“EDUCATION is a great equaliser. No matter how impoverished one’s origins are, education can change one’s destiny. And with education, one can be just as good and as successful as anyone else in the world in one’s chosen field provided there is commitment and drive to achieve it.”
This is Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Zakri Abdul Hamid’s advice to youth.
Zakri is the recipient of the prestigious National Academic Laureate Award at the Education Ministry’s 13th National Academic Awards.
Honoured for his contributions in the academic field, his achievements reflect how the role of the academic goes beyond teaching and research at scholarly institutions.
Citing his mother as the one who inspired him to work hard at his studies from very early on during his childhood in Ketari, Bentong in Pahang, Zakri embraced the belief that only education can help people from a humble background break out of poverty and contribute to society at large.
Son to a lorry driver father and homemaker mother, Zakri has risen to become a globally recognised and highly respected educator thought leader, and science diplomat, providing the knowledge and expertise that could influence policies and governments.
Zakri, 71, is a recipient of many accolades and prestigious awards throughout his career.
Other than the National Academic Laureate 2019, he most recently received the United Nations Malaysia Award (Environmental Sustainability) 2019 for his contributions to promoting biodiversity conservation, and the sustainability of the environment.
Of the award from the United Nations, Zakri said “this award symbolises how a Malaysian can reap success at the international level”.
He also received the Midori Biodiversity Prize (2018); Asean Biodiversity Heroes (2017); Merdeka (Environment) Award (2015); Zayed International Prize in Science and Technology (2014), and Langkawi Environmental Prize (1998).
In 2017, US trade magazine Biofuels Digest listed him as one of the top 100 influential people in the world on Advanced Bioeconomy.
Recently, the Asian Scientist magazine based in Singapore honoured him as one of the Top 100 Asian Scientists for 2019.
JOURNEY IN THE ACADEMICS
Zakri’s tertiary-level academic journey began at the-then College of Agriculture, Malaya in Serdang, Selangor (now Universiti Putra Malaysia).
“I took up Diploma in Agriculture studies. Agriculture in the 60s was like information technology today, everyone wanted to take it up,” he shared.
On the first day of orientation, Zakri — lacking confidence due to his kampung upbringing and trying to be as inconspicuous as possible — took the last seat at the back of the large hall.
To his dismay, the legendary Mohd Rashid Ahmad or Pak Rashid — a much respected lecturer at the college — called him out and asked him to take a front-row seat.
“He asked for my name. And then he said: ‘Boy, look here. Fear no one.’
“These were very strong words and they became words I live by. When I entered the international arena, I met presidents and world leaders, I was not nervous because of Pak Rashid’s magic
words. They were so powerful and I remember,” said Zakri.
After receiving his diploma in 1969, Zakri pursued further studies in the United States at the Bachelor’s level at Louisiana State University, in 1972; Masters at Michigan State University, 1974; and PhD at the same university, completing it in 1976.
Zakri then joined Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and became part of the pioneering batch of academics who helped built the institution to what it is today — placed among the top one per cent of the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings and ranked number one in Malaysia for Top University under 50.
“I became a professor at 37 and served UKM for some 25 years with my last post as the deputy vice-chancellor (Academic & International Affairs),” he said.
He then left to assume the position of director of the Institute of Advanced Studies at the United Nations University in Tokyo (UNU-IAS) in Japan from 2001 to 2008.
During his tenure, he transformed the UNU-IAS into a leading UN think-tank on biodiversity and sustainable development.
“I assisted the rector of the UNU to develop Regional Centres of Expertise for the promotion of Education for Sustainable Development. These networks address local sustainable development challenges through research and capacity development.”
These efforts contributed towards the setting up of The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
During the run-up to the 2015 UN Summit, which launched the 17 SDGs (the 2030 Development Agenda), Zakri was a member of the Global Leadership Council of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN)
headed by Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University.
The network is the brain behind the successful inception of the SDGs.
“I view this an achievement as an academic,” he said.
