Prof Awang Bulgiba cuts a portly and serious figure. That and the abundance of grey in his hair and beard does not exactly make approaching the man easy. That is until you get to speak with him. Then pretty soon, he will disarm you with one of his self-deprecating jokes and the ice is broken right away. “Grey hair is good,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “You need enough grey hair to be taken seriously and to be considered for promotion to professor.” Which is what happened just ten years after he joined UM as an academic.
The first Malaysian doctor to gain a PhD in Health Informatics, Prof Awang Bulgiba is also the first public health physician in Malaysia to hold these 4 fellowships simultaneously (FFPH, FPHMM, FAMM, FASc) and the first in the department to be appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) in UM and in two portfolios no less. As DVC (Academic and International), he restructured and transformed his portfolio like no other DVC had ever done before which greatly improved UM’s academic reputation and internationalisation. This contributed greatly to an extraordinary rise in UM’s QS world rank from 151 in 2015 to 114 in 2018. Before that he was DVC (Research & Innovation) from 2012 to 2015 and spearheaded innovative research strategies which leapfrogged UM from fourth among Malaysian Research Universities to become the top Research University in Malaysia. The last MyRA II score under his watch as DVC (R&I) was 94 points, a record which still stands today and a good 18 points ahead of UM’s nearest competitor.
And what is the secret behind his extraordinary success as a leader? “Dreaming big, working hard, staying focused and surrounding oneself with good people,” he says. As Head of the SPM Department from 2006-09, he pushed the department to become the faculty’s most organised and arguably best research department in the Faculty of Medicine. He is glad to see that almost all the department academics are now PhD-qualified, something he pioneered nearly 20 years ago.
The man’s biography is breathtakingly astonishing. He set up JCUM and CePH, chaired the UM Wellness Programme at the start and established collaborations with several foreign universities through the Asia-Europe Clinical Epidemiology & Evidence-Based Medicine Programme. He is still an editor for two journals (APJPH and MOJ) and sits on numerous national and international committees as well as being an external examiner and assessor for several universities. He has been the Organising Chairperson for 3 international conferences, is still President of APACPH-KL (a Malaysian NGO dedicated to public health) and remains a Council member for the Academy of Sciences Malaysia. A former Vice-President of the College of Public Health, Malaysia, he was Chair of the Council of DVCs twice, for A&I as well as for R&I. Despite all these, he continues to be engaged actively in research and was the lead author for a book called “Strengthening Academic Career Pathways and Leadership Development”, which was used for the University Transformation Programme in Malaysia. He is currently leading the review and formulation of Malaysia’s National Policy for Science, Technology and Innovation 2021-30.
So how does he do all these and stay sane? “By putting your trust in God and believing that He will always guide and help you if you are honest and sincere in carrying out your responsibilities,” he says. It is hard to disagree with that.