Spotlight on Research (Vol. 5)

Page 1


PP 19354/08/2018 (034935)


Finding Myself in Research

Tackling the Challenges of Global Urbanisation

Is Plastic Circular Economy the Solution?

Indian Overseas Migrants in the Colonial Era

Housing Prices and Affordability in Malaysia

The Power of Deep Reinforcement Learning

Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis



Tackling the Challenges of Global Urbanisation

Is Plastic Circular Economy the Solution?

Indian Overseas Migrants in the Colonial Era

Housing Prices and Affordability in Malaysia

The Power of Deep Reinforcement Learning

Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis



Levelling Up Research Commercialisation

Finding Myself in Research RESEARCH DIRECTORY



Editor-in-Chief Prof Peter Heard Editorial Advisor Carol Wong Editor Sarah Loh Contributors Prof Agamutu Pariatamby Prof Crispin Bates Dr Hassanudin Mohd Thas Thaker Assoc Prof Dr Hwang Jung Shan Karen Lau Prof Peter Heard Prof Yau Kok Lim Designer Rachel Goh Address Sunway University No. 5 Jalan Universiti Bandar Sunway 47500 Selangor Darul Ehsan Contact Us T +603 7491 8622 F +603 5635 8630 E Cover Image Credit: jamesteohart/

Copyright © 2021 by Sunway University Sdn Bhd. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, now known or hereafter invented, without permission in writing from the publisher. All information is correct at the time of publication.

from the


elcome to Spotlight on

We round up this volume with

Research Volume 5, the latest

a special feature by Karen Lau on

showcase of Sunway’s diverse,

Sunway Innovation Labs and Sunway

multidisciplinary research. We begin with a highlight on the Future Cities Research Institute, a research centre jointly established with Lancaster

R&D Sdn Bhd, and their roles in championing innovation and research commercialisation in the university. I hope you enjoy reading these

University to tackle the challenges of

articles as much as we enjoy being part

sustainability and urbanisation. We

of the growing success story of Sunway

continue the sustainability theme with

University. Sunway aims to become a

Professor Agamutu Pariatamby’s piece on

globally relevant university through its

plastic waste management using a

research, teaching, and partnerships.

circular economy.

To be globally relevant, it is necessary to

We then travel to the 19th century

collaborate with colleagues from around

with Professor Crispin Bates, exploring

the world, as well as here in Malaysia. If

the origins and contributions of Indian

you are inspired by what you have read,

labourers in the colonial era. This article

and would like to collaborate with us on

is followed by Dr Hassanudin Mohd Thas

these or any of the many other exciting

Thaker’s research on housing affordability

projects we are working on, please do

in Malaysia and Professor Yau Kok

contact us; we’d love to hear from you!

Lim’s application of next-generation AI technologies in today’s world. This volume also includes Dr Hwang Jung Shan’s study on rheumatoid arthritis

publishing services by

and an overview of available treatments. In Behind the Research, she shares with

Professor Peter Heard

us her life story and how she came to love


science and research.


Tackling the M Challenges of Global Urbanisation

ost cities are growing rapidly and by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population—about

6.5 billion people—are expected to live in urban centres. This rapid growth is particularly acute in developing countries in Africa and Asia.

Credit: Panimoni/

Two universities, one goal

For many, a move to the city brings

greater opportunities for employment and access to better services, healthcare, and


education, helping to fuel growth. This

new, joint research institute aimed

we can ensure that the “new normal” is

growth, however, also brings significant

at exploring solutions to the global

a more sustainable one.

challenges, such as pressure on natural

challenges of increasing urbanisation:

resources, waste and pollution, sanitation,

the Future Cities Research

we can make better use of the limited

energy, and social stability.

Institute (FCRI).

natural resources available to us, and

Sunway University has been working

The FCRI is based in Sunway City,

In Sustainable Cities, we look at how

how to minimise our environmental

with Lancaster University, UK for almost

but brings together multidisciplinary

impact. One particular issue we are

15 years, offering high-quality dual

teams of researchers from Sunway and

focusing on is plastic waste.

Sunway-Lancaster degrees and master’s

Lancaster, as well as other collaborators

programmes. In 2019, we launched a

from around the world. Our objectives

source of plastic waste and is also

are to study the impact of urbanisation

one of the regions most affected by it.

and to work with governments, industry,

We are analysing the problem from a

and the voluntary sectors to explore the

variety of angles, from the economics of

complex problems of rapid urbanisation

plastics, through their use, to disposal

and to develop effective solutions.

and clean-up. One group is looking at

South East Asia is a significant

We are currently focusing on two

our changing views towards the use of

main themes of research: Digital Cities

plastics and seeking ways to harness

and Sustainable Cities. There are plans

growing concerns to influence behaviour,

to establish a third theme, Liveable

from governments to individuals.

Cities, later on. In Digital Cities, we look at how

The Liveable Cities theme will focus on crucial human-centric issues, such as

cities and the individuals in them

robust and complete neighbourhoods,

are connected digitally, and how this

accessibility and sustainable mobility,

connectivity can improve lives, make

a diverse and resilient local economy,

cities more efficient, and reduce

vibrant public spaces, and affordability.

pressure on services.

