July 6, 2015, by Emma Lowry

Driver-less trains, dancing ‘lions’ and degree processions: my Malaysian memories….

Emeritus Professor Brian Clayton was the second CEO and Vice President of the University of Nottingham in Malaysia. After many years in the School of Engineering and a four-year term as Pro Vice-Chancellor, he was just two years off retirement when he agreed to take up the post in Kuala Lumpur (KL) in 2001. Brian flew out just two days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and remembers a very tense and empty flight to KL on which no one was allowed even hand luggage in the cabin.

From 2001 to 2003, Brian ran the branch campus from main offices in Kuala Lumpur; the Semenyih campus was yet to be built. He, and wife Sonia, maintained a long-distance relationship during his tenure, with her visiting for three-months at a time on a tourist visa. They made life-long friends and many memories in those years. Here he shares with us photographs that reflect key moments.

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Above is the degree programme from 2002, which was the first year the ceremony was held. It was mainly MBA students who were processing and one or two who sat final exams at Nottingham but preferred to have their degree presented in Malaysia, so it was a small group. However, with almost 450 students that was still more than double the number in 2001. At the ceremony, the British High commissioner, His Excellency Mr Bruce Cleghorn presented a replica vase representing the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International trade, which the University received in 2001, in substantial part for setting up the Malaysia campus.

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Here I am giving my address as CEO and Vice President of the Malaysia branch campus at the degree congregation in January 2003. The event was held at the Prince Hotel, which had just opened adjacent to the University (the progress of which had been followed with much interest by our staff).  I talked about the developments that year, including accreditation for our engineering and MBA programmes and our expectations to grow to 750 students by 2004. A highlight of 2002 was the ‘ground breaking’ ceremony which took place at the old palm oil plantation in Semenyih to mark the start of building works for the new campus. “We all have our own memories of many distinguished guests, including the Malaysian Minister of Defence, wearing brightly-coloured, ill-fitting hard hats, with varying degrees of discomfort,” I revealed in my speech.

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The platform party for the 2003 Degree Ceremony is shown in the photograph above. The front row from left to right is; Professor Douglas Tallack (PVC Student Affairs), myself; Vice Chancellor, Sir Colin Campbell; Chancellor Professor Fujia Yang, YM Tengku Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Ahmad Rithauddeen Bin Tengku Ismail (Chairman of the Board of Directors), Paul Boardman (Senior Administrator/Registrar) and Professor David Morris (Head of Business Division).


The photo above was taken outside the entrance to the apartment block (Regency Tower) we stayed in for the two years in Malaysia. It was ideal as I could walk to the MISC building for work each day. My driver, Abdul, could never understand, why, with a car anyone would want to walk – it’s not a very Malaysian thing to do. The photo was taken during Chinese New Year and shows someone dressed in a traditional lion costume jumping from post to post before heading inside the building to bless it for good luck the following year. It’s something organised by the apartment manager every year to prevent tenants getting bad luck. It definitely worked while we were there!

Watch a similar lion dance ceremony underway at the UNMC campus in Semenyih in 2009

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This image (above left) of our apartment block was taken from KL Tower (above right), now a big tourist attraction which has a restaurant, with views over the city, which revolves once an hour. An overseas visitor, at a subsequent meeting, described their experience having a meal at the “revolting” restaurant! We had to try hard to keep a straight face. We chose to live on the third floor so that if the lift broke down we didn’t have too far to walk, not that it did very often, but it pays to be prepared. Every week a woman in a tiny van would drive to our block to sell provisions. It was like a Tardis! You could buy anything from wine to Australian kangaroo steak. She would often put things to one side for us too, kindly thinking ahead of what we might wish to purchase. The main road nearest to the apartment led into a very Malaysian area of KL. Even as you came out of the apartment you could, when in season, smell the durian for sale on the street markets quite some distance away. In the opposite direction you could make your way to China Town and the famous shopping area of Petaling Street, which was full to the brim with cheap goods of every kind, from watches to DVDs. Of course, I refrained from making any such purchases (as you never knew if they fell of the back of a lorry or not)!


This photo (above) shows the rapid progress in Malaysia’s economy and infrastructure. It’s a train with no driver and is entirely automatic. You can see all the local kids crowding at the front to get the best views. It runs on the Putra line for around 15 miles through KL, under- and over-ground, right through the city to the north east. A mono-rail system similarly runs through the city as well as more conventional rapid transit lines to the outer suburbs.


For official business and engagements, Abdul drove me around in the Volvo pictured behind us. Its predecessor was pretty worn out (with torn seats) when I arrived in Malaysia. Sir Colin was pretty miffed over this and wanted me to get a replacement. Despite him having designs on a Mercedes (very common in KL!), the large Volvo S80, in a beautiful maroon, with leather seats, is what I recommended and what we subsequently purchased. He was still a bit dubious about my choice until he came over for a shareholders’ meeting, when I picked him up and drove around lots of winding roads like a professional driver – I’d rehearsed quite a few times! I’m sure I saw the same car still on campus the last time I visited in 2012 so it proved to be very good value for money.

