Academician Tan Sri Dr Salleh Mohd Nor has spent most of his professional life in advocating and protecting nature and natural resources in Malaysia – both in his previous public role as the Director-General of Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) as well as in his personal capacity as the president of the largest Malaysian environmental Non-Governmental Organisation, the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) of which he was president for 30 years.
Born in 1940, in the village of Ulu Inas, Negeri Sembilan, Tan Sri Salleh had his early education at Tuanku Muhammad Secondary School. In 1957, he gained admission into the Federation Military College (later the Royal Military College) at Port Dickson, where he completed his secondary education and obtained a Higher School Certificate in Science. He was awarded the Director of Studies prize.
Tan Sri Salleh was a recipient of the Colombo Plan Scholarship to study Forestry in Adelaide from 1961-1962, and later at the Australian Forestry School (AFS), Canberra, from which he graduated with a BSc (Forestry) from Adelaide University and a Diploma of Forestry from AFS.
On returning to Malaysia, he started his professional career, undertaking forest resources inventory for the Forest Resources Reconnaissance Survey(FRRS) unlike his contemporaries who preferred to work as District Forest Officers. He spent months in field work in the forest, undertaking forest inventory which formed the foundation for the national land use planning for the country. He then took-up a 13-month course on Forest Photo-Interpretation at the International Institute for Aerial Survey and Earth Sciences (ITC) in Delft, the Netherlands. Tan Sri Salleh was then awarded a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to study for his MSc and followed by a Federal Government scholarship to study for his PhD at Michigan State University.
Tan Sri Salleh was involved with numerous international organisations in his effort to work towards addressing rising environmental concerns. He was the first Director-General of Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) before retiring in 1995. He was elected President of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), the first person from outside Europe and America in 100 years history of IUFRO. He was a member of the inaugural Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM), former Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Kolej Universiti Terengganu(KUT) now known as Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT), Inaugural Chairman of Malaysian Bio-Industry Organization (MBIO), and Inaugural Fellow, past Vice President, former Secretary-General and Council member of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM). He is now a Senior Fellow of ASM.
Tan Sri Salleh was a member of the Yayasan DiRaja Sultan Mizan (Sultan Mizan Royal Foundation) with the then Yang Di-Pertuan Agong as its Chairman. Tan Sri Salleh was elected as its Deputy Chairman. He was appointed the Chief Executive Officer of the World Endurance Championship 2008, where the Foundation has been given the honour to organise the International Equestrian Federation, the first time that this prestigious event was ever held in Asia.
In 1977, Tan Sri Salleh was appointed as the director of Forest Research Institute (FRI) Kepong, a unit of the Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia. Eight years later, the institute was transformed into a statutory body through an Act of Parliament, and the Malaysia Forestry Research and Development Board (MFRDB) was formed to administer the Institute, which was subsequently named Forest Research Institute Malaysia or FRIM and Tan Sri Salleh was appointed its first Director General.
His leadership at FRIM saw the institute grow from a small obscure institute to a world class tropical forest research institute. FRIM developed numerous research and conservation programmes that have laid the foundation for good forest management and conservation of natural resources in the country. Amongst the numerous projects he initiated was the Tree Flora project to document the trees of Malaysia. With FRIM located in a prime location of Klang Valley, Tan Sri Salleh managed to save the area from pressures for development from land developers. The FRIM complex has not only been maintained but it has become a place frequented by the public and nature lovers. Tan Sri Salleh had a canopy walkway constructed with the help of German experts to promote eco-tourism. The walkway is now a very popular public destination in FRIM.
Tan Sri Salleh initiated research into the utilisation of rubber wood, which was then a waste product from the rubber plantations. Rubber wood has since become an international success with rubberwood furniture now an accepted and respected product worldwide. The technology has also spread to Africa, South America and other parts of Asia where rubber is planted.