These criteria are used in the ranking

As I write, Malaysia, like much of

of cities across the world, and one of

the world, is on lockdown to help reduce

our key aims is to help Sunway City and

the spread of COVID-19. Like many

Lancaster to be ranked among the top

people, I am working with colleagues,

liveable cities in the world

teaching students and helping to

Together, Sunway and Lancaster

manage the university, all from the

universities are investing more than

comfort of my armchair.

RM 25 million over the next five years

If we had been faced with this

in the FCRI, including joint appointments,

situation 20 years ago, before the age

research studentships, and money to

when the vast majority of households

pump-prime novel avenues of research.

had access to reliable high-speed wi-fi

We envisage that the FCRI will make

and smartphones, I doubt very much if

a major, positive impact on lives around

any of what we are now doing would

the world.

have been possible. There are many uncertainties with the COVID-19 crisis, but one thing is certain—the world will emerge from it in a different place. Researchers in FCRI

Professor Peter Heard

are already contemplating how our lives

Provost, Sunway University

may change, with a clear focus on how



he management of plastic waste

waste, end up in oceans as marine litter

virgin plastic (i.e., new plastic) and even

is a big concern. Out of the 6,300

every year. Plastic, including microplastics

the demand for petroleum, which is

million tonnes of plastic waste

(plastics less than 5 mm in size),

used in plastic manufacturing.

generated between 1950 and 2015,

constitutes 60%–80% of marine litter and

only 9% was recycled globally. The global

poses grave threats to marine life.

annual generation of plastic is currently

Marine fauna is known to ingest

Plastic circular economy could be implemented through extended producer responsibility (EPR), a policy approach

around 400 million tonnes, and 86% of

microplastics which could block

where manufacturers and importers

this will eventually become waste.

digestive tracts, eventually leading sea

of plastic products are responsible for

creatures to starve and die. Recent

their products’ end-of-life management.

In developing countries, plastic waste is mainly disposed of, along with other

studies show that humans may also be

constituents of municipal solid waste

ingesting microplastics through

manufacturers and importers in

(MSW) such as food waste, paper waste,

seafood consumption.

managing their waste effectively,

and glass, in some form of landfill (88% of waste ends up in landfill).

Plastic circular economy could play a

By putting the onus on

EPR ensures that the price of plastic

significant role in managing plastic waste

products incorporates the cost of their

sustainably. It promotes and maximises

safe disposal. EPR can consequently

hand, segregate MSW and adopt energy

the resource circulation of plastic waste,

reduce plastic waste disposal,

recovery and recycling of plastic waste. In

whereby the waste becomes valuable

encourage conservation of resources,

2018, for example, the European Union

through reuse and recycling.

increase plastic recycling rates, and

Developed countries, on the other

recycled 32.5% of plastic waste while 42.6% was utilised for energy recovery. Yet, 5–13 million tonnes of plastic, approximately 1.5%–4% of global plastic

Plastic waste can be used to

promote eco-designed plastic products.

substitute raw materials. Reusing plastic

Another way to implement plastic

or using recycled plastic is energy saving

circular economy is through a refund

too as it could reduce the generation of

system. This involves charging


consumers an extra amount for the

composition of mixed polymers pose a

when obtaining virgin raw material

purchase of a plastic product (e.g., water

challenge to plastic recycling.

(i.e., petroleum) is much cheaper.

Plastic waste could be contaminated

Governments could provide subsidies

price, and then refunding them that extra

when it is disposed of along with MSW.

to manufacturers or importers of plastic

amount when they return the product.

In some cases, plastic waste such as

products to alleviate the cost of labour

Sometimes, consumers are rewarded

juice bottles or syrup bottles is already

in plastic recycling.

with discount coupons or points after

contaminated with leftovers.

returning the product. In Japan, for instance, the

Plastic products made of mixed or

Further research is needed to improve plastic recycling rates and

heterogeneous polymers create mixed

maximise the potential of recycling.

refund and reward system has been

polymer waste instead. Reprocessing

Researchers could look into inventing

implemented since 2006. Using smart

mixed polymer waste poses its own

new recycling techniques, solving the

card technology, individuals who return

challenges and not knowing the pro rata

issue of plastic composition, creating

recyclable plastic products to a recycling

composition of mixed polymers makes

automated waste-sorting machines,

centre via a vending machine are

recycling harder.

etc. In the meantime, plastic circular

rewarded with points or coupons that

We must overcome these challenges

are redeemable for goods in

to implement plastic circular economy

participating supermarkets.

more successfully. To reduce the

We can also recycle the collected

economy provides a sustainable solution to current waste management problems.

contamination of plastic, for example, we

plastic materials through EPR or the

could adopt a stricter policy on

Professor Agamutu Pariatamby

refund system. However, issues such

waste segregation.

Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable

as plastic waste contamination, mixed

In addition, plastic recycling is not

polymer waste, and unknown pro rata

always economically feasible, particularly

Examining the resource circulation system and its role in plastic waste management


Credit: studiostoks/

bottle, container) on top of its original


Indian Overseas Migrants in the Colonial Era Exploring the origins and contributions of 19th-century Indian labourers

larger sample of migrants from later years is in process). For this period, it is possible to see who every migrant was, where they came from, and their destination. With a few exceptions, the migrants all left the areas of North India most heavily affected by the Indian army mutiny and uprising


ndians migrated overseas in large

sirdars, and maistries, who advanced

of 1857—a major conflict that led to

numbers from the 1830s onwards

wages to pay the workers’ passage and

many deaths and widespread famine in

following the abolition of slavery in

lent money to workers (at high rates of

subsequent years. Recruiting depots were based in

the British empire in 1834 and in the

interest). Workers were assembled in

French empire a decade later. They first

gangs by the intermediaries, who were

Chhapra and Arrah, large districts at

left home to work in sugar plantations

commonly returnee migrant workers

the heart of the uprising, and their

in the British colonies in the Caribbean

or overseers.

destinations, at this time, were Trinidad,

and southern Indian Ocean, as well as in

These workers were followed by

Guyana, Mauritius, and South Africa

South Africa and Fiji, and in the French

millions more unattached migrants,

(migration to Malaysia only took off in the

colonies of Reunion, Guadeloupe,

described as “passenger Indians”,

1880s and was then mostly from

and Martinique.

who used money they had saved or

the South of India).

Indian labourers (referred to as

borrowed to seek employment abroad

The most important information

“coolies”, a title that later assumed a

in trade and industry or as clerks and

revealed is the migrants’ identities.

derogatory meaning) worked in even

teachers. Chettiar moneylenders from

When overseas migration first began, the

larger numbers in the paddy fields and

Tamil Nadu came in their wake and

Government of India was told that only

coffee, tea, and rubber plantations of

funded a great deal of agricultural and

unskilled, impoverished, and illiterate

Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Malaysia. They

urban development. According to some

labourers would be recruited, and mostly

also served as construction workers,

estimates, a total of six million people

only Dalits (“untouchables”) and Adivasis

much as they do in the Middle East in

had left Indian shores by 1938. A great

(tribals)—a belief widely held to this day.

the present day, and built roads

many more travelled abroad and then

and railways.

returned again to India.

They had limited knowledge of their

Most of the migrants came from

Our analysis of ships’ registers, however, tells us something quite different. We grouped the labourers by

destinations and their journeys required

agriculturally unstable, flood-prone, or

social status, labelling them Brahmins

great courage. They were attracted by

drought-affected areas in Bengal and

and Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and artisan

the possibility of saving money and

the Indo-Gangetic Plain in the North of

castes, “Middling Castes”, Muslims,

returning home or acquiring land in a

India (and modern Bangladesh), or from

Dalits and other backward castes,

colony. Sometimes they hoped to escape

similarly vulnerable territories in the

Adivasis, and others.

caste, gender, or religious persecution.

South, especially Tamil Nadu.

Many were in flight from poverty, famine,

Their precise origins can be deduced

It is immediately apparent that an almost identical cross-section of society

by examining the Emigration Passes and

is seen on the ships as within North India

Ships Lists preserved in the archives

itself. Only 30% of the migrants on the

to 2 million Indians were contracted as

of destination countries. Working with

ships were Dalits and other backward

indentured workers, bound to work for a

colleagues involved in the UK Arts and

castes—roughly equivalent to the

single employer for three to five years,

Humanities Research Council-funded

proportion within the general population

which some denounced as slavery.

Becoming Coolies project, I collated the

at the time. Any variations are very small.

Legally, they were not slaves, but their

registers for a significant proportion of

choices were certainly limited.

the ships carrying indentured labour

Kshatriyas, among the migrants will

and war. Between 1838 and 1907, about 1.5

The high castes, Brahmins and

to the sugar colonies that left Kolkata

certainly have included former Indian army

recruitment included the use of Indian

between 1858 and 1869, covering a

mutineers, given the time period and the

intermediaries, such as kanganies,

total of 4,639 migrants (analysis of a

places where they originated. It is thus

Other contemporaneous forms of


6% 5%


11% 11%






Brahmin & Kshatriya Vaishya & Artisan


Middling Castes





Dalit & Backward Adivasi

Social status of population in Bengal and North-Western Provinces (1881 census)


clear that the migrant population was

involved in a remarkable variety of

included the Chinese, who migrated in

highly diverse.

enterprises post-indenture, with more

equally large numbers. These migrants

than a third choosing to settle rather than

were courageous and enterprising, having

little effective control over recruitment.

