A Letter To My Younger Self by Tan Sri Zakri Abdul Hamid

07 OCTOBER 2021

MERDEKA AWARD LAUREATE  TAN SRI DR ZAKRI BIN ABDUL HAMID, is recognized as one of Malaysia’s foremost thought leaders and science diplomats in the field of biodiversity and conservation. His international accolades are far too many to list as the impact of his work is far-ranging and will be felt for decades to come - for the benefit of millions across the world, and for our planet. After all, he was one of the people who started the ball rolling for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be formulated. This began when he assumed the position as director of the United Nations University’s Institute of Advanced Studies in Japan from 2001 to 2008. He transformed it into a leading UN think-tank on biodiversity and sustainable development. He then helped the UNU rector develop regional centres of expertise for the promotion of Education and Sustainable Development. These networks which address sustainable development challenges at the local level through research and capacity development, then contributed to the setting up of the SDGs. Two years ago, the Asian Scientist magazine based in Singapore honoured him as one of the Top 100 Asian Scientists for 2019.

This is the high-achiever’s letter to his younger self.

To the ‘invisible man’ at the back of the room,

Remember when you started out at the College of Agriculture, Malaya, in 1966? Cikgu Rashid, had been observing you the entire orientation week. He noticed your need to be a wall paper at the back end of the hall. No surprise, for a small kampong (village) boy from Ketari in Bentong, Pahang, you felt timid and shy, and safest right there - at the back corner. 

One day, Cikgu Rashid walked over and led you to sit at the front of the hall, and said: “Zakri, FEAR NO ONE”

Imbed those words in your mind because as impossible as it may seem to a student in a remote college in Serdang, one day you will go on to host and negotiate with some formidable Prime Ministers, Presidents and royalties at the international fora. Don’t be afraid of that prospect. You may feel a little overwhelmed or nervous initially, but just remember Cikgu Rashid’s words, and you will do fine. 

Early days in Japan working alongside a diverse group of colleagues

When you are appointed to the United Nations University in Japan, working with many colleagues of different nationalities,the same principle will apply - remember that we are all the same. We never have to feel inferior to others. 

Zakri, understand that the lack of confidence will only come when you are not prepared. If you equip yourself with the knowledge, with the expertise, with the background of the issues, that lack of confidence will naturally evaporate. 

Chairing the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 

Just keep reminding yourself that you can. You can set up new centres of study, you can lead a national delegation and you can sit as Chair in international organisations, bridging those onerous gaps between scientists and policy makers. Just train yourself to be ready always, because from time to time you will be called up to give a speech, impromptu, and you wouldn’t want to flinch, would you? 

Oh and be disciplined and punctual always. This is the cardinal rule. Never keep anyone waiting and always deliver what you have promised your colleagues. In doing this, you will earn respect and good repute. Successful men and women are never tardy.

As you get older Zakri, don’t forget to be a good listener. Remember the analogy your father gave you about the plane in the sky? The higher it goes, the less noise it makes. So the higher you rise in your ranks, the less you should talk and the more you should listen.

Most importantly Zakri, when you start flying high, don’t abscond from the things that are important to your family. Don’t take your loving and understanding wife for granted. Your children’s award days and high school graduations are important to them – try to be there for those memorable occasions. Sometimes you will have to make sacrifices due to your deep commitment to work, but always make up for those lost moments. And if one day you come home and find yourself feeling left out at the dinner table conversation, don’t despair. It will be alright in the end, if you try to make memories with your loved ones whenever you can.

Zakri, you must enjoy whatever you decide to do. Only then you will do it well, and you will keep doing it for a very long time. You will not think of retiring. Embrace your work and where it takes you. Sometimes that means spending Ramadan in Brazil or Aidilfitri in Peru. That’s ok. Just go with the flow. Make the most of every situation. Dare to go beyond your comfort zones Zakri, and you will find there is nothing to it. 

In hindsight Zakri, I must say that the best thing you will do is to follow your mother’s advice about the importance of education. Allow it to guide you and make you committed to whatever you do. 

Tan Sri when he was a boy - family photo with this mother and brothers

When she first set you off to school she told you that education is the great equaliser and the game changer. She said to escape poverty, you must study hard. You remembered her words by first getting a good solid education and having a clear goal of what you wanted to do. After receiving your bachelor’s degree, don’t be content. Go on to do your Masters and PhD. Then excel in your line of expertise. 

This will take you from an ordinary lecturer in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia to Head of the Department of Genetics. Then do your work as a professor very, very conscientiously. Research and publish. Keep growing and expanding. In doing this you will earn your full professorship by the young age of 37. 

Even then, don’t stop there or stay in your ivory tower. When the opportunity comes to use the knowledge you gained and the understanding you have about science, to contribute to society, do it. In that way you will go on to promote collaboration among countries and draw the attention of decision makers to the issues of conservation and species loss, both in Malaysia and abroad. 

Do this for the world.

It will be a long and winding road for you Zakri, but it will be a fun and fulfilling one, so that even past your seventies, you will still tremendously enjoy what you do. 
Just stay the course with all the above!
Yours sincerely,



TAN SRI DR ZAKRI BIN ABDUL HAMID began his illustrious career as a lecturer at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in the late 1970s, rose to the ranks as Head of the Department of Genetics (1978-1981) and earned his full Professorship by the age of 37 (in 1986). In the 1990s he was introduced ‘by accident’, as he says, to the United Nations and there began his diplomatic roles, first as a junior Malaysian delegate during the negotiations of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, and later heading the nation’s delegation to the meeting of the treaty’s Conference of Parties for the next decade. He also led Malaysia’s delegation during the early days of the inter-governmental negotiations of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (1995-2000) and has served as director of the United Nations University’s Institute of Advanced Studies in Japan, which he helped transform into a leading UN think-tank on biodiversity and sustainable development, and later helped develop regional centers of expertise for the promotion of Education and Sustainable Development. 

Closer to home, he has used his knowledge and experience to effect changes in conservation and sustainable development policies. In 2009, while serving as Tuanku Chancellor Chair at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, he founded its Centre for Global Sustainability Studies, a post-graduate think-tank on the challenges of climate change, environmental degradation, urban sprawl and other dimensions of global change. In 2010 he was appointed Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia where his role was to advise on the role of science, technology and innovation in sustainable development, in addition to how science is the underpinning factor in promoting social economic advancement for the country.

Today he is the ambassador and science advisor for the Campaign for Nature, a partnership by the Wyss Foundation, National Geographic and a growing coalition of more than 100 conservation organisations from around the world, calling on world leaders to protect at least 30 percent of the world’s forests and seas to approach biodiversity conservation with a posture that respects indigenous leadership and incorporates their rights. He is Senior Fellow to the Academy of Sciences Malaysia, in addition to being fellows of the World Academy of Sciences; the Islamic World Academy of Sciences; and the World Academy of Art and Science. Currently, he contributes a weekly op-ed in the NST. 

As the saying says, “old professor don’t fade away, they just hang around.” At the age of 73, he concedes that he will never retire. He is currently serving as Pro Chancellors of the Multimedia University and Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris in Tanjung Malim. 


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