Outstanding Scholastic Achievement

Writing is a passion for Professor Zaini.

Prof Dato' Ir Dr Zaini's study and contributions in various environmental initiatives concerning water supply, sewage, river rehabilitation and industrial ecology brings significant benefits to the people of Malaysia and the world.
Dato' Dr Mikaail Kavanagh
Member of the Nomination Committee,
Environment category


Professor Dato’ Ir Dr Zaini Ujang was born on 3rd  March, 1965 in Negeri Sembilan. With an army father posted in different states around the country, Professor Zaini learnt to be independent from a young age, living in a student hostel for the children of army personnel in Melaka, visiting his parents during school holidays.

The country’s youngest Vice Chancellor at 43 years old, Professor Zaini is currently the Vice Chancellor of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), a position he has held since Oct 2008. He joined UTM as a permanent academic staff in 1988.

Although he is now an acknowledged water expert, Professor Zaini did not have any childhood ambitions to become a scientist.

Growing up near rivers has given Professor Zaini an appreciation for water quality issues.

“I was interested in arts at school, and I used to paint and won art competitions. I became a chemical engineer by accident. Scholarships were given out for subjects like medicine and engineering, so I chose chemical engineering,” he says.

He credits his chemistry and biology teachers at school for awakening his interest in science.

“Science is to learn what is around you, and when you can explain something from a scientific point of view, you feel more attracted to it. As a student, I lived close to many rivers, and it was a part of my life. You learn through life’s experiences.”

After graduating in chemical engineering, he took inspiration from his childhood surroundings by branching out into environmental engineering. He completed his Master of Science (Environmental Engineering) at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK where he won an award for the best project in his MSc dissertation. He continued on at the university for his PhD, where he completed his doctorate in less than three years.

Professor Zaini’s scholastic achievement and thought leadership in water matters were soon recognised locally and internationally. He is currently the Chairman of the Environmental Quality Council, Malaysia and is one of the Commissioners of the National Commission on Water Services. He was the Vice President of the International Water Association (IWA) from 2004-06, and serves as Deputy President of the Malaysia Water Association. Professor Zaini is a Fellow to the Institution of Chemical Engineers (UK) and the Academy of Sciences Malaysia. He has been the Senior Advisor to the Prince Khalid bin Sultan Chair on Water Research, King Saud University, Saudi Arabia since January this year and heads a team studyinggroundwater issues in Madinah.

Professor Zaini has received several accolades for his outstanding scientific research including the Malaysia Water Award 2004 (Research), the Outstanding Young Malaysian Award (Academic leadership) in 2004 and the Gold Medal from the Institusi Pengajian Tinggi Am (IPTA) Expo on Research & Development in 2005.

Professor Zaini has published over 200 technical papers, 22 books, chapters, monographs and technical reports on environmental engineering. He and his coworkers have registered 21 patents and copyrights. Sought after for his expertise, he has co-edited two books with Professor Mogens Henze, an expert in environmental engineering entitled Municipal Wastewater Management in Developing Countries and Environmental Biotechnology. Professor Zaini was appointed Member of the Editorial Board, Water Science & Technology, WST Water Supply and later appointed editor of the Water and Environmental Management Series in 2003 under IWA Publishing, London. He received the highest citation for journal publications based on the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) citation index for environmental engineering in Malaysia.

Improving the water quality of Malaysian rivers is one of Professor Zaini's key pursuits.

“My ambition in life is to write 100 books. I have written 22, with three in the pipeline. Even if I don’t manage to write 100, I can reach 50. I hope that three or four will be my magnum opus, which I have not achieved yet,” he says.

Professor Zaini is a married to Datin Dr Zainah Moktar and is a father of four. Apart from his interest in art, he is a bibliophile who enjoys reading and writing, horseback riding, jungle trekking and cycling.

Scholar And Thought Leader
Despite his numerous achievements at such a young age, Professor Zaini is not one to rest on his laurels. his thirst for knowledge and interest in learning means he continues to build his professional expertise in areas ranging from water and wastewater engineering (particularly membrane and advanced biological processes), integrated ecosystem management, and corporate environmental strategy.