Labour shortages gave employers

return home. Their skilled work involved

made at least as great a contribution to

The whole process was far more under

the construction of infrastructure such

the development of the modern world as

the control of the Indian migrants

as docks, roads, railways, and buildings,

European migrants in the same period.

themselves who worked to support each

many of which we still rely upon to

other and to secure employment for their

this day.

kith and kin. Further exploration in the archives

Through research, I hope to discard

Professor Crispin Bates

colonial stereotypes and biases, and

Centre for South Asian and Indian

revealed many Indian migrants to have

help engender a greater pride in the long

Ocean Studies

been highly skilled, and that they were

history of Asian migration, which also

East Indian Immigrants, Guyana, 1870–1900 © National Archives, London

Social status of 4,639 indentured migrants from Calcutta port to Trinidad, Guyana, Mauritius, and South Africa (1857–1869)


Credit: wan wei/

Housing Prices and Affordability in Malaysia


ousing affordability has become a main concern in major cities especially those in developing

countries. While the yardstick of affordability varies by country, housing

A look into the supply-side drivers of housing prices

Data from the Ministry of Finance, Malaysia showed that from 1981 to 2019, the growth of house price index is proportional to the growth of personal disposable income of the

affordability is defined as the ability to

average Malaysian. However, personal

own a residential property or house that

disposable income grew slower than

fulfils basic living needs in terms of cost,

anticipated compared to house price

quality, and location. According to the Central Bank of Malaysia, a house is considered affordable if its cost does not exceed

a 2019 report by Khazanah Research

index. This slower growth is further

Institute asserted that houses in the

exacerbated by the substantial

country are “seriously unaffordable”.

increase in inflation rate.

Furthermore, many households

The continual increase of housing

30% of an individual’s gross income. The

reportedly have debt levels of over

prices have dampened the housing

price-to-income ratio should not exceed

85%. Tied to their various financial

sector and have an adverse impact on

3.0, but from 2014 onwards, the range

commitments, most Malaysians are

middle- and low-income earners. The

of the ratio is 4.0–4.4. Unsurprisingly,

unable to own a home.

Department of Statistics, Malaysia




areas, from 20%–30% in 1960 to 75.44%


in 2015. This increase has led to a







Inflation Rate (%)


growing demand for residential properties, which in turn pushed up housing prices. Middle- and low-income earners are the most affected by increases in housing















these groups in Malaysia, property


0 1989

0 1987

prices. To make houses affordable for




1 1981

Log Value of MYR



developers could consider using simpler and cheaper construction methods, such as the industrialised building system

Cumulative inflation rate (% year-over-year; not seasonally adjusted)

where materials are prefabricated.

House price index (MYR; not seasonally adjusted)

Developers could also use local materials instead of imported ones.

Personal disposable income (MYR)

On the government level, tax regulations should be reviewed

highlighted that the median monthly

exempted from the government’s sales

continually. The government could

income of middle- and low-income

and service tax.

also incentivise and form partnerships

earners, based on an average household

Housing affordability is also affected

with private developers to build more

size of four persons, are RM 6,275

by the price competition between existing

affordable housing projects, particularly in

and RM 3,000, respectively. The mean

and new housing projects. The demand

desirable locations near the city centre or

monthly income are RM 6,502 and

for existing houses (either for purchase

that are linked to public transportation. In

RM 2,848, respectively.

or rent) is higher compared to newly built

some countries, property crowdfunding—

houses for several reasons. Existing

where interested investors help fund

consistently assures the public that it

houses are usually cheaper and ready for

housing purchases—has proven to be

is trying to fulfil the growing demand for

occupancy, with some built fully furnished.

viable and could work in Malaysia.

affordable homes that cost below

Owners of existing houses are also more

RM 300,000. However, findings have

flexible in terms of house prices with

a key economic sector of Malaysia. As

shown this demand to be 48% whereas

potential buyers. All these have put a lot

the population grows, it is imperative for

the supply only 28%. The disparity is a

of pressure on developers, especially the

the country to have enough affordable

result of many affordable housing projects

small-scale ones.

houses. To be a developed country,

The Malaysian government

being abandoned by private developers.

Location plays a major role in

The housing market has always been

Malaysia needs to consistently record

determining housing prices. If the location

positive economic growth especially

housing prices and affordability in

has facilities such as a university, a

in the property sector. To achieve this,

Malaysia, many studies are skewed

theme park, or retail outlets, housing

a special blueprint or mechanism by

towards the demand-side and

prices tend to be significantly higher in

the government (and supported by the

macroeconomic factors rather than the

line with the socio-economic status of

private sector) is needed to provide equal

supply-side drivers. My study focused on

interested buyers. If the location is far

opportunity of affordable housing

the supply-side drivers as I conducted

from town, prices may be cheaper but the

for everyone.

extensive interviews with several property

area’s underdevelopment may not be as

developers in Malaysia.

appealing to buyers.

In analysing the main drivers of

I found that the increase in material

Moreover, rapid urbanisation has

and labour costs contribute to increasing

resulted in demographic migration and

Dr Hassanudin Mohd Thas Thaker

housing prices. Construction materials

expansion. The World Bank reported a

Sunway University Business School

and property transactions are not

steady rise in Malaysians living in urban



oogle’s DeepMind AlphaGo defeated Lee Sedol, one of the best players at strategy board

game Go in 2016, and a host of other Go world champions over the years. Since then, deep reinforcement learning (DRL)—a new AI approach that enabled AlphaGo—has brought new and refreshed enthusiasm to the world of

Maximising the potential of next-generation technologies with a better-than-human AI approach

In terms of communication systems, we are moving towards 5G wireless mobile networks and cognitive radios. Wireless applications are growing, particularly multimedia-based ones and internet services for mobile gadgets and devices. There is increasing need for more wireless bandwidth and the radio

Capitalising on the advantages of

spectrum that offers it. This increase

research in creating smarter environments

DRL, my research is geared towards the

has led to spectrum scarcity, which in

to build sustainable cities and improve

use of reinforcement learning and DRL

Malaysia, is further complicated as

society’s well-being.

in enhancing smart transportation and

radio spectrum is shared with

AI. This enthusiasm has spurred much

communication systems, which are fast-

neighbouring countries such as

industry have been racing to apply DRL

paced, dynamic, heterogeneous, complex,

Indonesia and Singapore.

in various ways, including self-driving

and data-intensive in nature.

