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Malaysian geologist, 84, discovered 14 new species of plant fossils

Minerals, fossils and rocks. Lots of rocks. Many would quickly assume that this is the preoccupation of a geologist. But Senathi Rajah Sinnathamby, one of Malaysia’s most senior and reputable geologists, offers a different perspective on the job.

Rajah, as he prefers to be called, is 84 and is currently enjoying life as a retiree, but occasionally acts as a consultant geologist. Over a cup of tea, the vibrant expert of all things related to geology recalls his biggest challenges and achievements.

Hailing from Batu Gajah, Perak, Rajah’s interest in geology was sparked when he encountered the processes of tin mining, which was big business in Perak during the 1950s. In fact, tin was one of Malaya and then Malaysia’s biggest exports till the end of the 1970s.

“At first, I was really interested in the chemical aspect of geology,” he reminisces. “However, as my interest deepened, my curiosity got the better of me and I began looking for opportunities to explore.”

Upon discovering a vacancy for a field assistant doing lab work, he immediately applied and got the job the next day. Soon after, his days started from 6:30am and ended at 9pm, as he balanced schoolwork and lab work.


Rajah is one of Malaysia’s most senior and reputable geologists. Photos: The Star/SAM THAM

“Despite the long and laborious days, I tried my best to excel in school,” he shares, also mentioning that despite being much older than his classmates during Form 6, he was the only student who successfully passed his Higher School Certificate (HSC) examination.

This led to an opportunity he couldn’t pass as he was given a chance to study geology in the University of Western Ontario, Canada, as a Colombo Plan Scholar.

“From there on, it was an unforgettable journey of studying geology that cemented my passion for the field.” says Rajah, who held several notable positions in geological departments all across Malaysia. He left the service as the assistant director general of the then Geological Survey Department of Malaysia.

Among Rajah’s most noteworthy achievements was the discovery of limestone, believed to be non-existent, in the Sungai Dohol area. This was followed by the discovery of 14 new species of plant fossils found in argillaceous rocks in the Sungai Linggiu area where a new plant genus, Rajahia, was named in honour of Rajah its discoverer.

“I was incredibly honoured to have a genus named after me. I would consider this one of my greatest life achievements,” he concludes.–


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