As Vice Chancellor, Professor Zaini is driving UTM to become a leading technical university in the region. As an environmental engineer, he looks into water quality, the design of water infrastructure and the important parameters of water. He cites the redefinition of wastewater as a significant milestone in his research career.

Professor Zaini believes breakthrough research will take the country forward.

“In the group I am working with globally, we try to redefine things. What do we mean by wastewater? Waste means valueless and in some instances dangerous. By if you consider waste as resource, pollutants in so-called dirty water are mainly 99.9 percent water and 0.1 percent ‘contaminants’. If they can be separated from bulk water into organic and inorganic components, then it is no longer waste. It can be a major source of specialty chemicals and biogas. Wastewater is a misnomer, as it is actually resource water. The problem is that we have not been able to challenge the conventional wisdom, and are trapped in outdated technical best practices, ” he says.

Professor Zaini is currently looking at various ways on how to define wastewater and stresses that this definition is very important. In the design of wastewater treatment plants for instance, there is a shift from discharging what is considered waste to recovering as many resources as possible, requiring a change in facility design.

Having achieve success at the early age of 43, Professor Zaini is constantly confronted by scepticism.

“When I became Vice President of IWA, I was 39 years old and I was the youngest in the group. The President was 60 years old, and the group comprised of people nearly twice my age at the time. What made it possible for me to reach out to the group was my willingness to work with them, motivation, focus and strength to organise research activities and international conferences,” he says.

Professor Zaini has been appointed the Congress President of the IWA Global Development Conference in 2011, the industry’s second largest conference.

Professor Zaini is also not afraid to make mistakes, and says “a lot of learning comes out of it”. He is committed to research, and would like to see more organisations get involved in funding research.

“Breakthrough research is very important. What is going to make Malaysia a leading nation will be breakthrough research, both fundamental and applied. We have to support this,” he adds.

His hands-on approach has seen Professor Zaini achieve much at a young age.

Professor Zaini has been involved in numerous projects as a technical consultant and corporate advisor. As Chairman of the Environmental Quality Council, he is currently working with the Malaysian government on a new environmental governance and management framework based on a new environmental performance index. His team, which is working with partners from Yale University and Columbia University, was appointed by the government to develop this for the country.

He is also currently working on developing new software, methods and protocols to define wastewater, and is planning to put forward a project to improve the water quality in Malaysia’s rivers, with the priority being the Klang River so that it can be a source of economic development.

With his dual roles as a leader of one of the country’s oldest university and an internationally-recognised researcher, Professor Zaini says leadership by example is his credo. He sets high targets in order to motivate his staff to achieve more than they thought they could, and makes it a point to be accessible to students and faculty alike. Despite his busy schedule, he still supervises eight PhD students, and says time management is the key. He has even written two books on time management.

Winning the Merdeka Award has given him the strength and motivation to work harder and smarter to contribute more to society. He is confident that the Merdeka Award can help him in raising awareness on initiatives that will help in the development of the country.

As a young person who has achieved much, Professor Zaini advises the young to surround themselves with high achievers, choose a subject that interests them, master it and contribute in the area that they have chosen.

“If you encounter a lot of hurdles, find another way as there are many ways to achieve your targets. You must have determination. If want to do something, do it. Don’t think small. There is nothing easy in life. What is important is your target and vision, where you want to go, looking at big milestones. Don’t spend too much time working towards small milestones.”

Professor Zaini (fifth from left) in a gathering of the world's water experts in Bellagio, Italy in 2004.
Concluding Remarks

Professor Zaini’s study and contributions in various environmental initiatives concerning water supply, sewage, river rehabilitation and industrial ecology bring significant benefits to the people of Malaysia and the world. His academic research and internationally recognised
expertise adds immense value to the body of homegrown scientific research. Research into water and the environment is crucial as the country places greater importance on using natural resources sustainably.

Professor Zaini’s vision to advance education through the cultivation of a culture of knowledge is a positive step towards building a society which places great value on knowledge.

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