Researchers in both academia and

cars and industry automation. They aim

Traffic congestion, for example, is

Applying reinforcement learning and DRL, I aim to enable mobile gadgets and

to make traditional systems smart and

inevitable in most urban areas. In

devices to learn knowledge and adopt the

the smart ones even smarter, perhaps

Malaysia, unpredictable weather

best possible actions for various

achieving a better-than-human intelligence

compounds the issue as heavy rain and

network operations.

as demonstrated by AlphaGo.

wet roads will slow traffic, especially during

Both approaches provide intelligence

rush hour or at night. Congestion at a

and autonomy to support core operations,

which uses layers of artificial neurons

single intersection has domino and single-

from accessing underutilised radio

that mimic the brain structure, with

point-of-failure effects that could disrupt

spectrum to routing and enhancing

reinforcement learning. The latter enables

the traffic at neighbouring roads.

security. For example, a wireless

DRL integrates deep learning,

a learning agent to explore and exploit the

I was interested in the intersections

host searches for a multi-hop route

best possible actions autonomously in a

where traffic bottlenecks are known to

to its destination node in a dynamic

dynamic operating environment (or state).

occur despite being monitored by traffic

environment in which network conditions,

lights. Using DRL, I enabled traffic light

such as licensed and unlicensed network

highest possible rewards (i.e., make the

controllers at different intersections to

traffic, change over time.

best decisions) in enhancing system

collaborate and exchange knowledge

performance over time. The agent learns

in selecting their traffic phases and

journals and conference proceedings, and

knowledge, which comprises appropriate

split phasing. This would allow a green

even resulted in a patent. Looking ahead,

actions under different states, on the fly

wave and mitigate cross blocking and

I hope my research can improve next-

and unsupervised.

vehicle idling.

generation technologies for smarter and

The agent would achieve the

Compared to reinforcement learning,

I applied this novel approach to the

My findings have been published in

more sustainable development.

DRL uses a deep neural network to

traffic lights in Sunway City, considering

represent complex sets of states. DRL

the irregular traffic caused by heavy

has been shown to achieve breakthrough

rainfall. The results showed reduced

performance with lower computational

queue length and waiting time of vehicles

Professor Yau Kok Lim

cost, reduced learning time, and more

and fewer number of vehicles crossing

School of Engineering and Technology

efficient knowledge storage.

an intersection.


dit: Cre



k. toc ters hut

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Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis Translating bedside observation to bench research


heumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disease that affects the joints in the body.

Some common symptoms include stiffness, swelling, and pain in the joints, particularly of the fingers, knees, ankles, wrists, elbows, hips, and shoulders. As the disease progresses, patients can experience fatigue, mild fever, loss of appetite, dry eyes and mouth, and the growth of nodules near the affected joints. If the patient remains untreated, the joints will become irreversibly deformed and damaged. Nearly all patients with rheumatoid arthritis experience certain difficulties in their daily life; some are not able to perform everyday tasks as simple as opening a jar lid, sitting on a toilet seat, shampooing their hair, etc. As such, they could become emotionally depressed and have low self-confidence. Rheumatoid arthritis is often confused with osteoarthritis, which is a

Credit: Lightspring/


joint inflammation caused by cartilage

in rheumatoid arthritis. These agents

there is currently no cure for rheumatoid

degeneration. This is unsurprising as

can effectively block TNF-α and hence

arthritis as symptoms can return when

both illnesses show common symptoms

suppress the inflammation in a

treatment stops.

of painful and swollen joints leading to

short time.

mobility impairment.

Biologic agents did not overtake

Researchers believe that they have not found a cure for rheumatoid

Osteoarthritis, however, typically

MTX as the primary treatment for

arthritis because no one has determined

happens in old age whereas rheumatoid

rheumatoid arthritis as they were

its actual cause. What activates the

arthritis can occur at any age. Young

costlier and produced comparable

immune system to attack the joints?

people feeling pain in the joints would

clinical significance after six months

There are growing speculations about

not think of rheumatoid arthritis and

of treatment. If MTX alone does not

rheumatoid arthritis being associated

would often attribute the pain to

work well for a patient, however,

with bacteria or viruses, but researchers

other factors such as aggressive

rheumatologists would combine the

are unsure which bacteria or viruses

sport activities.

treatment with a biologic agent to see

trigger the immune system, and how

if it works better.

they do it.