While research in forestry and conservation formed a significant portion of Tan Sri Salleh’s contribution, he also actively advocated for a greener environment and at times vehemently opposed to government policies considered to have damaging effects to the environment. In this regard, he served as the President of Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) for 30 years. When the Government proposed to construct a road from Kuala Tahan into Taman Negara, Tan Sri Salleh, as the MNS President, led a chorus of resistance that eventually caused the proposal to be dropped. Another proposal that would have seen helicopter logging in the Kuala Muda water catchment forests of Kedah, was also shelved as the activity would have had devastating environmental impact on the rice fields in the surrounding areas. Other issues that were highlighted by Tan Sri Salleh were the proposal of a linear city over Sungai Gombak as well as the relocation of the National Zoo that were eventually scrapped after intervention by MNS.
Tan Sri Salleh is currently the Pro-Chancellor of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia where he also promotes conservation of nature and the environment.
As a conservationist, Tan Sri Salleh is keen to pass on his knowledge as a way to nurture the next generation of conservationists. As President of MNS, Tan Sri Salleh obtained support of Optimal Group of companies, an energy solutions provider, in Terengganu, for the establishment of the first Environmental Education Center to be located on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Tan Sri Salleh chaired and led the Steering Committee to establish the Center, which was launched in 2013 in Kerteh, Terengganu. The Center is aimed at involving local communities around Kerteh on conservation efforts, providing education as well as creating awareness of the environment amongst the village communities, in particular, school-going children. Tan Sri Salleh also obtained Optimal’s agreement to fund the running of the Center for 10 years.
What inspires him? “In my early career, I spent years undertaking forest inventory spending months camping in the virgin forests. I came to appreciate and love the beauty, complexity and wonders of the Malaysian forests. It was also during the hey-days of the timber industry and I saw with my own eyes the rampant uncontrolled destruction of the thousand-year-old trees. I saw how the human greed saw no limits. That motivated me to voice the concerns of the people and conservation and MNS gave me that platform. I am deeply concerned about the future generations who should also have the opportunity to enjoy the wonders of our forests and not just through the television,” he says.
Over the years, Tan Sri Salleh has published more than 300 articles and gave talks at various seminars and conferences, both locally and abroad. He has also published various books on conservation, such as Climate Change and Sustainable Forestry in Malaysia: Research, Development and Policy Issues, Marine and Resources of Malaysia as well as A New Landmark in the Malaysian Antarctic Programme among others. He is now working on his first novel.
His awards include the Inaugural Langkawi Award, the Third World Network of Scientific Organisations (TWNSO) prize on public understanding of Science, The Ordre Du Merite Agricole from The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry France, Old Putra of the Year, National Science Award, Honorary Doctor of Science by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, University of Aberdeen and University Malaysia Terengganu. Tan Sri Salleh was awarded the Asean Achievement Award for environment protection, the prestigious Tun Razak Award, Libur Environment Award, the Inaugural Malaysian Forestry Research and Development Board (MFRDB) Award and was one of 50 “Tokoh Malaysia” (Malaysian Heros) on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of “Merdeka”. Tan Sri Salleh was awarded a “Fellow” of the Malaysian Scientific Association and Senior Fellowship by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia which carries the title of “Academician”. Tan Sri Salleh was awarded the Inaugural “Tapir Award” for life-long service to conservation by the Malaysian Nature Society in conjunction with MNS 75th anniversary.
Tan Sri Salleh also manages a contract R&D Company on plant biotechnology and a forestry consultancy business in forest inventory and sustainable management of forests and has undertaken consultancies in forest inventory and valuation of forest areas both locally and overseas. He is passionate on the environment and regularly gives talks and lectures on conservation.
Tan Sri Salleh says he is currently working on a number of books on forestry and the environment. “I get up every morning at around 4 am to write and am now working on a number of books.”
He also regularly presents papers at seminars and conferences and is involved in a biotechnology venture, having acquired a tissue culture laboratory in Terengganu. What is unique about Tan Sri Salleh’s contribution to conservation is that it has been voluntary and it has gone beyond the call of duty.
“I look forward to contributing to the development of agriculture in Terengganu and Malaysia as a whole as Malaysian agriculture has been dominated too much by oil palm and we have not given enough attention to other crops. We have to reduce our large food import bill,” he adds.
As an advocate for nature and sustainable development, Tan Sri Salleh’s leadership in nature conservation exemplifies the Spirit of Merdeka and its ideals of stewardship.