Satwant Singh Dhaliwal
V.I. 1949 - 1951

The Sikh who almost became VC of UM


When my enigmatic and soft-spoken uncle passed away recently, 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; 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.

Yes, he never made it as vice-chancellor of the University of Malaya (UM), but he did serve as acting vice-chancellor for a while. Son of a retired postmaster in Teluk Anson (now Teluk Intan), he worked his way up to the upper echelons of academic greatness in his lifetime.

A. Nelson, who was Satwant’s varsity mate, adds, “When I first met him he had the gait of an army general! We got along famously and stayed together at the newly-opened Dunearn Road Hostel (in Singapore) in 1953.

An upstanding gentleman, he was a great scholar who was ferociously dedicated to his passion for science. He did not compromise on standards. Many fellow students were jealous of him because he was a very bright spark. We had lecturers from all over the world and the University of Malaya was regarded as among the top 20 in the world then!”

Celebrated historian and Emeritus Professor Khoo Kay Kim, who is four years his junior, remembers Professor Dhaliwal clearly during their school days. “He was always so brilliant and a top student, from ACS Teluk Anson to his days at the University of Malaya in Singapore to Professor of Genetics at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.”

At 23, after earning his BSc 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.

That same year, on Vaisakhi day, the two were honoured by the proud Sikh community before their departure to the UK, at a grand farewell party hosted by the Naujawan Sikh Association.

Eventually, Satwant 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.

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

Member of Parliament for Subang YB 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 the University of Malaya on a solid footing.” Sivarasa went on to pursue law at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar.

Illustrious students

Quite a few illustrious students crossed his path and his generous nature endeared him to many including Professor Dr Suraiya Hani, daughter of our third prime minister the late Hussein Onn.

Lord Gathorne Cranbrook, the 5th Earl of Cranbrook (County of Kent), who was a colleague of Prof Satwant at the University of Malaya, emailed last week, “Prof Satwant Dhaliwal’s 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. I have nothing but happy memories of that formative time in my career as one of a friendly team of staff, among whom Prof Satwant Dhaliwal was a significant figure, charged with leading the discipline of genetics.”

Another colleague, Professor Dr Jose Furtado also emailed, “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 Alexander Oppenheim (just before Prof Ungku Aziz’s term as VC), 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. Eccentricity is tolerated in British universities but not in many other places.”

For the uninitiated, Alexander Oppenheim was a top global mathematician and had formulated the now famous ‘Oppenheim Conjecture’.

All along, he relished his academic career at the University of Malaya and chose to stay with UM in Malaysia when the university was separated from UM in Singapore in January 1962. But he was only 32 and quickly discovered you had to be 35 to get a professorship at the University of Malaya, so he waited another three years even though he was already travelling the world on behalf of the nation.

As the youngest professor in the country, he went on to set up the newly established 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.

Professor Satwant was contentious, but never boring!

In the early 1960s, Prof Satwant was invited for lecture tours to the United States under the auspices of the Asia Foundation and the US National Institute of Cancer. He had many sabbaticals doing major research work around the world, was a speaker at Unesco seminars in Japan, the Pacific Science Congress in Canberra and was Malaysia’s regular representative to the Council of Pacific Science Congress for nine years.

In April 1965, Prof Satwant was one of seven lecturers and a librarian who completed a two-week 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, Lille and Paris, under a grant from the French government for half a year. In 1981, he was the organising chairperson of the 4th International Congress of the Society for the Advancement of Breeding Researchers in Asia and Oceania held in Kuala Lumpur.

Disdain for the mundane

His ‘unreasonableness’ and disdain for the mundane made him shine like a beacon in the night. He never said much, he didn’t have to, but was clearly a formidable genius. A very large pool of scientists remember him as their teacher.

In the 1970s, Prof Satwant was part of a team of scientific thinkers who worked on part of a paper titled ‘Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics. He researched mainly in genetics and how it affected cancer and cancer cells.

Bryan Perera, current president of the Royal Selangor Club, recalls, “As a Queen’s Scholar he was indeed a great tutor and mentor to many of his students while he was professor and dean of the Faculty of Science. Many of his students later were admitted as members of the Royal Selangor Club.”

The man who helped translate scientific terms and names in fields like Zoology, Chemistry and Botany into 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 Satwant was a giant in science and one of Malaysia’s finest sons.

He was awarded the Kesatria Mangku Negara (KMN) in 1972 by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong at the same ceremony the late Mohamed Rahmat, one of our previous information ministers, was accorded the same.

Carrying on his passion for genetics, Prof Satwant’s grandson Kharan ‘Kurry’ Vanmali recently graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Genetics at the University of Cape Town!

Thank you, Uncle... for letting us stand on your shoulders,
For living 25 hours a day,
For letting us walk in your shadows,
For saying No to mediocrity,
And most of all, thank you for being You!

February 2015

Also see:
Wikipedia: Satwant Singh Dhaliwal

VI The V.I. Web Page

Created on April 18, 2017
Last update on April 18, 2017