Celebrating a lifelong commitment to truth and justice

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rustam1Francis Loh attended a memorial to honour the late pre-eminent public intellectual, Rustam Sani, who was also an Aliran member.

The original invitation from Rustam A Sani was to a book launch to be officiated by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. It was scheduled for 26 April 2008 at the Selangor State Library in Shah Alam. Rustam’s two new books, published by SIRD (Strategic Information and Research Development) were entitled Failed Nation? Concerns of a Malaysian Nationalist and Social Roots of the Malay Left.

In fact, due to the sudden demise of Rustam in his house in Gombak on 23 April morning, just three days before the scheduled event, the occasion was transformed into a book launch-cum-memorial to honour the life and work of this outstanding Malaysian son.

Lots of people including many old friends were already gathered at the Library when the three of us from Aliran (Subramaniam Pillay, Vijayalakshmi and I) arrived. Just past the entrance to the hall, there was a table stacked with Rustam latest books, not just the two which were to be launched but his other books as well such as Menjelang Reformasi and Ke Mana Nasionalisme Melayu? I suppose this would have been where Rustam would have stood or sat – to welcome the guests and to autograph the books for those who bought them.

Next to this table was a book display by SIRD. Numerous critical books about current affairs in Malaysia and elsewhere were on sale. Many were perusing these books and buying them. A book lover himself, Rustam would have been glad to see people bending over the book display. Beyond the display, stretching over several boards, was an exhibition of Rustam life and his numerous publications.

Born in Tanjung Malim, Perak, he graduated from Universiti Malaya, and furthered his studies in the University of Reading, University of Kent in Canterbury, and Yale University. He taught in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia mostly, but was also a Fellow in the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), Kuala Lumpur.

Rustam wrote academic books, novels and even secondary school text books. Most were in Malay but many were also in English. He also translated novels (among them Leo Tolstoy works), academic books, and even Do-Rae-Mon comics into Bahasa Malaysia. His forte, perhaps, was as one of the finest essayists in Malay. His essays revealed not just his concern for social justice and compassion for others, but also a mastery of the language; his writings were a model of clarity. He was awarded the prestigious Hadiah Sastera Negara (National Literary Award) in the category of essays and literary criticism.

Crafted Wawasan 2020 speech

Less well known, and as revealed in the tribute by K S Jomo, a former colleague and collaborator in many causes, Rustam, while in ISIS, was responsible for crafting ahathir historic February 1991 speech promising a Bangsa Malaysia as part of his Vision 2020 (thankfully translated by Rustam as Wawasan 2020, instead of the earlier Visi 2020), changing the terms of national discourse in one fell swoop?

But did you know that he was also a card-carrying member of the Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM), became its deputy president, and represented his party in the negotiations with Parti Keadilan Malaysia to merge the two parties into Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)?

His illustrious father Abdullah Sani @ Ahmad Boestamam, one of Malaysia most well-known nationalist leaders, would have been proud of his son’s achievements.

It was this mix of his intellectual-cum-radical political background that accounted for the myriad people – from all walks of life, from all races, men and women, young, middle-age and old – who showed up that afternoon. About 250 to 300 people turned up. Many PKR and other Pakatan Rakyat leaders were there. Apart from Anwar Ibrahim, there were deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali, Selangor Mentri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim, lots of YBs -among them Tian Chua, Elizabeth Wong, Dr Mohd Nasir Hashim, Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, Dr Xavier Jayakumar, and Ronnie Liu. Present were also many NGO activists – Mafrel’s Abdul Malik Hussin, MTUC’s Syed Shahir, Suaram’s Yap among others, academics as well as the literary-sastera types.

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The formalities began at about 4.00pm with prayers for the soul of Allahyarham Rustam.

SIRD’s Chong Ton Sin was the first to speak. He recalled how he had met Rustam and his wife Rohani just two weeks earlier to finalise arrangements and preparations for the event. Little did he realise that this would be his last face-to-face meeting with Rustam. He regretted the sudden passing of this intelektual tulin by which he meant  great academic who was deeply involved in social movements? Moga-moga ribuan Rustam akan berbangkit! (Hopefully, a thousand more Rustams will arise!)

Like a casuarina tree

Syed Husin Ali spoke next. This soft-spoken but strong-minded former Professor of Sociology had been Rustam’s teacher, in more ways than one, in Universiti Malaya. For Husin, Rustam was seorang intelektual yang progresif dan komited, not the ivory tower sort, nor those who depended on officialdom for sustenance and approval. In fact, Rustam himself (and all present) would have described Husin himself as the progressive and committed intellectual par excellence, the cikgu to all of them.

Husin first came to know Rustam, he said, when he was still a young boy. The late Usman Awang and Husin used to visit the family with donations from well wishers while Rustam father Ahmad Boestamam was imprisoned in the 1960s. Even as a young boy, Rustam was already politically aware.

Later, as a student leader in Universiti Malaya, Rustam got involved in various social causes such as Hamid Tuah’s struggle for the landless in Teluk Gong, Selangor and the students’ fight for freedom and social justice in the university. Husin, however, intimated that Rustam always felt more comfortable being in the background, writing poems, and analysing the goings-on.

Upon completing his studies, Rustam joined PRM but always preferred to work behind the scenes. He helped to edit the Mimbar Sosialis and later the Suara Rakyat. When Reformasi broke out in 1998-99, Rustam played a major back-room role in helping to forge the Barisan Alternatif and in drafting its For a Just Malaysia, BA’s beautiful Manifesto for the 1999 Election.