For years I have been fascinated with the fact that rheumatoid arthritis

Although MTX remains as the

I am particularly interested in

is triggered when our immune system

first-line drug for rheumatoid arthritis,

the relationship between rheumatoid

mistakenly sends immune cells

only two-thirds of rheumatoid arthritis

arthritis and Aggregatibacter

(mainly represented by T-cells, B-cells,

patients react favourably to MTX while

actinomycetemcomitans, a periodontal

neutrophils, and macrophages) to the

the other one-third fails to go into

pathogen (a bacterium associated with

joints. These immune cells produce a

remission. This has always puzzled me

gum disease) that colonises tooth

large quantity of inflammatory

and I decided to find the answer from

surfaces as part of the dental biofilm

mediators that further recruit more

rheumatoid arthritis patients

that is known to be implicated in the

immune cells to the joints, causing

in Malaysia.

destruction of the surrounding soft

aggressive inflammation. In collaboration with Sunway

Interestingly, our preliminary study

tissue. My team is currently investigating

with 700 patients (of Malay, Chinese,

this relationship by detecting the

Medical Centre, Hospital Tuanku Ja’afar

and Indian ethnicity) indicates that

presence of a toxin (leukotoxin) released

Seremban, and Hospital Selayang, I

more than half of the patients do not

from A. actinomycetemcomitans in

learnt from the rheumatologists that

respond to MTX treatment. This

rheumatoid arthritis patients.

the most widely used medication for

number is much higher than those

rheumatoid arthritis worldwide, including

previously recorded with patients from

periodontal pathogens, such as

Malaysia, is methotrexate (MTX).

Caucasian populations.

Porphyromonas gingivalis, having a role

Some studies also suggest other

Previously used as an anti-cancer

Our further study on the genes

therapy for leukaemia, MTX became the

involved in MTX metabolism suggests

arthritis and periodontitis. Researchers

standard of care in treating rheumatoid

that the different ethnic groups

have been looking for the cause of

arthritis in the early 1990s and

in Malaysia may have different

rheumatoid arthritis for decades and

replaced glucocorticoids, which had

susceptibility to MTX due to variations

studying periodontal pathogens may

brought adverse effects to rheumatoid

in their MTX metabolic genes.

bring us closer to the answer.

arthritis patients. In the late 1990s, biologic agents

in the interplay between rheumatoid

Current treatments aim to reduce inflammation to the lowest possible

such as infliximab and tocilizumab were

level and induce a complete remission.

introduced as a target therapy against

Many rheumatoid arthritis patients,

Associate Professor Dr Hwang Jung Shan

tumour necrosis factor α (TNF-α), one

however, struggle to stay in remission if

School of Medical and Life Sciences

of the active inflammatory mediators

they stop the treatment. In other words,


My research odyssey and the people I met along the way


y father was a businessman. He set up

had the privilege of sitting in the starship’s bridge

a shop selling and distributing imported

alongside captain Jean-Luc Picard.

spare parts for cars. My mother worked

I cannot say for sure if Star Trek inspired

with him and together, the shop became a family

my love for science, but I was fascinated by the

business. I believe my father wanted me to be

technology in the series. Perhaps it did plant the

like him and to assist in running the business,

seed of curiosity in me, though I believe that my

though at that time, I never gave much thought to

devotion to biology was also influenced by the

my future plans.

many people who have walked in and out of my

I spent my childhood reading books, attending ballet classes, and playing basketball.

life over the years. When I left Malaysia to study abroad, I

Most of the time, it was a typical childhood.

thought I would return home immediately. I was

As a teenager, I became a huge fan of Star

only 17 and leaving home for the first time. The

Trek. I had dreams of being onboard the USS

homesickness I felt was stressful, painful even,

Enterprise as a crew member, travelling through

and I cried frequently (not to mention excessively).

space and collecting specimens from different

I certainly did not imagine that I would instead

planets. Unfortunately, in those dreams, I never

spend the next 21 years of my life abroad.



After completing year 12 in Australia, I pursued a science degree at University of Melbourne. I kept myself busy with examinations, assignments, and making new friends. I still missed home, but I was adapting well to my new environment. In my honours year, I joined the laboratory of Professor Jim Pittard at the university’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Jim was one of my thirdyear lecturers and I had always admired him for his deep knowledge in the field and his incredible passion for research. His laboratory was relatively well funded too. At that time, Jim was working on the fundamental process by which E. coli regulates the aromatic biosynthesis at transcriptional level. E. coli is the model organism that has resulted in many important findings in molecular biology and cell physiology. I was happy working on E. coli and I continued my doctorate in the same laboratory. It was my experience in this laboratory that set me on my career path. I had always lacked self-confidence and it was the same when I pursued my PhD. Jim, however, showed his trust in my ability as a researcher. With his guidance and through my own belief that hard work and perseverance would pay off, I grew to be more assertive and confident in my work. I felt like I had found my calling in research. After completing my PhD, I travelled to Japan for a postdoctoral training. With the support of Professor Akira Ishihama at the National Institute of Genetics, I received a Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) to work on a project about the recombinant RNA polymerase of influenza virus for two years.

