MURABBI TALK: My research activities and their management, by Prof. Dr. Syed Arabi

By Aida Mokhtar

The Murabbi talk programme with Prof Dato’ Sri Dr. Syed Arabi Bin Syed Abdullah Idid took place on Monday, 8 May 2023. It went on for more than one-hour and was conducted through zoom. It was entitled ‘My research activities and how I managed research at UKM and IIUM’. The speaker has had a colourful career and was no other than the former Rector of the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), former Dean of the IIUM Research Management Centre (RMC), former journalist of Malaysian National News Agency (BERNAMA) and current Professor of Communication in the IIUM.

The talk was graced by the Rector of the IIUM, Emeritus Professor Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abdul Razak; members of the University Management Committee; IIUM staff; IIUM students, and one of Prof. Dr. Syed’s former co-researchers, Assoc. Prof. Dr Chang Peng Kee. The programme was moderated by myself, a colleague of Prof. Dr. Syed’s from the Department of Communication, AbdulHamid AbuSulayman Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences (AHAS KIRKHS) of the IIUM, since 1999.

The Murabbi talk commenced with a welcoming speech by Emeritus Professor Tan Sri Dzulkifli who mentioned that Prof. Dr. Syed’s perspective was welcomed as the IIUM celebrates its 40th anniversary. The university must learn from Prof. Dr. Syed and needs to work with him to move forward in the next 40 years. He conveyed his gratitude to the Office of Knowledge for Change and Advancement (KCA) for organising the Murabbi talk programme and mentioned that the talks will be documented into a book. 

Thereafter, the talk proceeded with an interview of Prof. Dr. Syed Arabi which focused on two parts. One was focused on his research activities and another focused on his research management. 


Prof. Dr. Syed Arabi mentioned that his interest in research first came about when he was a graduate student in the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. At the time, he was sent to do his Master’s by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and was to be transferred from the position of Penolong Pendaftar (Assistant Registrar) to Head of the Department of Communication. He observed that the running of the Department in Wisconsin-Madison University was very focused on research where he met Prof. Dr. Jack McCleoud and Prof. Dr. Steven Chaffee, who were well-known researchers in Communication. 

As the Head of Department, he mentioned in his interview about the first meeting with his academic staff who were at the time Hj. Mansor Ahmad, Farizah Jaafar, and Meor Zailan. He suggested to them that by the next meeting everyone had to have one research project in Communication. Prof. Dr. Syed was more into Public Relations at the time, in 1977.  Then, he mentioned that when he was appointed as Pendaftar (Registrar), he worked on the idea that if academicians were to be promoted, then they should have done research and publications. He was indeed a man who practised what he preached. This was evident when Prof. Dr. Syed did not only help form the criteria for research and publications for promotion but felt he also had to do research and publications, teach, and supervise students himself because he made it compulsory upon academics at the time.

Longitudinal Research Studies Conducted

Prof. Dr. Syed also shared in the interview of his research activities which amongst them were longitudinal research studies that were funded. There was the Public Relations (PR) profile research project that he started in UKM in 1977, and continued in the IIUM, in 1999, 2003, 2011, 2018 and 2023. The longitudinal study was based on one area which was to understand PR practices and PR practitioner profiles. Another longitudinal study he did was on news diffusion that started in 1976 upon the passing of the second Malaysian Prime Minister, Tun Haji Abdul Razak bin Dato’ Hussein. He said in total there have been nine studies conducted by him on news diffusion. The last one was on MH370 and MH17 in 2014. Another area that was close to Prof. Dr. Syed was Public Opinion and Persuasion (POP). Studies on POP started from 1986 until 2022 in the form of electoral studies in Political Communication. He was given the challenge to conduct a POP study by the then Deputy Director General of Information, Dato’ Othman Said. He recommended that Prof. Dr. Syed and his team come up with studies that compared with the Gallup poll. Prof. Dr. Syed told him at the time that it can be done but he needed funding for this, and this soon was obtained and within one and a half months, a study was conducted which predicted that the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) would win many seats in the election and this election result was true. Prof. Dr. Syed’s studies had generated accurate findings that predicted election results well. 

