Published: 06th March 2017
Meet the Vice Chancellor who was once a notorious gangster in Malaysia
As Sahol Hamid takes over as the new Vice-Chancellor of BS Abdur Rahman University, take a look at his journey from being a Malay gangster to the first foreign VC to head an Indian varsity
As I walked into BS Abdur Rahman University, trying to find my way to the VC’s office, I heard someone say ‘Good morning’, in a perky tone of voice. I looked up, smiled and greeted him, and as I continued walking, I wondered why this stranger had bothered to greet me. A few minutes later, as I waited at the reception area, the assistant told me that the new Vice-Chancellor was ready for our chat. Expecting to be met by the stereotypical academic type, I walked in to find the same person who had greeted me outside, smiling right back at me.
Just a few days into his stint as the VC of the Chennai-based deemed varsity, Dr Sahol Hamid Abu Bakar is already changing the otherwise intimidating aura that students usually feel when they meet people who occupy the seat. “I want to make this a happy place,” I later hear him tell his students, quite openly. “I want to see all of you greet each other, smile more, smile at me, smile at the lady who cleans the campus — everyone deserves respect,” he adds.
Happy Days: Sahol Hamid is psyched about being in India
For some reason, this didn’t sound like the clichéd advice that heads of institutions give when they take charge. Dig into his past and you’ll understand exactly why respect is such a big deal for him. In fact, that’s a large part of why Hamid wants his students to learn to respect others — because he knew what it meant to grow up without it.
Dr Hamid, a Malaysian of Indonesian-Arabic origin, who becomes the first foreign VC to head an Indian varsity, didn’t always have an easy life. Growing up in abject poverty in Penang, Malaysia, Hamid was often ridiculed for his beginnings. “I was bullied in school and beaten up badly by other boys. I didn’t really have a proper home. Most days, I stayed on the streets. I didn’t even have money to buy clothes. But each time I was put to shame, my will to do something about it grew stronger,” he explains.
I was bullied in school and beaten up badly by other boys. I didn’t really have a proper home. Most days, I stayed on the streets. I didn’t even have money to buy clothes. But each time I was put to shame, my will to do something about it grew stronger
Sahol Hamid Abu Bakar, VC, BS Abdur Rahman University
Growing up on the streets of Penang, being tough wasn’t an option. It was a pre-requisite. “One day when I went home, my mother yelled at me. She asked me to be a man, and defend myself or never return home again,” says Hamid. That night he walked out of his house more determined than ever to stand up for himself. He was put under the patronage of a Tomoi (Muay Thai) master by his uncle Don, a well-known gangster in Chowrasta, the street where he grew up.
Tomoi is an ancient combat sport in Malaysia that teaches the practitioner to use the entire body as a weapon. “I put in all my effort and became a good fighter, and earned the respect of my friends. My enemies were afraid of me. With my uncle’s influence, I was soon introduced to big gangs, mostly headed by him. I was bruised and fatally injured several times. There were times when I was involved in fights that claimed the lives of others. But I still kept going, until one day, my uncle told me that I should leave the gang lifestyle, and that he didn’t want me to end up like him,” says Hamid. As providence would have it, someone from a charity organisation spotted him during one of his fights and offered him a chance at getting an education. After a lot of thought and some persuasion from his mother to do his higher studies, Hamid took the decision to leave everything behind and start a new lifestyle.
He was sent to the Universiti Teknologi MARA, one of the largest institutions in the country to do a pre-degree diploma course. As Hollywood has shown us, it is never easy for a gangster to go back to school. He was suspended a couple of times. But lucky for him, instead of kicking him out, the institution decided to give him another chance. This time, Hamid knew he couldn’t mess it up for himself. He went on to win a scholarship to the University of Colorado, where he did his Master’s in Civil Engineering and Economics simultaneously. But he couldn’t forget how UiTM changed his life and he was forever grateful for their kindness. He went back as a lecturer to UiTM.
One thing led to another, and by 1992, Hamid had already completed his doctorate in Civil Engineering from the University of Sussex, UK. His areas of expertise include flood control, hydrology, economics and management, construction law, environmental engineering and the like. He’s been the recipient of several international awards for Science, nation-building and leadership. As if that were not enough, he also trained to become a cop and became the Assistant Commissioner of Police in Malaysia. Hamid’s life has been so inspiring, full of twists and turns, that a movie was made on him, titled Chowrasta.
Stills from the movie Chowrasta
But the one honour that he treasures even today is the moment when he was awarded the Tan Sri, the
Malaysian equivalent of the Padma Shri for his contribution to education in the state. So far, he has salvaged more than 70,000 kids from the streets and ensured that they are enrolled into schools. Hamid has made it his life’s mission to provide poor children the opportunity to study. And that’s precisely what led him to accept BS Abdur Rahman University’s offer. “When I heard about their efforts in helping poor students through the Seethakathi Trust, I was instantly interested,” he says.
Hamid has recued about 70,000 children from the streets and rehabilitated them with education
Hamid’s vision as VC would be to train students to become CEOs. With the new tagline We Create Employers, there will be an emphasis on entrepreneurship and courses on entrepreneurship will be made mandatory for students across departments. “I will also ensure that faculty members undergo frequent training sessions and that the curriculum is revised every six months. Every lecturer must publish at least three papers,” he says, underlying the importance of qualified faculty members. “Students are my treasures. Every student must be treated with respect and given a chance to grow,” he concludes.