In the cycle of Professor Mahendhiran Nair’s life there are two uncanny sets of circumstances that show his journey from a rural Malaysian boy born without privilege to one of the Asia-Pacific region’s most progressive thought leaders.
His grandparents were from India. They migrated to Malaysia to find work. His parents lived in a small coastal port in rural Malaysia. This was at a time – the 1960s – when there was communist insurgency in Malaysia; various Chinese villages were created in the slums to host supporters of the Communist Party. His family was able to buy a small plot of land at a meagre price from one of the Chinese landowners in one of these villages to accommodate a growing family. His father – who eventually became a surveyor – didn’t start school until he was 11.
The future professor was sent to a humble Catholic missionary school – despite being raised in a traditional Hindu family. The school had a motto of “The last, the least and the lost”, which meant they would take anyone in, no matter how poor or disadvantaged or what religion they were.
“That’s how I ended up in that school and have benefited from the school’s ethos that was imprinted on every student’s mind,” he says.
Now, as well as being Professor of Econometrics and Business Statistics at Monash University Malaysia, he’s now the chairman of the board at the very same ecumenical school.
Professor Nair also runs a community organisation originally set up by his father, which matches white-collar volunteers with community members seeking scholarships, further education, employment, motivation seminars and other community development initiatives for marginalised communities. He also organises workshops for students from these communities who are preparing for primary and secondary examinations.
Professor Nair agrees he’s come “full circle” in his life – and the second uncanny circumstance in his progression is maybe more outrageous. The surveying work his father had taken up, through dense Malaysian jungle, was for a power company.
“He was one of the first doing maps for electrical power cables,” Professor Nair says. “When I was young, I would stand outside this huge power company’s building and inside was this boardroom with a huge round table, and we weren’t allowed in the building. My father used to say, ‘See that room, that’s where the power of the power company sit, the power that makes the power’. He himself had not been in the power company’s boardroom.”
“Our researchers in the various platforms are studying the balance between economic development and environmental sustainability."
Professor Nair ended up consulting to the company, in the same building, around the same table – a major project forecasting electricity supply and demand for the next 30 years. “When I first went in and sat around the table with them,” he says, “I re-told the story. I never really thought it would happen like this.”
One of the contemporary initiatives Professor Nair is particularly proud of is a national computer project called Program Titian Digital. It provides children from marginalised communities across Malaysia with access to computer classes. He’s an advisor for the program, which began in 2009 with 578 students. Today the program has more than 20,000, supported by government agencies, community organisations and industry.
Professor Nair is vice-president (research and development) at Monash University Malaysia and the chief executive officer of Monash Malaysia’s R&D company. During the past five years, under his leadership, the campus has established a number of multidisciplinary research platforms that address key research strategic priority areas that contribute to nation building in the region.
A living laboratory
One of the most intriguing platforms is the Southeast Asia Community Observatory (SEACO), which is basically a living laboratory or real-life surveillance site to measure public health.
SEACO is one of six multidisciplinary research platforms he’s overseeing; the others are on food security, smart engineering, neuroscience and globalisation. All are about protecting future economies and communities.
SEACO, though, takes public health research and innovation to the next level. It’s jointly funded by Monash Malaysia and Monash Australia, and tracks the health and wellbeing of 30,000 people going about their everyday lives in the region of Segamat, in southern Malaysia. Those tracked include wealthier people from the cities as well as ‘orang asli’ (indigenous Malaysians) living in villages.
“It seeks to understand how forces of globalisation and industrialisation of the Malaysian economy are impacting the diverse communities from various perspectives, including the health, social and economic viewpoint,” he says.
Also high on the agenda is sustainable development of palm plantations in the region, which is important for job creation and economic wealth of countries in the region – “for ensuring the biodiversity of the tropical rain forest in the region”, Professor Nair says.
“Our researchers in the various platforms are studying the balance between economic development and environmental sustainability. They’re playing key roles in not only undertaking fundamental research, but also translational research that informs policymakers, industry and community organisations on global best practices to enhance their competiveness, environmental sustainability and improving the overall quality of life in the region.”
Professor Nair is on advisory committees for several industry associations and government agencies. Among them are strategic committees for the Malaysian prime minister’s office. This is due to his expertise in nation building, and more specifically the role of a university in advising or working with governments, industry, communities and the education sector.
He’s currently a Fellow of CPA (Australia) and Fellow of Academy Sciences Malaysia. As such, he provides these organisations with thought leadership on science, technology, innovation and economic development in the region for governments and other ‘think-tanks’ in the region.
He’s also spearheaded a ‘knowledge economy’ (economic modelling for industry development) study for the Malaysian government, which provides insights into strengthening Malaysia’s national innovation ecosystem. The study identified gaps in the various industrial ecosystems and proposed intervention strategies to enable Malaysian industries to move up the global innovation value chain.
Professor Nair says the study and other work at the state level in Malaysia have attracted attention from other developing countries and international development agencies, which will extend Monash’s research and education reach in the region and the developing world
More recently, Professor Nair’s research team secured a major project to examine the state of smart manufacturing in APEC member countries – “studying how the economic transitions are taking place, where the new sources of growth are, where the new jobs are going to be, and what the new kinds of institutional regulatory environment they need to develop their national innovation ecosystems. It’s a deep dive into all 21 countries, piggybacking off a two-year study we’ve done in Malaysia.”
Professor Nair spent close to 12 years in Canada for his tertiary education. He returned to Malaysia in 1997 and joined Monash in 1998 when it was established.
“I’ve seen the campus grow from strength to strength in education, research and engagement in the region,” he says. “I’m truly inspired by Sir John Monash’s call to scholars to use their knowledge for the benefit of the community, and Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah, the founder of Sunway Group’s vision of transforming Malaysia into a regional education and research centre of excellence.”
Monash University Malaysia is a joint venture partnership between Monash University and the Sunway Group. The convergence of visions of Monash University and Tan Sri Dr Jeffery Cheah has resulted in the establishment of an international “crown jewel” that’s becoming an “Asian platform” for the greater Monash to contribute to nation building in the region, he says.