By Dr Tan Gaik Cheng

The annual Anugerah Akademik Negara (AAN) (National Academic Award) is a prestigious award given to high achieving academics in Malaysian institutions of higher education. Prof. Dr Debra Sim from the Faculty of Medicine, Universiti Malaya, won the 10th AAN Teaching Award in the Health Sciences cluster, no small feat considering the number of academics vying for it. She received the award together with the 11th AAN award winners last November. Asian Beacon sat down with the diminutive professor to learn how a young girl from the backwaters of Sabah rose to become one of our top teaching professors.

Debra was born in Tawau, Sabah, into a typical Teochew family. ”My first exposure to the Christian faith was at St. Patrick’s Secondary School, an Anglican mission school where morning assembly consisted of 10 minutes of Bible stories and prayers. Expatriate Christian teachers from India provided the bulk of the Christian input,” Debra recalls.

The third of four children, she joined the youth fellowship at a local Baptist church in her teens but only made a decision for Christ at 15 years at a youth camp where the teaching on judgement and the Second Coming convinced her to follow Jesus and not sit on the fence any longer. 

After Form 5, Debra left Tawau for England in 1975 where she did her A-levels, proceeding to Liverpool University in 1977 where she would finally graduate in 1984 with a Ph.D. in Pharmacology.


“When I returned to Malaysia in 1984, God miraculously provided me a job as a lecturer in Universiti Malaya despite my missing my job interview due to unforeseen circumstances. I had been offered a post-doctoral position in Liverpool but had chosen to return to help out in a new church, and this job was a confirmation that I had made the right decision to come home. God also provided senior colleagues as mentors who guided me as a junior lecturer while the University provided free courses to help me improve my teaching skills,” she shares.

Several inspirational teachers would leave a lasting impression on the young Debra and lay the foundation for a life-long love of teaching. From her school teachers, she learnt the importance of using illustrations and models and also teaching for relevance to life, mentioning in particular the late Mrs Grace George who taught Additional Maths in Form 4 and Form 5. In the hands of Mrs George, differentiation and integration were not just formulae to remember but concepts that carried meaning beyond the Additional Maths classroom to my Pharmacokinetics lectures.

“I would however like to pay tribute to my greatest earthly teacher, Pastor Stuart Olyott of Belvedere Road Baptist Church in Liverpool. Week after week, he would expound God’s Word, explaining complex concepts in clear and simple language. He would teach key truths and focus on basic principles with simple but relevant illustrations,” enthuses Debra.

“My ultimate role model is of course Jesus, the quintessential teacher who could teach one-on-one as effectively as the thousands he sometimes had in His audience. He used diverse methods to communicate truths, often answering questions with questions to guide a seeker to a personal understanding of fundamental issues.” 

Debra is quick to add that credit goes to God, who brought into her life these dedicated teachers who were so passionate about their craft. Their passion has rubbed off on her and motivated and inspired her to follow in their steps.

Honoured Professor
An award to honour her Master
Honoured Professor
From professor to Sunday School teacher, Prof. Debra Sim fully utilises her gift of teaching to impact lives

“My ultimate role model is of course Jesus, the quintessential teacher who could teach one-on-one as effectively as the thousands he sometimes had in His audience.”


Debra is pleased that teachers are finally getting the recognition they deserve with the inclusion of a teaching category in the AAN award. “This is timely acknowledgement for the contribution of teachers in nation building although a single award admittedly cannot recognise the many, many other great teachers that are equally deserving,” she points out.

“In the midst of my success, the Lord however has taught me an important and humbling lesson in the process. Do not make worldly recognition your goal, let others take note of your work and let the acknowledgement come to you rather than draw attention to it yourself. In 2014, urged on by others, I applied for the same award but failed and God had to remind me that He would give it to me at the right time and if it was good for me.”

By 2015, Debra had won the Universiti Malaya Excellence Award in the Teaching Category. The following year when she was least expecting it, the Dean asked her to apply for the AAN award and the rest, as they say, is history.


Debra has taught Sunday school most of her Christian life. “I have taught every age group and am currently teaching the 3- to 5-year-old children at Serdang Grace Baptist Church where I have worshipped since I returned to Malaysia. I also play the guitar for church meetings and Sunday School when needed.”

She has also been actively involved in Bible Study Fellowship since 2007, taking on various roles as group leader, children’s leader and currently as administrative leader. “My priority however is still my ministry in church which I am careful to always make time for despite a busy work schedule,” she emphasises.

She has three principles governing her ministry: Be faithful in upholding God’s truth; be skilful in teaching God’s Words; and be careful in applying God’s commands.


“Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well” and “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” are two rules she lives by. Debra makes no clear distinction between the secular and spiritual, viewing her work as a lecturer as something to be done for the Lord. “I don’t view my work as more secular or less spiritual than church-related work. Work is part of God’s creation ordinance and a means to glorify Him,” she explains.

“My philosophy of teaching is founded on the biblical truth that all human beings are created in God’s image. Therefore like our all-wise, almighty and benevolent Creator, every person is capable of thinking, reasoning, creating and innovating for the sake of mankind, using knowledge and skills acquired and developed, given the right environment and guidance. In addition, given the rigorous entry process into our universities, I believe that all my students are capable of learning to a level of excellence and my role is to motivate and help them develop this potential.”

As a lecturer at a public university, she has connected with thousands of students in the last 34 years and has had many opportunities to touch lives and extend Christ’s love. Her research work is also understood as a means to discover and understand more clearly God’s creation.

Prof. Debra retires this year after more than three decades of loyal service to the University and is looking forward to what the Lord has in store for her. At the AAN award ceremony, her photograph was accompanied by a statement explaining her philosophy of life – a testament to her strong faith.

The sky is the limit to my learning; Professionalism is the goal of my service; Integrity is the guiding principle in my research; The rest I leave to the Almighty, All-Knowing and All-Loving God.

Asian Beacon: Apr – Jun 2018 (Vol 50 #2, p32-33)

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