His true calling
University of Malaya's Dr Kamarul Zaman Ahmad practised law for 10 years before switching to teaching, the passion of his life. He tells ARNI ABDUL RAZAK why he made this decision.
THE year 1996 was a turning point for academic Dr Kamarul Zaman Ahmad when he gave up law to teach. After practising law for 10 years, he signed up for a Master's in Business Administration programme at University of Malaya and started teaching part-time. The rest, as they say, is history.
"I've never regretted my move as I've found my true calling in teaching," says the 40-something mild-mannered lecturer.
He has been with the university since 2001 and is a former deputy dean of the Faculty of Business and Accountancy.
The decision to give up the practice was one of the most difficult to make but it has proven to be one of his best career moves.
He is not only one of the most interesting lecturers (as rated by his students) at the university but also among its most popular.
His "wild" and "quirky" methods of teaching are fast becoming a hit among his students. After all, it's not often that they get to meet a lecturer who would hypnotise them or make them extinguish fire with their bare hands in a management class!
"When I teach in class, I try to avoid the `old limiting way'. I use a lot of games and introduce one or two extreme activities aimed at pushing students beyond their comfort zones. Good education is not all about theories and memorising notes for exams. It's about using what you've learned to improve your life. I want to impart that knowledge," he says.
Recalling his earlier days as a lecturer, Kamarul Zaman says it has not always been easy to capture his students' interest.
"When I first started teaching some eight years ago, my students complained that I was a boring teacher. I was puzzled because I was only emulating the teaching styles of a number of lecturers from various universities. It
pained me to receive such remarks from my students," he says.
Not one to moan and groan, Kamarul Zaman began looking for ways to make his classes stimulating.
"I changed my approach. I tried to instil jokes in my teachings and the students loved it. I think cracking jokes in a classroom is okay, as long as those jokes are linked to relevant theories," Kamarul Zaman explains.
He came up with the idea of inculcating risky acts in his classroom after attending a seminar by motivational guru Anthony Robbins about two years ago. It was the same seminar that inspired him to become a educator.
"The students were skeptical at first when I told them about the fire-extinguishing and hypnotism acts. Many of them didn't their hands when I asked for volunteers. But in the end, almost everyone participated in these `daring stunts', including the women. This is a typical scenario in my class," he says.
He adds that the activities were conducted to imbue confidence in his students.
"Those in my Master's classes are managers or soon-to-be managers. They have to learn not to underestimate their capabilities and to set challenging yet achievable goals," explains Kamarul Zaman, who is also the author of So You want To Get A PhD.
He teaches business research methods, organizational behaviour, human resources and management at the Master’s level. According to Kamarul Zaman, an educator can only be considered successful if his students have understood and practiced what was taught. Yet there are still many lecturers out there who are only interested in content, rather that delivery. Hence, students become bored or confused.
“In the end, they have only managed to capture their students’ attention for the first 15 minutes or so” says Kamarul Zaman, alluding to professors who stand behind a rostrum just reading out notes.
“And there are also lecturers who are in the habit of conducting classes using Powerpoint. Can students focus for hours on a particular subject just by looking at the Powerpoint presentation?
He agrees that university lecturers (especially certain senior professors) have to learn about innovative methods of subject delivery.
"Unfortunately, many lecturers don't feel that it's necessary for them to change their teaching styles," he notes.
"Most of them have this notion that the subjects they teach are important, so students who don't sign up do so at their own peril. Maybe it's the ego talking. Whatever it is, it has got to change," he says.
When Kamarul Zaman first joined academia, he thought he would just "follow the traditional career route set by university professors before him".
"I wanted to get my doctorate, then strive for associate professorship, followed by professorship and then retire. It's different for me now. An Anthony Robbins seminar that I attended two years ago changed everything.
"While I still write articles and attend conferences (requirements set by the university), my working life is not confined to just academic teaching. I also conduct motivational courses for executives and managers nowadays," he says.
Apart from his hectic schedule at the university, Kamarul Zaman, who holds three degrees – Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Law, Master's in Business Administration and a PhD in Business Psychology - and two professional qualifications - Bar-at-Law (Lincoln's Inn) and Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators - is also being kept busy handling motivational and management retreats for corporate organisations.
At a three-day management retreat held in Malacca recently, Kamarul Zaman gave his participants the opportunity to extinguish a 30cm-long fire using their hands, swallow up to 12cm of fire on a stick, walk on a bed of broken glass scattered on a sponge and stride across a two-metre grass patch strewn with tiny bits and pieces of burnt charcoal - all in a single day.
"I was trying to tell those managers that fear is all in the mind. If you can push aside your limiting beliefs, you can achieve anything," he says.