Prof. also informed the audience that election studies is not a normal type of research study any more. At the end of every election, the research findings are tested because they are used to predict the outcome of elections. He was proud to share that there was only a 0.4 percent margin of error in his findings for the Sarawak State Election. When he conducted election studies, he was like other research centres such as Merdeka Centre and ILHAM centre that were concerned about whether their predictions were true. If the research was not professional in its accuracy of findings then its funding would be limited so this pushed the researchers to do their best, mentioned the former Rector. The approach used was not “polling per se but a survey-oriented polling.” A theoretical perspective was built in survey research that was allowed by the Malaysian sponsors of research which he is grateful about. Thus, Prof. Dr Syed took the opportunity to develop diffusion of news, agenda setting and third-person effect theory in different research studies.

Whilst sharing his experiences on doing research, he encouraged academicians to choose an area of research that was of interest to them and one that was useful to the community. When he was working with BERNAMA as a journalist, he followed Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj ibni Almarhum Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah for three weeks and at the time appreciated political campaigns which inspired him to conduct POP studies. He had observed elections, state elections and by-elections and conducted research studies on them. Prof. Dr. Syed mentioned that Br. Shohaimi Ab Rahman followed him since 1986 to help film and edit videos till this day which he appreciated very much.

Research Methods Used

According to Prof. Dr. Syed, the research methods he adopted coincided with the theoretical perspective marking the academic value in his research studies. The first method used by him was content analysis that he learnt while doing his Master’s in Development Studies. Upon his return to Malaysia, he conducted surveys using agenda setting theory. Prof. Dr. Syed then developed his research further using content analysis and began to deepen his knowledge in surveys and POP. 

In the IIUM, he enhanced his research methods knowledge and conducted personal interviews and focus group discussions in addition to the quantitative methods he had used before. In 2015, Prof. Dr. Syed’s research team went to Sarawak where there were four surveys conducted, focus group discussions and personal interviews which when combined is known as mixed methods or a mixture between quantitative and qualitative research methods. For Prof. Dr Syed, the mixed methods approach enhanced the understanding of the political process in Sarawak. The three approaches used in the general election studies made him understand the situation better: surveys were used to understand public opinion, and focus group discussions to understand voters in terms of the issues they saw as important, what they thought of the elections, the personalities, and political parties. Another approach he used was personal interviews. Other than these, he had an unconventional way of collecting data by interviewing personalities for future researchers to use in their research and publications. These have then been archived in UKM and IIUM libraries.

For the Ampang by-election, Prof. Dr. Syed’s team developed the idea of using a video camera when doing surveys, he interviewed candidates, and collected recordings of relevant data from television. These videos are now kept in the library of UKM. 

For Prof., as an academician whose first degree is in History, original sources and oral history are very important to him and he realises that they can have a direct bearing on his surveys. He conveyed his disappointment that there were some people whom he did not get to interview. For one, was the former First Minister of Sabah, Tun Muhammad Fuad Stephens, whom he did not get to interview when he converted to Islam. There have since been interviews recorded with Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, Tun Abdul Taib bin Mahmud, Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh bin Mohd Hamzah, and, Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Dr. Alfred Jabu. More interviews have been recorded with well-known journalists and writers such as Pak Sako (Ishak Haji Muhammad), Pak Samad (Datuk Seri Dr. Abdul Samad Mohamed Said) and Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar. His recordings also captured the changing fashion and social landscape in Ampang Jaya. The oratory style of Lim Kit Siang through the different years was also recorded and evidently had not changed. 

