ACHIEVING BREAKTHROUGHS: Malaysian researchers earn global applause
UNIVERSITIES these days are under greater pressure to produce research output with commercial value.
In the past, there was a tendency to conduct research just for the sake of publishing a paper for the purpose of career advancement or padding a resume.
However, there are academics who do believe in pushing the frontiers of knowledge and driving change by effectively engaging with policymakers and influencing the policy-making process not just at home but beyond.
Three Malaysian university researchers are blazing trails that are set to change lives and improve lifestyles.
Their findings and solutions have impact in the areas of renewable energy, Islamic finance and heart health.
Dr Nofri Yenita Dahlan, Professor Dr Normah Omar and Dr Suraya A. Sani have all made discoveries that are relevant to different market segments but will benefit communities as a whole.
PROMOTING A MORE ENERGY-EFFICIENT FUTURE
Dr Nofri Yenita Dahlan, from Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM)’s Faculty of Electrical Engineering, is a fervent advocate of solar thermal energy and its applications in industry, business and households in the country as well as the region.
She has been working on several research projects in the area of energy such as power generation investment in liberalised market, Malaysia’s power generation mix, economic evaluation of solar energy, energy management and efficiency and Measurement and Verification in energy savings.
Last year, Nofri Yenita was awarded the Asean-US Science and Technology Fellowship which introduced her to the practical challenge of turning scientific research and evidence into actionable government policy.
She spent a week in Washington, DC attending conferences and making presentations to the US State Department, USAID, DAI, the US-Asean Business Council and at the Science Diplomacy Conference.
“Malaysia’s growing energy needs have led to both financial and environmental costs, and there is a lack of an existing renewable energy policy programme in Malaysia,” said Nofri Yenita.
“There is huge potential for this because about 60 per cent of the energy used by industry in Malaysia is for heating, with nearly a third of this heating-related energy consumption used to generate low- to medium-level heat.
Nofri Yenita said that the industry optimum planning in Malaysia through a mix of technology will maximise systemic relativity and minimise carbon dioxide emissions.
“Assuming that five per cent of the industrial heat for temperatures below 100C are supplied using solar thermal. A 1,577 GWh amount of energy from fuel can then be avoided which translates into nearly 400,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emission reduction from fuel oil,” she said.
“Power plants affect climate change. Solar thermal energy should therefore be a sustainable and renewable energy source for this niche.”
Nofri Yenita hopes that her work will also lead to a liberalisation of the electricity market in which more retailers will lead to a reduction in prices and ensure better services.
Thanks to the Fellowship programme, Nofri Yenita’s work has culminated in convincing Malaysia’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation to advance solar thermal research and development into its revised long-range Renewable Energy Technology Roadmap.
“Using my research, I have approached several ministries to work together in driving integrated evidence-based policy-making,” she said.
ESTABLISHING A SUSTAINABLE ISLAMIC FINANCE INDUSTRY
UiTM’s Accounting Research Institute (ARI) has a niche research agenda. Its work on Islamic Financial Criminology is aimed towards establishing a sustainable Islamic finance industry for Malaysia and globally, in tandem with the country’s aspiration to become a global hub for Islamic finance.
ARI director Professor Dr Normah Omar said the research is focused on three categories: to identify new or innovative Islamic finance products; to promote good governance, integrity and risk management as preventive mechanisms against unethical behaviours; and to identify tools or methods to mitigate financial leakages within or against the Islamic finance sector.
Normah said that after ARI was established, it was accorded a Higher Education Centre of Excellence status in 2010 to drive a niche research agenda, Islamic Financial Criminology.
“In essence, Islamic Financial Criminology represents a new knowledge corpus and a model aimed towards establishing a sustainable Islamic finance industry for Malaysia and globally,” said Normah.
“While conventional microfinance institutions (MFIs) have expanded their operations in the last two decades, poverty-focused MFIs based on Islamic principles are lagging behind.
“The existing MFI model focuses only on the aspects of funding (and subsequent collection) and setting up of businesses by entrepreneurs.
“No intervention is made to link entrepreneurs with suppliers and marketers for their microfinance businesses. Hence, many microfinance businesses are not sustainable and could not progress to a higher level.
“ARI’s proposed microfinance model links the entrepreneurs with the supply-chain network by collaborating with successful suppliers/marketers. The entrepreneurs are also provided with necessary training and support in terms of financial management knowledge in enhancing their entrepreneurial capability.
“In addition to traditional MFIs, other sources of micro funding may include waqaf, zakat and also social investment. Once these entrepreneurs ‘graduated’ to the next level of business, they may then progress to larger business endeavour.
“While Islamic microfinance directly reduces poverty levels among the ummah, the microfinance industry can propel and provide jobs and enhance economic contributions towards Vision 2020.”
Normah said that under corporate and organisational integrity, the research has proposed the development of a conceptual framework of a Corporate Integrity System (CIS) at the workplace.
It is premised on 12 contextual constructs: vision and goals, leadership, infrastructure, legal compliance and policy, organisational culture, disciplinary and reward measures, measurement and research assessment, confidential advice & support, ethics planning and education, ethics communication, whistle blowing and corporate social responsibility, CIS measures integrity practices in the workplace.
