The Cliffs of Abertawe – 3

Scholarships

In the 80’s, staff development rate in UTM was slow. Assistant lecturers (an equivalent of tutor) were expected to work for about 2-3 years before being offered scholarships to continue for graduate studies. They were then required to complete master’s degree and immediately report for duty to resume teaching. To pursue further for PhD, everybody had to join the queue once again. Since there were too many assistant lecturers queuing for master’s degree, the number of scholarships for PhD candidates was relatively much smaller. This made the queue very long. In those days it was common for engineering lecturers to commence his/her PhD studies in their mid-thirties. This means that they would obtain PhD qualifications when they were about 40 years old. Some had their interest faded due to involvement in various aspects of life, or being stuck in administrative positions.

In those days, due to demands from the teething processes, some academics were deeply involved in carrying out various kinds of developmental works – calculating required laboratory working spaces, preparing proposal to request for new buildings or extension of the existing ones, purchasing of laboratory equipment, tidying up curriculum and syllabus, preparing standardized lecture notes, preparing documentation for accreditation or proposal for new programs and so many other tedious and painstaking works. Nevertheless, as we progress with time, priorities changed and we had to make adjustments.  Some adjusted accordingly and managed to survive the new game, others quietly faded from the mainstream. What was once upon a time called a “sacrifice” was no longer appreciated. Their contributions have long been forgotten by many. To all of them, I wish to express my gratitude.

Due to limited availability, scholarships were awarded based on seniority and as such, young departments like ours were disadvantaged. In the middle of 1986, we had no PhD holders and only few with M.Sc., the rest were either on study leave or assistant lecturers like me. Looking at the scenario, we decided to do something about it since the forecast didn’t look promising. If we went along with the queue system, it would take ages before we can settle down as full-fledge academics.

One day while attending a seminar organised by one of UTM’s central administration unit, we decided to write a proposal to the faculty management. The aim was to secure more scholarships to our department. So, while listening to the speakers we started writing the proposal by passing papers to each other. At the end of the seminar, the draft paper was ready. Few days later, it was submitted to the management.

A week or so later, I was called by Ramlan, the department head to present the proposal to the management meeting. Ooops, it was supposed to be Kaio’s responsibility. After all, our target was for him to secure a scholarships that year so than we could get into the queue the following year. Since he was not around, I delivered the idea to the management.

I was bombarded with many questions as the paper was asking for special treatment to the chemical engineering department on the basis of its infancy thus requiring more people to man the developmental works. I had to argue the case from various perspectives and the air was not very kind to me. However, to my surprise, I was backed by Syed Fahmy the previous dean of the faculty. That boosted my confidence.

The paper had motivated the Abu Azam (now Datuk), the newly appointed dean at the time to request for more scholarships from the university and as planned Kaio secured the place. Then, towards the end of October, I was called by the Dean, asking whether or not I was ready to go abroad immediately, and my answer was in affirmative. Badhrul and I had made early preparations by securing admission for graduate studies in UK, although we knew that we were not in the queue. So, in the early of November, 1 month after classes had commenced, we left for Swansea. We were using the unused scholarships that had been allocated to the Faculty of Surveying. That was one very good thing about Abu Azam – once you show your commitment, he will surely work hard to make things happen for you.

Croeso i Abertawe

In August of 1987, Hana delivered Faisal in Taiping General Hospital. So, when we decided to go to UK in early November, Faisal was less than 2 months old, and the journey was thus too tiring for Hana.

When we reached London Heathrow, we were greeted by Meen’s friend who later guided us to the airport’s bus station. From there, we took a double-decker coach to Swansea (Abertawe in Welsh). The journey was pleasant as the bus was running smoothly on the motorway. Despite being tired, I was excited and anxious to observe the scenery, trying to memorize names of places as we passed through. As we approached Wales, things became more interesting as the names of places became more complex with more double L or double F and the like. Soon after, I learned that when the two letters are together, the resulting pronunciation was altogether different.

Upon arrival at the bus station near the quadrant centre (shopping mall) in Swansea, we called Adznan, a close acquaintance of Abu Azam for advice.  As he was already been informed about our arrival, he was ready to accommodate us as his guests while looking for suitable occupancy.

Old Terrace House in Brynhyfryd.