Students of 'wild' lecturer Dr Kamarul Zaman Ahmad tell ARNI ABDUL RAZAK why they find his management class inspiring
Dr Kamarul Zaman Ahmad always starts his class with a warm-up session and Sunday morning is no different. At the stroke of 10, the mild-mannered organisational behaviour lecturer gets his students to stand up and dance to energetic music. After 10 minutes, the dull, sleepy faces are replaced with perky students all ready to begin a lesson on management.
Kamarul Zaman begins his lecture by showing a video of motivational guru Anthony Robbins. He also tells them that they will be doing some extreme exercises later. The students exchange glances but do not look totally surprised. After all, Kamarul Zaman has a reputation for being a "wild" lecturer; he is definitely different from the rest of the pack. His forte is turning an ordinary lecture into a mind-blowing experience for many of his students.
"We've never met a lecturer quite like him," says Eddy Lee, referring to Kamarul Zaman, who is also a former deputy dean of the Faculty of Business and Accountancy. Lee, 56, is the chief executive officer of a private hospital in the Klang Valley and is currently pursuing his Master's in Management at UM. "He makes going to class on Sunday mornings bearable," he says.
Like Lee, 49-year-old Daud Amat Zin, a civil servant, also enjoys Kamarul Zaman's classes. "Not that organisational behaviour is a boring subject but Kamarul Zaman knows how to cleverly add colour and excitement to the class. Not many lecturers are willing to go the extra mile," he says.
Instead of reading from textbooks, they watch a few of their classmates get hypnotised while people sit on them. Almost everyone in class also bravely try to extinguish a small fire using their bare hands!
Philip Lim, 31, an investment banker, says doing such tasks makes learning much easier. "The things that we do are relevant to the subject matter. I have learned to be more focused and that's important in management," he adds, enthusiastically.
Malaysia should have more lecturers like Kamarul Zaman, says 39-year-old civil servant Rosman Yaacob. Describing Kamarul Zaman as a "dedicated and interesting educator", Rosman adds that the 40-something-year-old lecturer is also a great motivator. These are qualities that are lacking in many local lecturers nowadays, he notes. "Initially, not many wanted to try out the fire stunt. They're all afraid of getting their hands burnt. In the end, almost everyone gave it a try. It's amazing how he inspired us to face up to our fears," he adds.
When Kamarul Zaman first initiated the idea (of extinguishing fire using their hands) to students, looks of disapproval were apparent. After some convincing, the uncertain lot became gung-ho and ready to take on the challenge.
"Fear is actually your friend but don't let it be your master and control you. I want you to be courageous because courage is the ability to operate in spite of fear. When you have courage and confidence, you portray a more positive outlook and these are important attributes to an organisation," says Kamarul Zaman.
First-timers are asked to put out the tiny flame of a candle wick with one hand - an easy task for most. That is followed by his now infamous flame on a stick which students are encouraged to douse using both hands. Not everyone can do it, though.
"I'm not teaching them tricks so that they can join the circus.' Kamarul Zaman. "I'm just trying to prove to the students that they can do almost anything if they can put aside their restricting beliefs and fears” he adds.
Kamarul Zaman, however, cautions that such "stunts" should only be conducted under the watchful eyes of a trained coach. Before getting people to perform those dangerous stunts, Zaleha and I will ponder and iron out all issues first. We have many things to think about, especially safety," he explains.
The man, who is constantly striving to improve himself, also reads a lot of motivational books during his free time. "I love books by Anthony Robbins and Ron Kaufman. They're so inspiring," he says.
HOT STUFF: A participant strides across a two-metre grass patch strewn with tiny bits of burnt charcoal. Some individuals will gain little "trophies" (tiny blisters) on their feet after the walk.
UNIVERSITY of Malaya academic Dr Kamarul Zaman Ahmad recently started incorporating extreme activities in his Master's classes to encourage his students to confront their fears. He believes that this will boost their confidence levels.
Kamarul Zaman defines extreme activities as exercises that are designed to push you well beyond your comfort zone including those which you initially thought were impossible for you to do.Fire-walking, fire-eating, glass-walking and fire-extinguishing using bare hands fall in this category.
He was inspired by a seminar conducted by Anthony Robbins (author of several motivational books including Awaken The Giant Within, Giant Steps and Unlimited Power) which he attended two years ago. He was exposed to tasks designed to build up confidence. He began injecting them into his motivational and corporate training sessions soon after. Overwhelming response from participants prompted him to later introduce such activities to his Master's students.
Kamarul Zaman cautions that such "stunts" must be only be carried out under the supervision of a competent trainer. Candidates must be "primed" before attempting these acts, he says.