This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on July 25, 2022 - July 31, 2022
In recent times, as medical technology (medtech) and healthcare discoveries have taken centre stage, I am often asked what it took for me to invent four rapid diagnostic kits for typhoid fever, which have been used in 18 countries and advocated by the World Health Organization.
These principles have stayed with me over the years — which I hope, by imparting, will inspire more Malaysians to push the envelope, strive for excellence, and take bold decisions so that our society can enjoy the success and positive impact of our decisions.
I remember the look on my father’s face when I told him, “You know, Bapa, I will be a doctor in the future, the PhD kind.” He had had his hopes set for me to take up medical practice and it took a lot of courage to hold that conversation. But, looking back, that bold decision at the age of 17 actually set me up for what I wanted to do with my life, and to fulfil my purpose as an innovative and creative person, for the greater good of communities and societies.
Sure enough, armed with a degree in biology, an MA in microbiology, a PhD in cellular microbiology and a great research team, I made a series of successful scientific discoveries working on an effective way to diagnose typhoid fever, a disease that placed a huge toll on lives and the economy of underdeveloped countries. After four years of successive tests and clinical trials, the easy-to-use and affordable TYPHIDOT kits, which require no special equipment or training of staff to interpret the results, were birthed. It also helped create 500 jobs worldwide and allowed millions of people in poor countries to access early diagnosis of typhoid fever.
This became a Malaysian R&D commercialisation success story and, with more than 16 patents to my name, I am humbled to have made an impact and introduced new approaches to healthcare.
My mantra for courage is simple: to “boldly go where no one has gone before”. This has landed many jobs that made me a woman of many firsts in Malaysia.
Of all those firsts, the one for which I had to summon the greatest courage was as director-general (DG) of the Ministry of Higher Education. It was a huge responsibility, having to steer the direction of higher education, knowing that the well-being of Malaysia’s future generations was at stake.
In a world that was becoming increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), we saw then that disruptive technologies were to be the “new normal” and change was needed to build future-ready talent. Drastic steps were taken to intervene with the implementation of the then higher education blueprint midway, something that had never been done before. Let us be clear that I did not initiate change for the sake of it, or just to leave a legacy.
When you change something, you must make sure you are changing it for the better. You keep what is good, stick to the core values of higher education and change only what will improve the whole.
With this mindset, I co-helmed the development and implementation of the new Malaysian Education Blueprint (Higher Education) 2015-2025. It took a lot of guts to do this, especially with the constant heat of naysayers commenting on social media about the state of higher education in the country. Undeterred, we folded in massive feedback from the rakyat, academia, industry, politicians, students and the community. We evaluated all their grouses and sought to address them through the blueprint.
The updated blueprint folded in many novel recommendations — for instance, we advocated for global online learning using MOOCs (massive open online courses) and micro-credentials. Fast forward to 2020 and beyond, how relevant has global online learning become? Malaysia had an early-mover advantage.
In driving change holistically for higher education, I am also part of the team that led the establishment of the five research universities in Malaysia that are now ranked among the world’s top 200, making the country an international hub for higher education.
Beyond content, infrastructure and systems, I also looked to improve talent and leadership development in this space. As the first woman DG of higher education, I helped pave the way for the appointment of five other women vice-chancellors at public universities between 2014 and 2016.
I have another mantra: “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” Mostly, it is to calm oneself down and rest the mind. Striving for excellence comes with its fair share of pressure. As Alibaba Group Holding Ltd founder Jack Ma says, “Never make decisions when you’re angry, sad or happy!” I have found that taking a break allows new ideas to spring forth and I can tackle challenges with better clarity, calmly and objectively.
I try to go around obstacles and set my own internal benchmark as I work through issues. If your internal benchmark is low, then you cannot go forward. I strive for perfection — that is my benchmark and it helps me chart what I need to do and how to move forward. No top-performance athlete will tell you that it did not require a million hours of practice on the same strokes to score that winning shot. The same can be said about the pursuit of excellence in academia, research and creating impact.
Innovation is not happenstance. It is disciplined. It is determined by design.
So, putting in the hours to perfect an approach — whether it is mentoring others or being relentless in making new discoveries even after 99 failed attempts or getting buy-in for funding of a research project — will be what transitions an idea to impact.
The future is about predictable unpredictability. There are so many unknowns. When faced with uncertainty, I face it by being agile and keeping an open mind to new ideas and approaches. Being flexible and adaptable and ready to change when the time comes will get you through when you need to pivot.
Being teachable is another key tenet to building excellence. There will always be a time to learn, unlearn, relearn, co-learn and co-create. We must be ready to change our mindset if progress is what we seek.
In everything I do, I tell myself that I want to make an impact. That drives me to go forward with passion and conviction. As a scientist and innovator, I want to go beyond just generating knowledge, but using that knowledge to benefit mankind. That is my endgame.
Professor emerita Datuk Dr Asma Ismail is a selection committee member of the Merdeka Award Trust. She is the first female president of Academy of Sciences Malaysia (2016-2022) and has held several leadership positions, including the Ibn Sina chair for medicine at UIAM (2020-2022), chairperson of the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (2019-2021), vice-chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia (2016-2019), director-general of the Ministry of Higher Education (2014-2016) and vice-chancellor of Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (2012). In recognition of her leadership in lifelong learning in the Commonwealth, especially for women, and her outstanding service to the advancement of higher education and science in Malaysia, she was conferred the Tokoh Akademik Negara (National Academic Laureate) in March 2022.
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