30 Malaysian Trailblazers Light The Way Forward (Part 1)

30 Malaysian Trailblazers Light The Way Forward (Part 1)

Outstanding Malaysians who are pioneers in their respective fields.

We kick off the month of Merdeka by taking time to honour 30 Malaysians who have carved their own path forward in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) to pioneer research and development into helping not just their fellow countrymen but countless others across the globe.

As the list is much too long to fit within one article, we have decided to split it into three parts that will be spread across the month of August. Now without further ado, here are the first 10 Malaysian trailblazers.


A household name for many Malaysians, Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr. Mazlan Othman is instantly recognisable to anyone who is even slightly familiar with the topic of outer space and astrophysics. The country’s first astrophysicist and former Chair of UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOS), as well as the founding Director General of the Malaysian National Space Agency (Angkasa), Dr. Mazlan has been instrumental in fostering a nation that has grown by leaps and bounds when it comes to interest in aerospace research and participation. Her impact is most apparent in the realm of public education where in 1990, she was put in charge of the Planetarium Division under the prime minister’s office, overseeing the development of the National Planetarium in KL (which almost all school-age children from 1993 onwards would have visited on a school trip) as well as the inclusion of astrophysics into the national university curriculum. During her five-year tenure at Angkasa, under the appointment of then-Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad, she led the launching of the two-year Angkasawan project, under which Malaysia gained its first astronaut, Dr. Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, who spent ten days aboard the International Space Station (ISS) along with American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts. She also had a hand in launching the first satellite to be put in orbit by a privately developed liquid-fuelled rocket, the RazakSAT that was launched by SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket in 2009.


Professor Dato’ Dr. Adeeba Kamarulzaman is the current Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Universiti Malaya (UM), a title she has held since 2011 and is the first woman to hold the position in the faculty’s more than 50 year history. She is also the Chairman of the Malaysian AIDS Foundation, and President-Elect of the International AIDS Society (IAS), with her tenure as President of IAS starting in 2020. Dr. Adeeba is passionate and vocal in her work regarding the prevention and medical treatment of HIV and AIDS in the country and as well on the issue of illicit drug use, pushing for reform in the drug use policy for more than 15 years now. Her work in treating HIV and combating the stigma against HIV and AIDS patients has been invaluable to the betterment of the affected community here. Together with her team at the Faculty of Medicine in UM, she is also working to decriminalise drug addiction and instead promote a more compassionate approach to rehabilitate and educate addict. Thanks to her and the work of the Malaysian AIDS Foundation who have been at the forefront in the fight against the disease and the discrimination of patients, things are looking up as Malaysia heads for AIDSfree status by 2030.


Tan Sri Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr. Augustine Ong is known to many as the father of Malaysian palm oil. He is credited as the pioneer for starting research in the early stages of palm oil use, as well as the first to conceptualise the idea that palm oil could be used as biodiesel fuel. His works in the field of lipid chemistry, more specifically the many varieties of uses for palm oil from nutritional benefits to uses in industry, dates back to 1959 and is, till today, the foremost authority in palm oil. Dr. Augustine presented the idea of converting palm oil into biodiesel in 1981 and oversaw the product from pilot studies all the way to mass commercialisation. He served as Director-General of the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia (PORIM) from 1987 and dealt first-hand with the Anti-Palm Oil Campaign that sprang up from the American Soybean Association less than one month after he took office. He spoke directly to the US Food and Drug Administration, the American media as well as established several advisory committees worldwide in the two-year fight against the campaign. Since then, palm oil has grown into one of Malaysia’s biggest export products and is used in multiple industries the world over. Dr. Augustine is still active in the field of palm oil research and holds several positions including that of Malaysian Invention and Design Society (MINDS) president where he fosters the younger generation of scientific pioneers.


Tan Sri Dr. Jemilah Mahmood is most popularly known as the founder of Mercy Malaysia. A medical doctor by trade, Dr. Jemilah was moved to set up Mercy Malaysia, or the Medical Relief Society Malaysia, during the 1999 conflict in Kosovo when she could not find an existing organisation that would support her in providing aid during the conflict. Inspired by the international NGO Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, Dr. Jemilah registered Mercy Malaysia as a non-profit organisation and since then, Mercy Malaysia has been providing medical relief to various crisis and non-crisis situations around the globe, including in Iraq, Indonesia, Haiti and Gaza among many many others. After stepping down from her position as president of Mercy Malaysia, Dr. Jemilah has remained active in humanitarian work and currently holds the position of Under Secretary General, Partnerships at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society. In 2013, Dr. Jemilah became the first laureate of the Isa Award for Service to Humanity awarded by the Kingdom of Bahrain, specifically for her efforts in disaster prevention and relief. Two years later, she received the prestigious Merdeka Award for outstanding contribution to the development of humanitarian and international emergency relief.


Everyone is familiar with SpaceX, the world’s first entirely private and independent space agency, but did you know Malaysia has one of our very own? Meet Mohd Izmir Yamin, the founder and CEO of Independence-X Aerospace, Malaysia’s first independent space agency. Officially founded in 2013, Independence-X Aerospace, or IDXA for short, aims to provide dedicated re-entry and launch services for cubesats and small satellites to enter Low Earth Orbit, working towards a goal of two launches per month for their first year of operations. The company has been working on their Dedicated Nano Launch Vehicle (DNLV) rocket for small satellite launches and aims to be commercial ready by 2023. IDXA first rose to fame when they became the only Malaysian and the only South East Asian finalists in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, a contest that challenged privately funded teams to land a robotic spacecraft on the Moon and successfully transmit high resolution images and videos back to Earth. IDXA participated in the challenge between 2008 and 2016, after which they teamed up with team Synergy Moon and are presently collaborating to successfully complete the challenge requirements as the competition continues. Mohd Izmir, along with the work of IDXA, is putting Malaysia firmly on the map in the space transport industry.