In their brochure, University College Swansea made it very clear about the difficulty in getting accommodation for students with family, and the were correct. So, over the first two days upon arrival we were busy looking for prospects until we came across a three -story terrace house in Brynhyfryd. The room on the ground floor was occupied by a pensioner who rarely came out from his room. The ones on the second and the third floor were furnished with an attached kitchenette and were offered to us at a good student rates. Desperate to settle down, Badhrul took the one on the third floor and I took the one on the second.

The house was old and everything seems ancient. Each room had independent electricity supply which was coin-operated. Heating was facilitated by a direct-fired gas heater, with gas directly supplied from portable bottle. That provided us with the first dose of major shocks as we were used to modern facilities provided at Colorado State. The bathroom was more interesting. Since it was a shared facility, and hot water supply came from a coin-operated heater, one need to somehow manage accordingly.  We nevertheless settled in.

The house was on a slope of a hill and had an old British outlook with doors immediately open to a narrow pavement next to the narrow road. As I approached the convenient store every morning for fresh milk, I was warmly greeted by an old lady with “good morning love” expressed in a soothing melody, and that would provide anybody with a good motivation to start his day. Yes, the people were friendly, especially the old folks. From Brynhyfryd, we took a bus to the city centre and another bus to singleton park, where the university was situated.

University College Swansea

University College Swansea was located on Singleton Park, next to Singleton hospital, facing the Swansea Bay.

University College Swansea (now Swansea University) - photo downloaded from anonymous site

Since classes had started a month earlier, we had to settle down quickly. In the M.Sc. in Biochemical Engineering that I enrolled,  I had to take many courses including two undergraduate topics on biochemistry and bioreactor design. The rest were advanced courses on industrial microbiology, fermentation and enzyme technology, tissue culture, in addition to numerical methods, optimisation, experimental design, and few others.Our class size was quite small with about 10 students – a few from Greece, another Malaysian called Hamdan (a researcher from MARDI) and few British. Few years back I heard that Hamdan was killed in a road accident. May Allah showers His mercy to him. He was good and friendly person and was active with dakwah work in UK and Malaysia.

At the same time, we were also required to carry out research with the assigned supervisor. My topic was on process control, supervised by a biotechnology researcher, Dr. Meirion Jones. Meirion was an interesting guy. Speaking in thick Welsh accent, he was both cheerful and friendly, and that suited me very well. For our project, we had a bare 50 liter fermenter to be transformed into a computer-controlled system. Despite his chemistry background he was very good in instrumentation and skillful with his hands, all the hardware was assembled by him, not by the department technician. I spent many afternoons and evenings with him  in the lab, observing him working while listening to his life experience. At night, I wrote the software system. We were actually on tight schedule but were nevertheless successful in getting everything ready for me to proceed with the rest of the research. Yes, the fermenter was up and running on my software and Meirion’s hardware.

Vivian House, Blackpill

One day, we received a good new from the housing office. We were told that the university had decided to convert Vivian house into accommodation for married students and our names were among the top of their list. We quickly accepted the offer and when the renovation was completed about two or three months later, we moved to Vivian House. It was a five story apartment complex with two smaller apartments for married couple and two larger ones for couples with children on each floor. I was allocated a family unit on the second floor (unit 2A) – much bigger than what we actually needed but was grateful with the offer as it was in very good condition and was closer to the university. The setting was spectacular. Sitting on a cliff of the hill,  from our living room, we could see the blue sea with yacht sailing the bay of Swansea.

Vivian house was situated about 700 m from the main road near blackpill, up a windy narrow road enveloped by branches of big trees, making it very dark at night. The surrounding was similar to what we normally see in old British movies – large trees, big castles, narrow road.  At night, the aura was haunted. Urrrgggghhh… One night, as I was walking up the road, I saw a guy walking in few yards in front. Suddenly, I heard rapid footsteps and the guy disappeared – later to know that he had run up the hill. Haha… As I was used to walking in the dark as part of growing up in Krubong, the trek served as a good flashback.

To get to the university from Vivian House, it took me about half an hour walking, but the Swansea-Mumbles bus service was available from blackpill. My routine was to ride the bus in the morning and walked home in the evening. That was sufficient to burn all the British chocolate that I consumed daily.

About Dr. AA

I am an educator, professional trainer, safety consultant, researcher, social worker, outdoor enthusiast, and a thinker.
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