The Merdeka Award –Honouring Borneo’s role in Malaria Medical Research

Professor Dr Balbir Singh in his research lab

All of the comforts which we enjoy today were built on someone else’s hopes, dreams and efforts.

They are a testament to the fact that a single person can make a difference and change the world.

Over the years, Malaysia has seen her fair share of exceptional individuals whose achievements have contributed to the advancement of culture, scientific knowledge and economics both locally and internationally.

The Merdeka Award was introduced 10 years ago to honour these illustrious intellectuals.

Over the course of a decade, the Merdeka Award has acknowledged 44 individuals and two organisations whose lasting contributions have led to the advancement of Malaysia and her people.

Professor Dr Balbir Singh

This year, the Merdeka Award for Health, Science and Technology was jointly conferred on two extraordinary recipients, Professor Dr Balbir Singh and Dr Timothy William, who were recognised for their pioneering work on the discovery of monkey malaria infecting humans and treatment of the disease respectively.

The ground breaking research which led to their recognition by the international medical community was carried out right here in Borneo, specifically in the states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Fuelled by a passion for research, both Merdeka Award laureates left their old city lives to build new ones.

Professor Balbir and Dr Timothy have each lived in Sarawak and Sabah respectively for more than a decade, devoting themselves not only to understanding malaria better, but to also train a new generation of researchers who share their passion.


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Malaysia has been battling malaria for more than a century and it was previously thought that there were only four types of the malaria parasite, Plasmodium that could cause human malaria.

The disease has claimed many lives throughout the country and both Merdeka Award laureates were drawn to it in an effort to help those suffering from the disease.

Professor Balbir, director of the Malaria Research Centre at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), was attracted to studying malaria during his postgraduate years in the United Kingdom.

“Research is my passion and I started working on malaria during my first postdoctoral position at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in 1984. I was hooked on malaria when I found out how prevalent and deadly it was,” he said.

He led a research team at UNIMAS who discovered in 2004 that the monkey malaria parasite, Plasmodium knowlesi, was a major cause of human malaria in the Kapit Division of Sarawak.

It was being misdiagnosed as the less threatening Plasmodium malariae since these two parasites look identical under the microscope.

His research team developed DNA-based methods for correct identification and reported in 2008 that knowlesi malaria was widely distributed in Sarawak, occurred in Sabah and Pahang, and could lead to death.

Subsequently, his team showed that humans acquired Plasmodium knowlesi from long-tailed and pig-tailed macaques, which are the most common monkeys found in Southeast Asia.

His discovery that there is a fifth cause of human malaria and it is a zoonosis (an infection acquired from animals) has revolutionised the understanding of malaria internationally and resulted in the rewriting of medical textbooks worldwide.

As for Dr Timothy, he and his colleagues at Sabah’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital Clinical Research Centre conducted clinical studies on Plasmodium knowlesi and discovered that this form of malaria has a high mortality rate, especially among patients whose treatment was delayed.

The alarming findings inspired Dr Timothy and his team to identify new ways of treating this form of malaria in a quest to reduce the number of fatalities.

Dr Timothy William

“I dedicated my life to becoming a good doctor. Malaria is one of the diseases I treat as an Infectious Disease Physician. It is a disease that causes a lot of suffering and can be deadly. We did research on the past treatment for the usual human malaria and succeeded in finding out the best treatment available for the newly discovered P.knowlesi malaria,” said Dr Timothy.

Dr Timothy was a core team member who treated the SARS patients in Kuala Lumpur Hospital in 2003.

He received the Royal Kuala Lumpur Rotary Award on behalf of the SARS team.

He led the Sabah State Clinical Management for H1N1 in 2009.

He set up the Sabah State Infectious Disease Unit in 2006 for the management of the numerous infectious diseases like AIDS, TB Melioidosis.

The Unit has published numerous papers on Infectious Diseases in International Journals and their work has been presented in many International Conferences.

The impact of Professor Balbir’s and Dr Timothy’s work is most meaningful right here in Malaysia because our country has the highest incidence of Plasmodium knowlesi cases in the world; knowlesi malaria accounts for over 80% of all malaria cases in Sarawak and Sabah.

Their pioneering work has led to various policy reforms with regards to the treatment and management of malaria patients in Malaysia, all of which have saved many lives.

Such was the significance of their findings that the results of their research have already been incorporated into WHO guidelines.

While other researchers will carry on and expand on their work in the future, the achievements of Professor Balbir and Dr Timothy are forever immortalised through the Merdeka Award.


Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah Ibni Almarhum Sultan Azlan Muhibbuddin Shah Al-Maghful-Lah with the Board of Trustees and the recipients of the Merdeka Award.


The Merdeka Award was established by PETRONAS, ExxonMobil and Shell on 27 August 2007, to recognise and reward deserving individuals and organisations who have made outstanding and lasting contributions to the nation and the people of Malaysia in their respective fields.

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