“This research showcases studies conducted on large conglomerates, statutory bodies, SMEs and Islamic-based agencies in Malaysia,” she said.
“As for effectiveness of Anti-money Laundering and Anti-terrorism Financing Legislation: A Study on Banks and Financial Institutions, the study sought to ascertain the perceptions of anti-money laundering and counter-financing of terrorism compliance officers of banks in Malaysia to develop an understanding of how well they understand the risks and how well they have implemented the obligations imposed by the regime.
“We examine these issues for the first time in the literature via the theory of crying wolf. A structured questionnaire survey of compliance officers of banks in Malaysia was followed by focus group discussions held at the Malaysian Institute of Bankers.
“We expect that the industry would consider suitable steps to improve the compliance culture, particularly in Islamic banks, and the regulators would watch such banks more diligently.”
ARI’s research focus on Islamic Financial Criminology has received several international recognition including the Global Islamic Finance Awards for three years, 2014 to 2016 for its pioneering work in research and development; and consecutive ACQ Global Awards in 2015 and 2016 for Islamic Financial Criminology Research Body of the Year.
USING TROPICAL FRUIT TO PREVENT ATHEROSCLEROSIS
Universiti Malaysia Sabah lecturer Dr Suraya A. Sani has been working with a tropical fruit, locally called asam keping, since her time as a postgraduate student at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC).
She had previously been a research associate in Molecular Pathology in Institute of Medical Research, and was engaged in research of finding inhibitors that could inhibit the pathogenesis of cancer.
She then worked under the supervision of Dr Teng-Jin Khoo at UNMC’s School of Pharmacy as a postgraduate candidate.
Funded by the Sarawak Tunku Abdul Rahman Scholarship, Suraya was able to spend her time on research work for the first two years at UNMC and a year working on her research at the Centre for BioMolecular Sciences at The University of Nottingham, UK under the co-supervision of Professor Dr Jonas Emsley.
She conducted research on the medicinal properties of the Garcinia plant species, which includes the purple mangosteen tree and asam keping.
Suraya’s research led her to the findings of the medicinal role of specific plant secondary metabolites that exist in the Garcinia species, which is found in Malaysia in abundance.
Asam keping has been used in local Malaysian cuisines for many years and ethno pharmacologically is believed to have healing properties in lowering hypertension. It is non-toxic and edible.
Suraya’s research established that the fruit of the asam keping tree can be used to prevent atherosclerosis, the hardening and narrowing of the arteries.
Said Suraya: “My research on asam keping proved that it contains natural healing and prevention properties.The asam keping is easily available in Malaysia and I usually get it from the local market.”
Dr Khoo said that after three years of painstaking research work on the medicinal role of plants in preventing atherosclerosis, Suraya’s work garnered successful research funding and international publication.
“Suraya’s research in this area will also help in spreading awareness of the role of edible plants found in local cuisine, which contains active secondary metabolites with the potential to be developed further,” he said.
The research was published in the International Journal for Research and Investigation on Atherosclerosis and Related Diseases with impact factor 3.942 in 2015.
UNMC vice-provost (research and knowledge exchange), Professor Claire O’Malley, said that UNMC conducts groundbreaking research that is relevant to national, regional and global issues.
“Our researchers conduct studies on global issues including developing sustainable agriculture, food security and its impact on human nutrition, conducting fundamental research on drug discovery utilising indigenous resources that can combat global health issues, conserving and promoting biodiversity, and developing new technologies to assist in sustainable use of natural resources,” she said.
ESTABLISHING A VISION AND PEEKING INTO POSSIBILITIES
Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) deputy vice chancellor (research and innovation) Professor Dr Ahmad Fauzi Ismail said that based on the current research funding trend, it is getting more difficult to secure open-ended research fundings.
“However, as far as Malaysia is concerned, we have research grant schemes such as fundamental research grant scheme, exploratory research grant scheme to cater for such research, institutions of higher learning are increasingly being questioned about the output of the research, particularly on the non-academic output.
“The fact remains that we, as researchers and academicians, need to address the national agenda, the national priority areas which are the National Key Economic Areas, the Malaysia Education Blueprint, etc.
“In my opinion, we can adopt the translational research model, where the research can impart impacts to the community as well as industry.
“Focusing on translational research does not mean that we sacrifice open-ended research but instead, establishing a vision and peeking into the possibilities to complete the whole research cycle, from answering fundamental and scientific questions to addressing societal needs and the national priority areas. At the end, research needs to drive the country’s economy to greater heights and ensure its sustainability.”
Ahmad Fauzi is involved extensively in research and development for national and multinational companies related to membrane-based processes for industrial application. He is the founder of Advanced Membrane Technology Research Center, which has Higher Institution Centre of Excellence status.
Ahmad Fauzi was recently one of Clarivate Analytics’ Malaysia Rising Star Award 2016 recipients for Frontier Research, along with Professor Dr Zainal Salam, also from UTM; Professor Dr Ishak Agmad from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia; Professor Dr Jinap Selamat from Universiti Putra Malaysia; and Dr Che Hang Seng from University of Malaya.