A New Pinnacle

KUALA LUMPUR: UCSI University Council member Tan Sri Dr Salleh Mohd Noor is no stranger to summits. Having conquered Mt Kinabalu, Mt Tahan, Mt Ophir and more recently, the base camp of Mt Everest – at the age of 72! - Dr Salleh has gone where few would dare venture.

Although age dictated that his mountain climbing days should cease, Dr Salleh reached a new pinnacle recently when he received the 2016 Merdeka Award for his unending contributions to conserve Malaysia's environment, forests and wildlife.

Receiving his Award from Perak state ruler Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah, Dr Salleh was one of only four outstanding Malaysians who were selected to receive the coveted Award this year. Gratified and humbled, he spoke effusively on what is, by any account, a lifetime of service.

Dr Salleh's environmental crusade began in 1977 when he joined the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) - then known as Forest Research Institute Kepong before it became a statutory body – where he served as director-general till his retirement in 1995.

"It was a time when indiscriminate logging was rampant and while Malaysia made money from timber exports, we had to ensure that ongoing operations would not jeopardise the ecosystem," he says. "While I don't think I was the best friend of timber conglomerates, some listened and did their part.

"Logging aside, Malaysia's forests always had vast potential and FRIM championed forest-related research to the Government and the public to ensure that the ecosystem would not be taken for granted. I believed from day one that we could make an impact and we did."

This burning desire to conserve the environment saw Dr Salleh taking on more roles in national and international bodies. He served as the president of the Malaysian Nature Society, the president of the International Union of Forest Research Organisations and a member of the National Environment Quality Council, among many other bodies.

Interestingly, he also sat on the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia's programme advisory committee.

"This took some reconciling in the early days as I wanted to conserve the forest land that was being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations," muses Dr Salleh. "It was difficult and there were times when I was conflicted."

"Having said that, I knew how vital palm oil would be for Malaysia and I learned how to align my goals with the national agenda. I could still do my bit for the ecosystem by stressing the points others often overlooked."

Embracing the dichotomous situation, he worked with palm oil companies to determine how plantations should be. Forested areas on hills and high ground should be left untouched and access points for wildlife could not be compromised.

His advocacy worked and Dr Salleh was widely regarded as an eco-warrior. He went on to champion turtle conservation in Terengganu and he even influenced the Government's decision to ban sharks' fin soup at official functions.

Conscientiously objecting to the once-popular dish that now divides opinion, Dr Salleh would leave bowls of sharks' fin untouched. He'd then explain his stand when others quizzed him on his refusal to eat. And to top things off, he'd have a few choice words for the organisers for condoning – and supporting – a cruel practice.

In hindsight, Dr Salleh views that his love for the environment is the consequence of both chance and design. He also concedes that he could have a different career path if fate would have it any other way.

"I'm an Old Boy of the Royal Military College and traditionally, the top student was sent abroad to read medicine on scholarship," he says. "The practice stopped when it was my turn. I ended up going to Australia via the Colombo Plan and they offered me Forestry at the Australian Forestry School and later, the University of Adelaide."

"I developed a passion for the environment through the course of my studies and I have no regrets to how things turned out. I grew to love it and that's how I could contribute effectively in the field."

As part of the UCSI University Council, Dr Salleh is part of UCSI's concerted effort to be the leading private university in Malaysia. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and he is regularly sought for his views on environmental policy and management.

Apart from his BSc in Forestry, Dr Salleh also holds a MSc and PhD from Michigan State University, as well as a Diploma in Photo Interpretation from the International Centre for Aerial Survey and Earth Sciences in Delft, Holland. He also pursued a three-month advanced management programme at Harvard Business School. 

UCSI congratulates Dr Salleh on his latest achievement.