A passion for genetic science

WHEN my uncle passed away a fortnight ago, aged 82, little did I expect it would set me off on an all-consuming journey to trace his life.

My beloved uncle is Professor Dr Satwant Singh Dhaliwal (pic): a leader and teacher, one who never hungered for the limelight but was revered nonetheless by his family, friends and fellow academics from around the world.

He never made it as Vice-Chancellor of University of Malaya, but he did serve as Acting Vice-Chancellor for a while.

Son of a retired postmaster in Teluk Anson (now known as Teluk Intan), he worked his way to the upper echelons of academic greatness in his lifetime.

Datuk A. Nelson, who was Satwant’s varsity mate said: “When I first met him he had the gait of an army general! We got along well and stayed together at the newly opened Dunearn Road Hostel in 1953. An upstanding gentleman, he was a great scholar and ferociously dedicated to his passion for science. We had lecturers from all over the world and University of Malaya was regarded among the top 20 in the world then!”

Historian and Emeritus Professor Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim remembers Prof Dhaliwal from their school days, “He was always so brilliant, from ACS Teluk Anson to his days at University of Malaya in Singapore to Professor of Genetics at Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.”

At 23, after earning his Bachelor of Science First Class Honours in Zoology, Satwant was one of two Sikhs awarded the Shell Research Fellowship at the University of Malaya in Singapore. In early 1957, for the first time in Malaya, the Queen’s Scholarships were awarded to two Sikhs: Chatar Singh Data (aged 27) and Satwant Singh Dhaliwal (aged 24); Chatar in Physics and Satwant in Zoology. Satwant was preparing his thesis on the genetics of Malayan rats for his Master of Science degree in Systematics and Genetics.

He completed his doctorate at University of Edinburgh obtaining a PhD in Genetics, a first for a Malaysian! His thesis was on Mutation Studies on Mouse Tumour Cells.

Former Business Times bureau chief for Malaysia, S Jayasankaran who did Genetics for a year under Prof Dhaliwal says: “He was regarded by many of his peers as a world-class geneticist.”

Subang MP R. Sivarasa who was also his student shares: “I was the beneficiary of his dedication to excellence as he worked tirelessly to put the Department of Genetics at Universiti Malaya on a solid footing.”

Lord Gathorne Cranbrook, the 5th Earl of Cranbrook, who was a colleague of Prof Dhaliwal had this to say about him: “His discipline in genetics was complementary to mine (zoology). But we shared supervision of some of the best students, including the late Dr Ho Coy Choke and Prof Yong Hoi Sen. Satwant was always a convivial member of the small group of lecturers in those days.”

Another colleague, Prof Dr Jose Furtado, said, “Satwant’s academic achievements were there for all to see. For us, he was the organiser of hockey games and a social life that was the envy of many in the university. Even the then Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Alexander Oppenheim (just before Royal Prof Ungku Aziz’s term as Vice-Chancellor) understood a bit of boisterous behaviour as long as productive work got done - and that was a remarkable feature of Satwant; after a late night he was up early in his lab or giving lectures.”

Sir Oppenheim was a top global mathematician and formulated the now famous Oppenheim Conjecture.

All along, Prof Dhaliwal relished his academic career at the University of Malaya and chose to stay with UM in Kuala Lumpur when the university was separated from Singapore in January 1962.

He was 32 when he found out that you had to be 35 to get a professorship at UM, so he waited another three years even though he was already travelling around the world on behalf of the nation.

As the youngest professor in the country, he set up the Faculty of Science, served as Dean of the Faculty of Science, Master of Second College, developed highly acclaimed curriculums and published numerous journals and conference papers.

In the early 1960s, Prof Dhaliwal was invited for lecture tours to the US under the auspices of the Asia Foundation and the US National Institute of Cancer.

During his sabbaticals, he did research work around the world, was a speaker at the Unesco seminars in Japan and Malaysia’s regular representative to the Council of Pacific Science Congress for nine years.

In April 1965, Prof Dhaliwal was one of seven lecturers and a librarian who completed a course at the Siputeh Territorial Army (Wataniah) training centre near Ipoh on military tactics and warfare.

Graduating as a Sergeant, he quickly rose through the ranks to become Captain and Commanding Officer of the University Infantry Battalion.

In 1980, his research work took him to the Pasteur Institute under a grant from the French government. In 1981, he was the organising chairman of the 4th International Congress of the Society for the Advancement of Breeding Researchers in Asia and Oceania held in Kuala Lumpur.

In the 1970s, Prof Dhaliwal was part of a team of scientific thinkers who worked on part of a paper titled Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics. His research focused on how genetics affected cancer and cancer cells.

The man who helped translate scientific terms and names in fields like Zoology, Chemistry and Botany to Bahasa Malaysia for generations of students till this day, remained a legacy till the end.

His place in the annals of scientific accomplishments in Malaysia is undeniable. In the eyes of many global scholars of genetic science, Prof Dhaliwal was a giant in science and one of Malaysia’s finest sons.

He was awarded the Kesatria Mangku Negara (KMN) by the King in 1972.

Carrying on his passion for genetics is his grandson, Kharan Vanmali, who recently graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Genetics from the Univers-ity of Cape Town, South Africa.