Emeritus Professor Dato’ Dr Abdul Latiff Mohamad is a pioneer in the research of plant taxonomy and conservation biology. Born in Kelantan in 1948 he received his early education at the Parang Puting National School and Merbau English School in Kota Bharu, Kelantan. He attended secondary school at the Sultan Ismail College and later continued his studies at University of Malaya (UM) where he obtained his Bachelor of Science. It was at UM where, inspired and encouraged by his lecturer and mentor the late Dr BC Stone, he began to take an interest in plant taxonomy. In September 1974 he went to the University of Reading, England where he received his Masters of Science in Pure and Applied Plant Taxonomy and, subsequently, his PhD in Plants Systematics. Professor Latiff returned to Malaysia in 1978 and assumed a position as lecturer at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
The University promoted him to Associate Professor in 1983 and to the position of full Professor in 1991. Being a pioneer at the University he was tasked to head the newly established Department of Botany. The faculty saw his potential in administration and he was soon made a Deputy Dean at the Faculty of Life Sciences, and later Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences. When the science-based faculties were restructured in 1999 he was made the Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology and later Dean of the faculty before he retired. He also served as Associate Director and Director of the Institute for Environment and Development.
His almost 40 years of research on Malaysian flora, plant taxonomy and biodiversity has led to the advancement of knowledge that includes the understanding of the science of taxonomy and conservation biology and, also, the importance, value and benefits of environmental conservation in Malaysia. Professor Latiff has headed various projects on plant taxonomy, ethnography and phytochemistry of natural products. He has also managed to secure funds from the bilateral co-operation of Malaysia-Japan initiatives and also Flora Malesiana Foundation to build the human resource capacity of botanical research in Malaysia. The University of Leiden in the Netherlands has also expressed interest in his research and he was granted a Research Fellowship for the Revision of Malesian Vitaceae Project in 1985.
With the support of the Forestry Department in Peninsular Malaysia, Academy of Sciences Malaysia, and UKM, Professor Latiff has led more than 30 scientific expeditions in various states throughout Malaysia. The expeditions carried out investigations into the physical, biological and socio-economic environments. Upon completion of every scientific expedition, Professor Latiff has conducted scientific seminars to explain his findings. Over the years, he has published more than 546 scientific papers, of which 246 are in ISHF listed journals. He has also published more than 300 publications as chapters in books and as papers in proceedings. He was also a lecturer at both undergraduate and graduate levels in the Faculty of Science, UKM between 1979 and 2014. His efforts have led to the transfer of botanical knowledge to more than 35 students who are now teachers and lecturers, research officers and other science professionals in the country.
Professor Latiff has also worked tirelessly to raise awareness on environmental conservation as he says: ”It is difficult to put a value on the importance of conservation.” He has been elected as a member of the Working Group on Urban Ecosystem; Sub-Committee of Malaysia Man And Biosphere; Chairman, Sub-Committee on Flora and Fauna; Malay Culture Project and the Inter-University Biology Terminology Committee, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP). He is also a Trustee and the Chairman of the WWF Malaysia Board and member of the Malaysian Delegation to UNESCO World Heritage Site Conference. Over the past few decades, he had also given advice to various parks in the country such as Perlis State Park, Gunung Stong State Park in Kelantan, Royal Belum State Park in Perak, and Sabah Foundation.
Professor Latiff’s expertise is also in demand by regional and international organisations. He has been the Executive Council Member for the Asian Network for Biological Science; Member of the Scientific Committee for Botany, Pacific Science Association and also the Multi-lateral Steering Committee for Plant Resources of South East Asia (PROSEA). Through these appointments, he has been able to accelerate the environmental agenda for the decision makers so that policies that will ensure environmental sustainability can be implemented.
Throughout his 40 years in research, he has named one new genus of plant, Nothocissus
; 18 plant species new to science that include Rafflesia azlanii, Rafflesia tengku-adlinii, Dendrobium terengganuensis, Cissus sumatrana
, and numerous new records to the Flora of Malaysia that include Vatica sarawakensis, Madhuca palembanica, Cissus aristolochiodes.
Professor Latiff also has seven plants and two animals named in honour of him. His efforts have led to greater understanding of taxonomy as a field which is essential for the rich biodiversity of the country.
Professor Latiff was a recipient of the Malaysian-Toray Award for Science and Technology in 1995 for his works in plant taxonomy and ethnobotany and plant diversity. He also received the Tokoh Alam Award from the Faculty of Environmental Studies at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) and Citra Award from UKM, both in 2005. He was also the recipient of the Langkawi Award in 2004.
Professor Latiff currently serves as Emeritus Professor and Guest Scholar at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. He is currently writing a book on the Iconic Researchers of the University commemorating UKM’s 45th Anniversary in 2015.
The first Malaysian to graduate with a PhD in Higher Plant Taxonomy, Professor Latiff has dedicated his professional life to the study and development of plant taxonomy and biodiversity. A firm believer in sustainable development for a balanced quality of life, Professor Latiff is resolute that he will continue nurturing the next generation of researchers in the field of taxonomic and botanical research. At present, he still mentors his former students who are serving either at local universities as lecturers and associate professors and at research institutions as research officers. He tells young Malaysians that in order to succeed they must “work hard.” He says: “While there are no shortcuts to anything if you work hard you will succeed.”
A dedicated researcher and a pioneer in his chosen field Professor Latiff’s unerring commitment to research and the understanding of plant taxonomy and conservation biology personifies the Spirit of Merdeka
and its pursuit of excellence and contribution to the nation.