Monday November 13, 2006
Man of the Earth
By S. Indramalar
Name: Goh Kuan Meng
WHEN Professor Goh Kuan Meng says he loves earth, he is not talking about the planet. He really does love the earth (soil) we walk on.
“The soil is the basis of all things natural. You can make anything grow from soil. I grew up loving soil as my parents owned a rubber plantation in Kajang back in the days when Kajang was still very rural,” he says.
So it is not surprising that this fondness for soil has determined his vocation. A soil scientist, Prof Goh was awarded a Colombo Plan scholarship to study soil science at Massey Agricultural College (now Massey University) in New Zealand. A top scholar and passionate naturalist, he completed his Masters degree in his chosen discipline before returning home in 1962 with his New Zealander wife, Nancy, to lecture at Universiti Malaya’s Faculty of Agriculture.
“When I left for New Zealand, I had really little knowledge about what natural science was all about. I asked the Colombo Plan student officer what it was and all he said was that I had to ‘be natural’,” recalls Prof Goh, 71, who was in town with Nancy to visit family.
The professor’s stint at Universiti Malaya lasted just three years as he was awarded a Fullbright Scholarship to pursue his doctorate at the University of Illinois in the United States.
“We liked it back here. It was the first time out of New Zealand for Nancy and it was fortunate that she managed to get a job as a secretary at the New Zealand High Commission in Kuala Lumpur,” says Prof Goh.
Adds Nancy, “Working at the High Commission was good as there were other New Zealanders there who could help me adapt to my new surroundings. We had a good life here ? but the Kuala Lumpur back then was very different from what it has become. KL has developed so much,” says Nancy.
After completing his PhD, Prof Goh was given a choice of coming back to work in Malaysia or in New Zealand.
"I chose New Zealand for various reasons. I felt I could do more (in my career) over in New Zealand and I liked the environment and wanted to raise my family there. It is safe and green. Also, Nancy is from New Zealand,” says Prof Goh who has three sons – doctors David, 39, and Tony, 37, and Rodney, 35, a lawyer – and five grandchildren.
Prof Goh and Nancy live in Christchurch, in the country’s South Island.
The decision to stay in New Zealand turned out to be the right one for Prof Goh as he has gained international recognition as an authority on natural science through his work there.
In 1999, he was awarded a Queen’s birthday honour – Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM, the equivalent of the OBE in Britain) for his contribution to soil science and community service in New Zealand.
Upon his return from Illinois, Prof Goh worked with the New Zealand Department of Scientific and Industrial Research for a year before moving to Lincoln College (now Lincoln University) in 1970 as a senior lecturer in Soil Science. He is currently the Professor of Soil Science at Lincoln University in New Zealand, a post he has held for the past 15 years.
Throughout his career, Prof Goh has authored and co-authored 196 journals, 24 books and book chapters and 75 technical papers.
He was the first person ever to be appointed to a Personal Chair in Soil Science in a New Zealand university and was the first soil scientist at Lincoln University to be honoured as Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand – a national premier scientific award. He was also awarded two other national fellowships – Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry and Fellow of the New Zealand Society of Soil Science.
Prof Goh is currently on the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) panel where he is involved in evaluating the quality of research publications of academic staff in New Zealand universities.
(From 2007, all New Zealand universities will receive research funding from the New Zealand Government based on their academics’ score in the PBRF. Incidentally, Prof Goh’s research publications were assessed by the PBRF panel in 2003 and given a Category A or World Class score – the highest possible score).
He also has overseas appointments, including as special professor (international) for Khon Kaen University in Thailand and external expert assessor for the Australian Research Council. Prof Goh continues to receive invitations to lecture or act as a consultant for universities and research organisations in the United States, Britain, Malaysia, China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, Switzerland and Australia.
Prof Goh continues to maintain professional and personal ties with his country of birth. He still serves as an external reviewer of Universiti Putra Malaysia’s agricultural degree programmes and was the World Bank consultant for the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi).
As most of his siblings and relatives are in Malaysia, Prof Goh tries to come back every four or five years, at least. His trip “home” this time was timed so that he could attend the weddings of two of his nieces.
While he loves the life in New Zealand, Prof Goh misses many things about Malaysia.
“One thing I really miss is the food!” he was quick to say. “I am from Kajang and I really miss the famous Kajang satay. I also miss laksa, rojak, all the different curries we have here?
“That is the first thing I want to do whenever I come back. Even though we can find some Malaysian food in New Zealand, it never tastes the same,” he says, adding that his wife of 44 years loves Malaysian food.
In their attempts to get good Malaysian food in New Zealand, though, the couple makes it a point to attend functions organised by the Malaysian Student Association in Christchurch.
“Sometimes we go for the food,” he laughs, “although it is still not the same as the food we get at the stalls here in Malaysia.”
Even though he has lived in New Zealand for 45 years, Prof Goh still considers Malaysia as home.
“I guess I am a little bit of both, a little bit Malaysian and a little bit Kiwi,” he says.