Dr. Wan Wardatul Amani is the first Malaysian ever to launch a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) rocket into space, in which she was Principal Investigator to lead a team of 28 scientists in NASA’s first astrobiology mission SporeSat, which launched in April 2014. SporeSat’s mission was to shed light on the mechanisms of plant cell gravity sensing, and was developed in partnership between NASA’s Ames Research centre and the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue University, where Dr. Amani did her PhD and post doctoral research training. Dr. Amani is currently teaching as an Assistant Professor in the Biotechnology Department at International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM), as she chose to come back to Malaysia to help better lives here in her home country, with a focus on developing advanced sensor technologies for use in agriculture, biology, environmental science, medicine and space biology. In 2015, Dr. Amani was awarded the L’OrealUNESCO For Women in Science fellowship for her research into microsensors that can help detect contamination in water, while in 2012 she received the Thora Halstead ‘Young Investigator’ award for her work on the Cell-Electrophysiology Lab-on-a-chip, an interdisciplinary project joining biology and fluid physics at the first national conference for the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research (ASGSR).


An expert in his field and well known in the UK, where he is currently practicing with the Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, Professor Sir Khaw Peng Tee is a Malaysian-born ophthalmologist who grew up in KL in the 60s. He moved to England in 1970, where he studied medicine and subsequently trained to be an ophthalmology specialist, completing his doctorate in cell and molecular biology of ocular wound healing at the University College London’s Institute of Ophthalmology. His main clinical work is in treating glaucoma in both children and adults, and as part of his research he developed the Moorfields Safer Surgery System technique that improves the outcome of glaucoma surgery. He also developed antiscarring procedures that encourage healing after ocular surgery, which have been adopted internationally. In 2013, Sir Khaw was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II during the Queen’s Birthday Honours ceremony, where he was recognised for his outstanding contribution to the field of ophthalmology. Sir Khaw Peng Tee is highly regarded for his wealth of experience in the field, and holds the position of Director of the National Institute of Health’s Biomedical Research Centre at Moorfields as well as Director at University College London’s Institute of Ophthalmology.


Professor Datin Paduka Dr. Khatijah Mohamad Yusoff is a virologist, academician and researcher at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). She is known for her contribution to the field of microbiology from her research on the Newcastle Disease Virus (NDV), a virus that affects poultry and domestic fowl that can be transmitted to humans. Her research on NDV started while Dr. Khatijah was undergoing her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom. She was the first person who managed to sequence the completed L-gene of NDV, allowing for further studies into how the virus behaves. Despite being non-harmful to normal human cells, Dr. Khatijah discovered that NDV cells have a tendency to hone in on human cancer cells. From then on, her research has expanded into determining the way NDV can be used as an anticancer treatment and a carrier of cancer fighting drugs for use in targeted treatment. Her work is recognised both nationally and globally and Dr. Khatijah was the second Asian in the world to be awarded UNESCO’s Carlos Finlay Prize for microbiology in 2005. In 2015, Dr. Khatijah was the recipient of the Merdeka Award in the Health, Science & Tech category for outstanding contribution in the field of microbiology and virology through a better understanding and diagnosis of the contagious and fatal viruses in poultry and the study of the potential of the virus in combating cancer cells.


Aerogel, the lightest solid in the world, is made of at least 96% gas. The term is used to classify synthetic, porous, ultra-light materials that are made by replacing the liquid in a gel with gas, and was first invented in 1931 by American chemist Samuel Kistler. However, due to the high costs of manufacturing, aerogels were not a viable material for commercial use. Enter Professor Dr. Halimaton Hamdan, Malaysian chemist and professor of Chemistry at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM). In 2009, she successfully developed Maerogel (short for Malaysian aerogel), a cost effective aerogel substance that is manufactured from rice husks. Rice husks are common by-product of Malaysia’s agricultural industry and the scale of rice husk waste produced was at least a third of the total production volume. Learning this, Dr. Halimaton started research on rice husks to find a better use for the more than 1.5 million tonnes of rice husk waste produced each year and found that they contained high silica content. Extracting silica from waste husks allowed Dr. Halimaton and her team to cut manufacturing costs by 80% as well as reduce waste from paddy farming. Because of this Dr. Halimaton received the Merdeka Award for her outstanding contribution in the development and application of Maerogel as a commercially viable multi-purpose material in 2009.


Digital payment technologies are now so ingrained in daily life that any individual engages with such services on a daily basis without even noticing. One of the pioneering companies to grow towards this new digital economy is iPay88, a home-grown online payment solutions company that sits as the backbone of many local e-commerce and mobile commerce businesses. Chan Kok Long, Lim Kok Hing and Chong Lee Kean are the three co-founders of iPay88, who quickly jumped into the market and started developing their secure technology back in 2006 when the industry was still in its infancy. Now, more than 10 years later, iPay88 is the country’s leading payment solutions provider, with a growing presence in Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines. iPay88 is a secure platform that allows businesses to collect payment via various options through a singular service, from direct bank transfer to global services like PayPal, making the product easy to use not just locally but also for buyers and sellers internationally. The company has won numerous awards, including EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2016 in the Technology category. More recently, Chan, Lim and Chong launched iPay88 Academy, to guide and train individuals and SMEs on the best way to start and grow their business online.


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