TAN Sri Dr Salleh Mohd Noor is no stranger to summits. Having conquered Mount Kinabalu, Mount Tahan, Mount Ophir and more recently, the base camp of Mount Everest – at the age of 72! – Dr Salleh has gone where few have ventured.
The UCSI University Council member recently received the Merdeka Award for his contribution to conserving Malaysia’s environment, forests and wildlife.
The other recipients this year are Tan Sri Lakshmanan Krishnan (Education and Community), Prof Datuk Dr Looi Lai Meng (Health, Science and Technology) and Prof Datuk Dr Wan Ramli Wan Daud (Oustanding Scholastic Achievement).
The awards were presented by Perak state ruler Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah. Sultan Nazrin is the royal patron of the Merdeka Award Trust. Each recipient received a trophy and cash award of RM500,000.
Gratified and humbled, Dr Salleh spoke on what is, by any account, a lifetime of service.
Dr Salleh’s environmental crusade began in 1977 when he joined the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) – known then as Forest Research Institute Kepong before it became a statutory body – where he served as director-general until his retirement in 1995.
“It was a time when indiscriminate logging was rampant. While Malaysia made money from timber exports, we had to ensure that ongoing operations would not jeopardise the ecosystem,” he said.
Logging aside, FRIM championed forest-related research to the government and the public to ensure that the ecosystem would not be taken for granted.
“From day one, I believed that we could make an impact, and we did,” said Dr Salleh.
This desire to conserve the environment saw Dr Salleh taking on roles in the national and international front. He served as the president of the Malaysian Nature Society and the International Union of Forest Research Organisations, and was a member of the National Environment Quality Council.
He is also on the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia’s programme advisory committee.
“There were times when I was conflicted because I wanted to conserve the forest that was being cleared to make way for oil palm plantations. But I knew how vital palm oil would be for Malaysia and I learned how to align my goals with the national agenda,” he said.
He worked with palm oil companies to determine how plantations should be.
His advocacy worked and Dr Salleh was widely regarded as an eco-warrior. He went on to champion turtle conservation in Terengganu and had a hand in influencing the government’s decision to ban the serving of sharks’ fin soup at official functions.
On hindsight, Dr Salleh’s love for the environment is the consequence of both chance and design.
“I’m an old boy from the Royal Military College and traditionally, the top student was sent abroad to study medicine on scholarship. The practice stopped when it was my turn,” he said.
“I ended up going to Australia via the Colombo Plan. They offered me Forestry at the Australian Forestry School and later, the University of Adelaide. I developed a passion for the environment through the course of my studies and grew to love it,” Dr Salleh added.
Dr Salleh is a Fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and is regularly sought for his views on environmental policy and management.
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