrasound techniques for elephants and magnetic resonance imaging for large animals such as tigers,” recalls Dr Vellayan, who is the only Malaysian to receive the award twice so far.

In 2006, he spent another three months in America — mostly based at the College of Veterinary Medicine in Tennessee University, Knoxville — to study captive orang-utan.

“Both experiences have allowed me to impart my knowledge to not only Malaysians but also others in the region,” he adds.

He looks forward to reconnecting with some 1,200 Malaysians comprising students, teachers and scholars from a vast range of disciplines who have benefited from the Fulbright programme — an international educational exchange initiative sponsored by the American government — at a gala anniversary dinner to commemorate its five decades in Malaysia next month.

The Fulbright Alumni Association of Malaysia (FAAM) is also planning a symposium in September and a commemorative book as part of the celebration.

Administered locally by the Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange (MACEE), the scheme was introduced in Malaysia in 1963 to promote academic exchanges as a way to bring the two peoples together.

Founder the late Senator J. William Fulbright launched the initiative in 1946 as he saw the need for a large-scale exchange programme between America and other countries — some 155 nations to date — after the Second World War.

The scheme arrived in Malaysia at an opportune time — just six years after its independence from the British Empire and on its path to development.

A steady stream of recipients have been travelling to America since its inception — from early Fulbrighters  (as recipients are called) such as Tenaga Nasional executive chairman Tan Sri Ani Arope; former Penang Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon to musician Lewis Pragasam; actor Mano Maniam and writer Karim Raslan in recent years.

US ambassador to Malaysia Datuk Paul W. Jones notes that the programme evolves to meet the needs of the time.

“In the Sixties and Seventies, it focused on supporting the growth of Malaysia’s higher education system and burgeoning Science and Technology arenas. By the late Seventies, it had shifted to support the government’s new priorities of environmental conservation and cultural preservation,” he says.

The mission of Fulbright has remained unchanged, despite devastating events in America such as the Sept 11 tragedy.

Instead, it has inspired the Direct Access To The Muslim World grant which builds on Americans’ understanding of Islam by “bringing Muslims, including Malaysian Muslims, to speak to American audiences”.

Meanwhile, the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA)programme is an example of the scheme’s desire to back Malaysia’s ambition to improve English abilities among youth.

MACEE executive director James Coffman says: “Young American graduates have been placed in schools in several states to assist in the teaching of English since last year. This year, there are 75 ETAs in schools throughout Perak, Pahang, Johor and Terengganu. Next year there will be 100.”

Coffman believes the two-way flow of talents has significantly boosted Malaysia-US relations.

“Returning Malaysian grantees and their departing American counterparts say that their experiences have changed their attitudes and given them a greater affinity for their host countries.

“In living and working in each other’s universities and communities, they have made close friends and gained a familiarity with the other’s culture,” says Coffman, who describes it as “people-to-people diplomacy at its best”.

The programme has also led to the recognition of American qualifications here, says FAAM president Professor Datuk Dr Balwant Singh Gendeh.

“Prior to that, Malaysians only knew about British education,” says Dr Gendeh, the first Malaysian to study Otolaryngology on the scholarship in 1997.

Collaborations between researchers of the two nations continue to enrich Malaysian and American scholarship.

“Poet Muhammad Salleh recently completed his first English translation of Hang Tuah. The idea originated from the 1980s when he was a Fulbright scholar to Michigan. He worked with American professors and continued the partnership for years until distance made it too difficult to collaborate further,” he adds.

Another notable example is the ongoing work of American virologist Dr Nathan Wolfe.

“Wolfe first came to Sabah in 1997 to research into identifying viruses in orang-utans and how viruses travel between humans and animals,” says Dr Gendeh.

Dr Vellayan, who is also FAAM assistant secretary, believes it is difficult to quantify the scheme’s impact on each alumni member as their experiences are unique.

“The list of locals who have received a Fulbright scholarship reads like the who’s who of every imaginable field in Malaysia. So you can imagine how each of them has contributed to the nation in their own ways.”

For Dr Gendeh, his experience in America in 1997 has been an eye-opener.

“I was exposed to all the new technologies then. I am convinced that I was way ahead of other local doctors at the time, thanks to my experience as a Fulbrighter.”

Dr Vellayan attributes his large network to the scheme.

“As an alumni member, we should continue to network and share our experience with the community,” he says.

He considers the golden jubilee dinner on June 21 the perfect occasion for all alumni members to “meet new friends and reconnect with old ones”.

“We urge all alumni members to update their contact details so that they may attend the gathering,” says Dr Vellayan.

Contact Dr Vellayan (013-624-6918), Professor Dr Harbinder Jeet Singh (013-982-8579), S. Kaliswary (03-2166-8878 or kalis@macee.org.my) or visit www.macee.org.my/about-faam/faam-application-forms/) for details.

Fulbright scholar Dr S. Vellayan posing with an African elephant at a zoo in Florida in 2001. PictureS courtesy of Dr S. Vellayan.

Dr S. Vellayan performing a dental procedure on a Bengal tiger at the College of Veterinary Medicine in Tennessee University, Knoxville.

A 2001 picture of Dr S. Vellayan assisting a zoo staff to print the palm of a gorilla’s leg for educational purposes.

Fulbright English Teaching Assistant participant Elizabeth Soltan (centre) is touched to receive roses from her students at SMK Teluk Chempedak in Kuantan on Teachers’ Day recently.


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