We are pictured in the grounds of the MISC Building (our original campus site in KL) standing in front of a big ship’s propeller. It’s a nod to the building’s former use as the home of the Malaysian International Ship Company (MISC). We had several floors in the complex, and each one stretched a long way. We used to have parties and functions on the top floor, which opened onto an outdoor terrace. In fact, you can see that the building itself looks rather like the back of a huge cruise liner in the photo below.


Below is the Mandarin Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. It’s a very nice hotel for winding down on a Friday evening with a glass of wine. I used to visit with Michael Pitt, who was one of the first people to work at our KL campus. He was an enormous help as he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the people who were there; so did my PA, Roselin, who’d been working in KL for years with British companies. Consequently, I was always well-briefed when meeting people. If Michael and I had had a hard week we’d go to the Mandarin and have a glass of Sauvignon Blanc – a well-earned treat, but only a short reprieve as we worked six days a week in those days so were back at our desks the next morning!



Round the table (above), left to right: Me, Sonia (my wife), Roselin (my PA), Khan, who ran (and still heads) library services as well as a lot of the IT on campus and Irene Hew, who was Professor Brian Tuck’s secretary. After he retired, Irene took over as the administrator for the MBA courses in Malaysia. That course is still operating from a building close to the original MISC building in downtown KL. Roselin, Khan and her husband used to take us out a lot in the evenings. They were hilarious and our outings were always a laugh a minute. Even when we were at work there’d be something to smile about. Here we are pictured at one of our frequent restaurant visits. We’d encourage our Malaysian colleagues to surprise us with our dinner choice. More often than not they’d order dishes that weren’t even on the menu! I enjoyed the food in Malaysia a lot. If you did want a taste of home, however, there were some wonderful fish and chip shops in Kuala Lumpur.


This photo was taken in June or July 2003 at a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur; it was a dinner with the whole university staff. I look rather demob happy as I was about to finish my tenure in Malaysia and retire. I’m pictured with the three most influential women in the last decade of my working life (and beyond!): Carol Spencer, (my PA at Nottingham before I took up post in Malaysia), my wife, Sonia; and Roselin, my PA at UNMC. Roselin is living in New Zealand now. She comes over to the UK occasionally and we still Skype. Carol flew out twice to stay for a holiday with my wife and me; we still see each other regularly.


L to R: Brian Clayton, Roselin, Sonia, Khan and her husband and a woman who was overseeing part of the building effort

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Library ‘before and after’

Above is the new campus in Semenyih, part built. As you can see, the lake has been dug out and filled, but all the buildings were empty shells. If you look closely, you can see the clock in the Trent Building replica is not yet in place. The grounds were pretty much mud and gravel.  This image was taken on one of the visits that Sonia and I paid to Malaysia on our holidays after I had retired.


The photograph (above) was taken at the opening of the university campus in Semenyih in 2005, which I attended. The site was a palm oil plantation but the trees were old and production was uneconomic. The site was partially cleared for phase one of construction and then progressively cleared to allow for future growth. As the site was surrounded by dense trees and undergrowth, we often came face to face with wildlife in those early days. One cobra in particular ‘owned’ a path, as you walked by it would appear, give you a look and then cross in front of you. There’s probably too much activity and noise on campus nowadays to have such close encounters. The photograph below shows the splendid Library, although a curved building may not necessarily be the best shape in which to store books!

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Here is Sonia and Brian Atkin, my successor, who was in post from 2003 to 2008. This picture was taken before that time, when he came over to visit and we took him to a ‘novel’ holiday destination in the Berjaya Hills, Bukit Tinggi. It’s a Malaysian mini-replica of Colmar, a picturesque city in Alsace, France, known for its half-timbered houses from the Renaissance period. Colmar ‘Tropicale’ is a bit twee but nice to walk around as its much cooler up in the mountains than downtown KL at the height of summer.

Khan’s husband worked for the forestry commission in Malaysia. On our last visit in 2012, he took us to visit preserved trees in a ‘pristine’ area of rainforest. While they reach great heights, the tallest trees in the canopy never touch or overlap branches. This results in this incredible, interconnecting pattern overhead as you walk through the jungle.  We also did a fascinating tree walk up on suspended wooden planks in the canopy. I’m not the best with heights but we got to see such amazing wildlife it was worth it.


If you have memories to share of working or studying at UNMC, please email emma.lowry@nottingham.ac.uk. Keep up with the 15th anniversary celebrations of the University of Nottingham in Malaysia, using #UNMC15 on Twitter between July and September 2015.

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