Left With my supervisor Jim at a conference Below My poster presentation at a conference in University of Sydney


Japan presented a completely new lifestyle. I was amazed at how wellequipped and well-funded their laboratories were and impressed by how hardworking the Japanese are. I soon adapted to the Japanese work culture. I later joined Professor Takashi Gojobori’s research team at the National Institute of Genetics and I worked with him for the next 10 years. At this point, I moved from studying the influenza virus to invertebrates. I looked at the evolution of cell lineage in invertebrates using planaria at first and then later with Hydra, an animal model for studying tissue regeneration. Through my work on Hydra, I encountered many passionate and generous researchers outside of Japan. One such example is Professor Charles David at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany. Charlie is one of the founding fathers of Hydra research and has nearly 50 years of experience in many Collecting sea urchin, or uni in Japanese, at the intertidal region of the rocky shorelines in Ashiyasu, Japan

aspects of Hydra biology, especially stem cell differentiation.

Celebrating our year of hard work in Prof Gojobori's (second from right) laboratory with a year-end party, or bōnenkai in Japanese (I am in the middle, fifth from right)


research topic. This diversity made it

were both interested in the specialised

fall of 2006. I was in Sorrento, Italy

I visited Charlie in Munich in the

hard to have fruitful discussions on

cells (or nematocytes) of Hydra. We

for a conference and I travelled over

my own research with anyone. It was

collaborated and subsequently published

1,100 km to Munich because I wanted

demotivating as I could not ask for help

a number of papers on nematocytes.

Charlie’s help in interpreting a big set of

when my experiments did not work. We

microarray gene expression data that I

were all working in silos and I did not

was a fascinating and rewarding period

had. Our work earned us a publication in

feel productive at all.

for me. It was also a time of personal

the Proceedings of the National Academy

So, as I listened to Charlie, I was

of Sciences of the United States of

beginning to see my circumstances in

America in the following year.

a new light. Charlie had experienced

During one of our dinners, I had a

Working with Charlie and then Suat

growth as I found my own feet in the field. I finally moved back to Malaysia

his fair share of challenges and he had

in 2010. My father’s business still

long talk with Charlie. He told me about

emerged from them successfully. Hearing

stands, but my younger siblings are now

his family, his journey in becoming

his story made me realise that courage

running it. I have ventured into academia

a professor, and his excitement for

is needed to overcome frustration and

though I am still very much attached to

research. Looking back, the talk was

fear, and that I could turn those into

laboratory work.

timely because I was beginning to have

passion and commitment in my research.

doubts about my path. I did not show it

Passion and commitment are powerful

reasons and I often describe it as a

then, but I had started to feel lost and

enough motivating factors to move me

process that is exciting, rewarding, and

emotionally exhausted.

forward and beyond my limitations.

full of surprises. I suppose the phrase

In the laboratory in Japan, there

I began to seek out researchers

I love doing research for many

that best describes research comes

were altogether 11 members: five

with interests similar to mine and that

from my old, favourite television series.

postdoctoral researchers and six PhD

was how I met Professor Suat Özbek

To quote Star Trek, research is “To boldly

students, each working on a different

from Heidelberg University, Germany. We

go where no man has gone before.”

Above A beaker containing Hydra Left With Charlie (far left) and Suat's PhD student


Dr Hwang Jung Shan is Associate Professor with the School of Medical and Life Sciences at Sunway University.

Credit: jamesteohart/


Innovation requires collaboration



niversities are traditionally

Being entrepreneurial is now

wants. This is typically managed by a

established to generate and

expected of universities, on top of being

Technology Transfer Office (TTO), which

disseminate new knowledge.

a conventional teaching and research

commercialises university-owned IP

Yet, as the world changes, so does the

institution. There is no clear definition of

through assessing invention disclosures,

purpose of universities.

what it means to be entrepreneurial, but

protecting IP, licensing, creating spin-off

innovation is at its crux.

companies, etc.

Facing challenges such as reduced research funding, increased operation

Innovation is not always about the

costs, new competitors, and the ever-

number of patents filed or the number of

outside-in, where researchers develop

changing expectations of students,

spin-off companies created. Universities

solutions to specific issues presented

universities across the globe are beating

should break away from traditional, single-

by the industry. This is usually managed

the clock to avoid becoming obsolete.

discipline silos and instead bring together

by an Industry Engagement Office

different functions to create a micro-

(IEO), which creates collaborations

ecosystem that drives innovation.

between the university and a corporate

Rapid advances in technology and knowledge-based economies have triggered the need to innovate at scale

There are typically two approaches to

The second approach is the

partner through sponsored research,

and at speed. Universities no longer have

innovation in universities. The first is the

the option not to collaborate. Businesses

inside-out approach where researchers

consultancy, workforce training, etc.

want solutions and universities have the

develop and commercialise ideas and

IEO are separated. Yet, both involve

right expertise to provide them.

solutions that they believe the industry

capitalising internal research capabilities

In many universities, TTO and


to produce value-added research outcome

task especially for ventures of hard

Technology Category at the 30th

(e.g., product, technology, or service),

technologies (i.e., tangible technologies

International Invention, Innovation and

inadvertently sharing the same goal (i.e.,

that function even without human action).

