Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Left, but Not Forgotten

I wanted to blog about Rustam Sani, academic, intellectual, writer and blogger, when I read that he had passed away in April. But I didn't know much about him, or his work at that time. (One of the great ironies of life is that you often only hear of people you'd have liked to have known better when you read their obituaries!)

As luck would have it, Mark Disney has given me permission to reproduce his piece from Prospect magazine. The book reviews are to follow.
Three days before he was due to launch his two most recent books at the Shah Alam library – ‘Social Roots of the Malay Left’ and ‘Failed Nation? Concerns of a Malaysian Nationalist’, Rustam Sani passed away without warning at home at the too-young age of 63.

Local newspapers, the TV stations and websites duly paid homage to his contributions to the fabric of Malaysian intellectual life, and the book launch, which went ahead with his family’s blessing, was attended by a throng of politicians, academics, friends and sympathisers torn between commiseration for the loss of a leading academic light and celebration of his scholarly and literary achievements.

Impossibly impartial

Before we get to the books in question, I ought, for the sake of (im)partiality, to declare my own interest in the man and his works. Rustam was my uncle and I knew him well over the past 16 years as a familiar and jocular family figure rather than as a social or political commentator.

Our first encounter was at my wedding in 1992, when he was the spokesman for the Malay side of the family. At that time I was understandably unaware of his anti-colonial sympathies and therefore sat in bemused silence as he proceeded to gently mock my wife’s unfortunate choice of an English husband. He would, no doubt, have been struck by the irony that the day of his passing was April 23rd – St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday. Of course, this makes it almost impossible to offer an unbiased opinion of the individual, or to review his books with the objectivity that he himself would have demanded.

Interested and amused

Although he was a well-known figure on the ‘Malay Left’ and was easily recognised for his distinctive voice in the blog, Vox Populi, from countless articles in local and regional newspapers, and on TV talk shows, he always struck me as a political moderate; a fair and objective observer of the local political scene. If he was angry or disillusioned with the anti-intellectual and authoritarian bent of Malaysian political life, he never showed it – or perhaps I never noticed it.

He seemed able to maintain an amused and amusing, as well as an interested and interesting perspective on local developments, and was far from being the ‘leftist firebrand’ that his father, Ahmad Boestamam, by all accounts was. He was obviously affected by the lengthy prison spells that his father suffered for his political beliefs in both the pre- and post-independence periods and therefore chose academia rather than agitation as a vehicle for expressing his views on the state and direction of the nation. He cared passionately about Malay language, literature, culture and politics, but from my perspective, Rustam was always a listener rather than a talker, a writer rather than a demagogue.

Kawan, Kawan

Perhaps this academic detachment was one of his strengths and one of the reasons why he continued to command respect from across the political spectrum, despite his association with Parti Rakyat Malaysia, and even after he became linked with the Reformasi movement in the late 1990s. The huge crowd that turned out at the book launch (seldom big occasions in Malaysia) clearly admired the work, but more touching, at least to me, was their obvious regard for the man. It was refreshing that despite the appearance of a number of VIPs like Anwar Ibrahim and the Selangor Menteri Besar, Khalid Ibrahim, the interminable refrain of “Tan Sri, Tan Sri, Datuk, Datuk” was replaced with the solidarity of “Saudera, Saudera, Kawan, Kawan.” Rustam would have approved.

The launch lasted more than two hours with a succession of speakers recalling his life and times. Syed Husin Ali, the former UM academic and President of PKR, gave a biographical account of his academic and political input; the national laureate, Samad Said, spoke about his literary endeavours (he wrote poetry and short stories and was the first to translate Tolstoy, Conrad and Maupassant into Malay); and Hishamuddin Rais, the political activist, recalled meeting him at UM’s Socialist Club in 1971 before bumping into a smartly dressed Rustam at a Reformasi rally almost 30 years later - “nobody but Rustam would go to a demo in batik shirt and leather shoes!”

Anwar Ibrahim spoke at length about Rustam’s intellectual contributions and even the Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi and his deputy, Najib Tun Razak, sent their private condolences to the family. Perhaps the best summaries came from the Australian academic Clive Kessler, whose wife Noraini Othman, spoke glowingly on behalf of her husband of, “A Malay who was cosmopolitan, open-minded, fearless, as well as grounded in Malay culture. This is not just a loss to his family but to the wider family of Malaysia.” His son and daughter, Azi and Rinnie, concluded the speeches, with Azi observing that Rustam was never a complainer or a wanton critic, but a man who wrote simply and constructively for the masses. He finished with an observation endorsed by everyone who feels that combination of fondness for, and frustration with, modern Malaysia; it is an epitaph that serves as an appropriate introduction to his writings: “He knew that we could all do much better.”
Biodata :
  • Rustam Sani (11/8/1944 – 23/4/2008)
  • Born in Ipoh
  • Tanjung Malim School and Victoria Institute
  • Universiti Malaya 1967-70 (Malay Studies)
  • Universiti Malaya – Lecturer in translation theory
  • Further studies at the universities of Reading, Canterbury and Yale
  • Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia – Lecturer in Anthropology & Sociology
  • Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia 1988-90 – Associate Prof in Political Science
  • Recipient of the Hadiah Sastera Negara 1989
  • ISIS 1990-95 – Senior Fellow
  • Universiti Malaya 1997-99 – Centre for Civilisational Dialogue


Jordan said...

One of the great ironies of life is that you often only hear of people you'd have liked to have known better when you read their obituaries!

I know the feeling. I recently discovered the wonderful wit of the Irish writer Nuala O'Faolain, only to discover she had died just a couple of weeks earlier.

Greenbottle said...

Rustam A Sani. One of the better Malay 'intelektual'.

Pemergian nya sangat di rasai.

Web Sutera said...

I like him. I hv books by him, in Bahasa Melayu. Al-fatihah :-(

Johnny B. Rempit said...

I think you said it best by saying, "One of the great ironies of life is that you often only hear of people you'd have liked to have known better when you read their obituaries!"

I too only knew of him after his passing. To date, I have read his thesis on the Malay Left and am looking forward to reading his other works.

Regretfully, I have been wondering to myself why I haven't heard of this man before he passed away.