Zakri assisted in the establishment the SDSN Malaysia Chapter — becoming its founding chair. The position is now assumed by Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah.
As a thought leader, Zakri has made a lasting contribution to the observation, analysis and assessment of global biodiversity and ecosystem services, fostering the remediation and protection of the natural environment and promoting environmental sustainability.
This work has significantly contributed to raising awareness among global leaders of the relationships among living organisms, the interdependence of life and the global environment and the common nature integrating these inter-relationships.
This has led to development of a global assessment of biodiversity and its ecosystem services to provide scientific relevant policy advice for world leaders.
From 2000-2005, Zakri co-chaired with Sir Robert Watson (2012 Blue Planet laureate), the Board of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, one of the world’s largest-ever scientific collaborations involving over 2,000 leading scientists from 95 countries in a comprehensive synthesis and analysis of the state of Earth’s ecosystems, with summaries and guidelines for decision-makers.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is a ground-breaking scientific assessment to understand ecosystems and their services, the drivers of ecosystem changes and the consequences of ecosystem changes for human well-being.
It led to the establishment of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and election of Zakri as its founding chair at its first plenary meeting of 105 Member States, held in January 2013 in Bonn, Germany.
Often likened to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change-type body for biodiversity, Zakri was a driving force behind the IPBES, created to bridge the gap between scientists and policy makers, providing up to date, accurate, impartial data and scientific information to enable the formulation of better policy response in managing biodiversity.
IPBES is recognised by both the scientific and policy communities as an authoritative new platform to address existing gaps and strengthen the science-policy interface on biodiversity and ecosystem services.
“Biodiversity is the basis of life, the web of life itself. As a native American saying goes: ‘If today human beings just fade away, the birds the trees and the bees would still be there tomorrow. But if the birds, bees and trees were gone today, human beings would be gone tomorrow”. So it is very important to take care of biodiversity’.”
Zakri was introduced into the world of diplomacy — science diplomacy — when he was appointed a science expert in the Malaysian delegation negotiating during the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), what is now known as the UN Biodiversity Treaty, between 1990 and 1992.
After the treaty was signed during the 1992 Earth Summit, he became a regular member of the national delegation attending Meetings of Parties to the Convention, culminating in him being elected Chair of the CBD’s Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (1997 - 1998), owning the distinction of being the first person from Asia to hold such a position.
His presence on the global stage coincided with a strong movement to leverage scientific evidence for policymakers and politicians to develop sound policies and strategies in solving global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem destruction while trying to alleviate poverty, provide jobs, provide adequate food, reasonable healthcare and proper sanitation, to name but a few.
The science-policy nexus was his next target resulting in him being a founding member of the International Network for Government Science Advice launched in Auckland in 2014 by Sir Peter Gluckman, the then Science Adviser to the Prime Minister of New Zealand.
In addition to his role as Science Adviser to the Prime Minister of Malaysia (2010 - 2018), Zakri was a member of the prestigious Scientific Advisory Board to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon from 2013 to 2016.
Two of his high-level advisory roles are vice-chair of the UN Technology Bank for the Least Developed Countries based in Istanbul and a member of the Scientific Advisory Board to the President of the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah.
“Global challenges today are cross cultural and needs the attention of political leaders. Issues like global warming, environmental problems need knowledge which can be derived from experts and scholars,” said Zakri.
Zakri is ever willing to continue to contribute and lend his experience and expertise for the development of the country given the opportunity.
“Malaysia is a blessed country. If we want to continue to become a strong nation, diversity must be brought back. For youths to reap success, they must have ambition, perseverance and not be afraid of hard work.
“No one is an outsider in building this nation. We have the infrastructure. I like to call on everyone especially the young to realise the country’s aspirations,” he said.
Zakri is presently the Chairman of Atri Advisory, a consultancy company advising governments, regional bodies and international organisations on science and technology for sustainable development, conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
Other current positions include pro-chancellor, Multimedia University; pro-chancellor, Universiti Perguruan Sultan Idris; and member, Governing Board, Science and Technology for Society Forum in Kyoto.