Technology Exhibition (ITEX).

knowledge transfer) and “customers” (i.e., the industry). Synergising and leveraging the

Two months later, they received a start-up grant worth RM 750,000 from

are even greater in finding a competent

the Malaysian government, which is

functions of both offices are important in

investor who understands the product

three to five times higher than a typical

“marketing” university research initiatives

or technology.

start-up grant provided by government-

to the industry. Merging TTO and IEO

In 2018, for instance, we worked

linked agencies. A part of the grant was

provides the university and its corporate

with two Sunway researchers in bringing

channelled back to Sunway for a contract

partners with opportunities of seamless

their invention to the market. They

research to further improve the invention.

collaborative work and smooth

started by participating in our four-month

knowledge transfer.

Super Accelerator programme, which

collaboration, we set up Sunway R&D Sdn

Sunway Innovation Labs, or

To fast-track university-industry

provided budding start-ups with industry

Bhd. Through this subdivision, we support

Sunway iLabs, is such a merger. We

and university support to grow their

researchers in business development,

commercialise IP owned by Sunway

business. They met with mentors, who

contract negotiation, risk assessment,

University (inside-out approach) and bring

helped to build the business model, and

and project management.

back real-world problems to university

with potential investors, who constantly

researchers for them to develop solutions

challenged them about their invention and

ensure they are delivered within budget

(outside-in approach).

financial evaluation.

and on time, ensuring a long-term

A common form of research

Credit: jamesteohart/

Building a winning product is challenging enough, but the obstacles

Sunway R&D oversees projects to

It was not an easy journey for the

relationship between the university and

commercialisation is creating spin-off

researchers, but the end result was very

its corporate partner. This fosters trust

companies. Turning research into a

rewarding. In June 2019, they received

in the relationship, especially in data

viable company, however, is a tough

a Gold Medal in the Best Automotive

analytics projects.


For young research institutions like Sunway, it is crucial to build and sustain relationships with industry players, to

for students to develop and propose

“When you need to innovate, you need

sustainable solutions for corporations.

to collaborate.” Great teams of people

In 2019, the theme of the challenge

with a collective sense of purpose will

understand the market needs, and to

was software development. A group of

drive sustained innovation. Tesla, for

think of ways to realise innovation outside

students pitched a meeting room system

example, has been releasing its patents

of campus walls.

that is powered by the internet

since 2014 to the general public as it is

of things, or IoT, to a company. However,

impossible to build more electric vehicles

with a company who owned half a billion

the company wanted something

rapidly and on its own to overcome the

of data on health insurance claims. The

completely different.

carbon crisis.

In 2019, for instance, we collaborated

resulting project provided game-changing

The students had to start from

Our mantra at Sunway iLabs is

insights that can improve the private

scratch but in working alongside the

“Inspire, Build, Launch” and we focus

healthcare system in Malaysia while

company, they developed a centralised

on commercialising research, or creating

optimising medical expenses.

zoo management system. This system

innovation, through collaboration rather

is the first and most comprehensive zoo

than competition. Our goal is to foster

management system in the region.

entrepreneurship and stimulate market-

Apart from facilitating universityindustry collaboration, we also have initiatives for aspiring students to hone their innovation skills.

Innovation is a discipline that requires persistence, going through the various

The “Make It Challenge” is our

cycles of finding the right problem to solve

annual flagship hackathon for students

and creating (or co-creating) solutions that

of Sunway and our academic partner,

add value to existing ones. Innovation

Lancaster University. It is a collaborative

is not a romantic notion and eureka

platform that has a different theme each

moments are almost never the norm.

year, in accordance with the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals,

Marissa Mayer, former Chief Executive Officer of Yahoo! once said,

driven research through universityindustry collaborations.

Karen Lau Sunway Innovation Labs


Aging Health and Well-Being Research Centre Professor Peh Suat Cheng Asia Pacific Centre for Hospitality Research Professor Marcus Stephenson Centre for Accountability and Governance Research Professor Susela Devi K Suppiah Centre for Actuarial and Analytics Research Dr Lee Mok Siang

Credit: Gerd Altman/Pixabay

Centre for Higher Education Research Professor Glenda Crosling Centre for Hospitality Innovation and Leadership Anisha Chai Centre for Research-Creation in Digital Media Professor Harold Thwaites Credit: Couluer/Pixabay

Centre for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies Professor Crispin Bates Centre for Virus and Vaccine Research Professor Poh Chit Laa Graphene and Advanced 2D Materials Research Group Professor Mohammad Khalid Research Centre for Applied Physics and Radiation Technologies Professor David Bradley

Research Centre for Carbon Dioxide Capture and Utilisation Professor Mohamed Kheireddine Aroua Research Centre for Crystalline Materials Professor Edward RT Tiekink Research Centre for Human-Machine Collaboration Associate Professor Dr Yap Kian Meng Research Centre for Nano-Materials and Energy Technology Professor Saidur Rahman

Credit: Rodger Shija/Pixabay

Future Cities Research Institute Professor Peter Heard Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development Sunway Innovation Labs (iLabs) Sunway R&D Sdn Bhd

Credit: David Schwarzenberg/Pixabay

Credit: Tumisu/Pixabay

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