Challenges Encountered in UKM And IIUM

Prof. Dr. Syed saw different challenges in UKM and IIUM. In UKM the challenge he faced when conducting research at the beginning was mainly funding. Prof. Dr. Syed and his team were making themselves known in UKM as experts at the outset of their academic careers whilst when he later joined the IIUM, he was building his expertise. “People need to recognise your expertise, you can have expertise but not be recognised, not be recognised for your expertise,” he said. 

Support came in a different form in UKM. When Prof. Dr. Syed conducted research in the university, there was a lot of administrative support which he seemed grateful for. The staff gave him and his team a video recorder, a minibus, and paid for his hotel expenses. All public universities had money at the time to conduct research, but they spent wisely. 

There was an interesting phenomenon in UKM, according to Prof. Dr. Syed. UKM used Bahasa Melayu in teaching, correspondence, and research but its outlook was global. Also, the Research University (RU) status was planned a long time ago in UKM.

As for the IIUM, he sees it as having a beautiful campus different from other public universities. However, what differed UKM and the IIUM was that the latter had architecture and orientation that reflected that of a teaching university. So as the Dean of RMC and later, IIUM Rector, it occured to him that this was a teaching university that needed to be transformed. He said, “The IIUM is a teaching-based university that needs to be orientated to be a research-based university.” As RMC Dean, he went to see Professor Emeritus Dato’ Dr. Hassan bin Said who was the then Director General of Higher Education and asked for funding. He asked for RM1 million that was used for research in one year and then RM2 million that was used for research in three years. Prof. Dr. Syed also conveyed his gratitude to Tok Pa (Dato’ Sri Mustapa bin Mohamed who was the Higher Education Minister at the time) who supported the idea of forming Research Universities. Similarily, the IIUM President at the time, Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan, was also supportive of the notion that the IIUM should move to be a Research University. Prof. mentioned in the interview of his gratitude for getting all the support.

As the Dean of RMC he did not have control over the whole university. But effort was still made to showcase and develop IIUM’s research activities. “Where all other universities were exhibiting their research, we went in, we showed that we were bent on doing research. We built research clusters, 10 to 15 research clusters, trying to get people from other disciplines to join each,” he said. The research clusters had to apply for funding.

There were also short courses conducted to develop the research culture, said Prof. He mentioned that he welcomed suggestions that would help develop the research culture in the IIUM. Guided by this direction, Prof. Dr. Noor Lide Kassim (current Dean of Kulliyyah of Education) organised a short course on Rasch measurement and invited a speaker from Australia for this purpose. Prof. Dr. Syed also went on to convey his gratitude to Prof. Dr. Ahmad Faris Ismail who flew to Geneva to participate in an exhibition, to demonstrate the products of the IIUM academics’ research activities. 

When Prof. Dr. Syed was Rector, he realised the IIUM had to promote its research and publications to others as the university cannot be in isolation. The IIUM had to also build its own postgraduate centre so as to sustain the research culture by supplying postgraduate students. Other than this, academicians had to fight for research grants so the whole teaching culture had to change and publications had to be developed in the IIUM. As Rector, he had a dialogue with every Kulliyyah once or twice a year and met with Professors, Associate Professors and young lecturers. “Upon reflection, it is quite a challenge to change a culture,” he said.

Balancing of Administrative and Academic Roles in the IIUM

Prof. Dr. Syed was also doing research and applying for research grants when he was Dean and Rector which gave him administrative responsibilities too. He felt that it was more demanding when he was Rector to balance both his administrative and academic duties. With regards to his academic duties he was teaching a postgraduate course, supervising a PhD student, and doing research. He divided his time by doing his administrative work during office hours and research after office hours by having meetings with his Research Assistants: Hartini Wakichan (Tini) and Azrul Hisyam Wakichan (Azrul) at specific times. He allocated different times for his administrative and academic works so as to not allow his research activities to interfere with his official administrative duties.


Why did Prof. Dr. Syed continue with his research works after becoming Rector? This was because he had obtained research funding, which he saw as a blessing that should not be wasted. When it came to managing his research activities, he has supervisors and enumerators in various states whom he manages. They have been with him for more than 10 years and they have helped him a lot, he acknowledged. Prof. Dr Syed advised that if anyone were to do research projects, they must take care of their secretarial staff and the people on the ground (supervisors and enumerators). People on the ground need to be trained by sending them to short courses to upgrade themselves. “They have my full trust, pay them well and on time,” he said. 

Managing Research during COVID-19

“When COVID-19 stopped researchers from doing face-to-face data collection, we were one of the few entities that did face-to-face,” he continued. When he asked his peers in the World Association for Public Opinion Research (WAPOR), a lot of them abandoned face-to-face data collection methods because of COVID-19. But Prof. Dr. Syed mentioned he carried out a face-to-face survey after receiving a request for this from a client in October 2020. The former Rector subsequently asked his people on the ground whether they were willing to do a survey face-to-face and they informed him that they were willing to do so. But instead of getting more than 1,000 respondents they obtained completed surveys from 867 respondents. “They (his people on the ground) managed to do it and (were) willing to do it and the results were good,” he proudly shared. From October 2020 until today (2023) Prof. Dr. Syed and his team have been conducting research face-to-face in addition to online surveys. 

Prof’s embrace of new ideas was apparent in his career. The COVID-19 situation was the first time when they tried using online survey. “The online survey was used when the emergency was declared in March (2020). We still came to the office at the time. I came to the office in April and so did Tini and (another Research Assistant) Fizah (Nur Hafizah Ahmad). Fizah said let us try online. I said OK. In addition to face-to-face, we did online. Four online surveys, in addition to face-to-face (surveys). People responded to COVID-19 and the government’s policy on COVID-19 and we also through face-to-face surveys understood the political climate,” said Prof. Dr. Syed.

He mentioned that the online survey cannot be done randomly in contrast to face-to-face. But still he managed to get findings that were quite relevant. “When we asked online and face-to-face we got similar answers, only with political questions, (we saw) differences. Now more people are using mixed methods, as it is more reliable and valid,” he continued.

For Prof., COVID-19 has changed a lot in research as the whole world stood still and was focused solely on the pandemic.

Regarding managing research activities, it was easier to group together academic staff in UKM as they were working together in one department. There was the managing of research on various platforms and managing research based on projects that he conducted. When research projects on election studies came about, there was also the secretarial staff to manage. 

When Prof. Dr. Syed was requested to do a research project, not in his field, but in an area he was interested in, he managed to get a team of different academicians from different fields. He referred to Tun Dr. Mahathir who wanted a study on Kuala Lumpur that was not politically-focused. Prof. gathered ten academicians from Architecture, Political Science, Sociology, and Communication that all came with a common objective in view of the Kuala Lumpur study. He also managed doing research with the Institute of Strategic & International Studies (ISIS) and Pusat Maklumat Sains Dan Teknologi Malaysia (Mastic). He said that as a research manager you cannot say it is not within your line of research. “You must say I am able to do it and do it,” he claimed. “You are managing research, people, recognising expertise and when managing research, you must meet the deadline. You cannot delay by one day. Do everything earlier. Talk to secretarial staff. It is doable when you have one direction,” he advised. 

The Murabbi talk programme is part of the Sejahtera Academic Framework Murabbi Talk Series, organised by KCA. According to its Director, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Lihanna Borhan, “The IIUM Murabbi Talk Series is a platform for all IIUM community members to learn from the wisdom and experiences of highly esteemed speakers, who we regard as murabbi, so that we may become better persons in carrying out our duties and responsibilities.” She continued by stating, “It is also a platform for the younger/newer staff to interact with these well-known personas in an open and friendly environment, so this is why, every talk has a Q&A session. The talks will be made available on KCA website for reference and the office is also finalising the first volume from these talks – so (this is) another avenue for knowledge sharing.” The video of Prof. Dr. Syed’s Murabbi talk can be viewed here: ***

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