But when Husin invited him to become deputy president of PRM in 2001 (which had fallen vacant due to the incumbent Abdul Razak illness), Rustam did not hesitate to step forward. Husin reminded all that Rustam had represented PR in the negotiations to merge with Parti Keadilan, to form PKR. In fact, he was PKR’s first Information Chief until his own illness forced him to relinquish the post. More recently, he helped to draft PKR election manifesto for the 2008 election.

Paradoxically, he worked even harder after he had given up his party posts. For he plunged into writing, his first love, even more. This was a very productive period in Rustam life as he wrote these new books, commented on social and political developments regularly in various publications, and set up his own blog too. http://karya-merdeka.blogspot.com/

Husin ended by comparing Rustam to the pokok rhu (casuarina tree) which is strong and steadfast in all kinds of weather; it bends seemingly in the wind, but it never breaks or falls.

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Demonstrating in batik shirt

Sastrawan Negara A Samad Said spoke next. He recalled that Ahmad Boestamam had brought his young son to see him in 1957. Boestamam explained that his son wanted to be a man of letters, and so enquired what books he ought to read. Samad, then in the ‘angry young man’ phase, handed over two books: ‘Look Back in Anger‘ and ‘Room at the Top’. At that point Samad wasn’t sure whether the father or the son ended up reading those books. In the event, Rustam ended up as a sastrawan himself, but one, Samad thought, who was a cynic to the end. Samad, himself, had been the butt of Rustam’s cynicism. And later, Rustam would turn that same cynicism at Dr Mahathir. Samad ended with a reading of his eulogy for Rustam, specially composed for the occasion.

The colourful maverick Hishamuddin Rais, ironically dressed in a black coat and tie on this auspicious occasion, next took to the floor. He shared with us his ‘stop-and-go relations’ with Rustam. Their first encounter was back in July 1971. Hishamuddin, then a first-year student in Universiti Malaya, had attended an exciting Socialist Club talk by Ahmad Boestamam and then followed the group to someone’s house for extended discussions. It was only later that he discovered that Boestamam was Rustam’s father. Thereafter, they worked closely together, participating in many demonstrations and protests in the early 1970s, until the crackdown on the student movement in 1974.

‘How many girls do you think joined the Socialist Club then?’ he asked. ‘Only two,’ he replied, and the pretty one, Rohani, ended up becoming Rustam’s wife, he quipped.

Hisham lost contact with Rustam during the next 20-odd years because of his sojourn overseas. Returning to Malaya, he ‘met Rustam’ every Wednesday by reading his column in the Utusan Malaysia, the only day when he would buy the newspaper. He finally met Rustam face-to-face in a Reformasi demonstration in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman in 1999. ‘What sort of a person goes to a demonstration in batik shirt and leather shoes?’ he quipped. Well, Rustam did. However, after several long hours catching up with him about old times and current affairs, Hisham said he discovered that Rustam was very much the same radical intellectual of old.

Alas, their attempts to work together on two projects were abandoned, the first because Hisham ended up in jail during 1999-2001, and the second because Rustam fell ill and found it difficult to move around. Nonetheless, Rustam was a soul-mate to the end.

The real thing

Noraini Othman, Rustam’s long-time colleague in UKM and collaborater in many social causes, took to the floor next. She read a tribute from her husband, Clive Kessler, also a very close friend of Rustam’s. For Clive, Rustam was one of the smartest people he had ever met, anywhere! He was the “exemplary cosmopolitan modern Malay … yet was grounded in his own culture…’ In this day and age when we talk about public intellectuals, Rustam, said Clive, was “simply the real thing”. Read Clive’s tribute to Rustam in full in a preceding article.

Rustam’s children, Azrani, then Ariani, addressed us next. They shared on how Rustam and Rohani filled the family’s quality time together not only with talk of freedom, justice and truth, but with lots of love. Azrani revealed that ‘Bapak’s greatest joy’ was when people read the things he wrote. Read, therefore, Rustam’s writings that he has left behind. Grapple, too, Azrani pleaded, with the teasing question ‘Are we a failed nation?’ that Rustam asked us.

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Ariani emphasised her father’s writings in Malay, his contributions to the development and use of bahasa yang berbudi. Bapak, she said tiada ajenda selain telus, ingin perdebatan, demi perubahan sosial (had no other agenda except to be transparent and truthful, to invite debate, in the cause of social change). Enjoy the tributes in full by Azrani and Ariani, which accompany this report.

It was time for Anwar Ibrahim to speak. He revealed that Rustam had insisted that he must review the two books for the occasion, not simply cut the ribbon. And so he did, one book after another, briefly. This is not the occasion to focus on DSAI’s musings on Rustam’s writings. Rather, it is to stress Anwar’s call to all present to read and think about the contents of Rustam’s latest two books. Anwar also revealed that he had read many of Rustam’s other writings while he was in jail, sent to him via the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, where Rohani worked.

Now that all the speeches were done, the speakers mounted the stage and the hall applauded thunderously when Anwar launched the two books by pushing apart the boards on stage, behind which were posters of the two new books. Another short prayer followed.

Then it was time for tea in the adjoining room. The family, the dignitaries, and the guests from all walks of Malaysian life mingled. Many shared with one another their past encounters with Rustam ?in the university, in the party, in debates and seminars, and in the streets.

Aliran member Rustam

I shared with a few around me how I had first met Rustam in the United States in the late 1970s when we were both post-graduate students. He was in Yale and I was in Cornell. And because we studied many common subjects, and shared many perspectives, we struck a chord immediately. I continued to interact with Rustam after we returned from the US. He assumed a teaching position in UKM, and I, one in USM. Over the past two decades we had occasion to exchange ideas and to debate with one another. I also used to ask his permission to carry one or another of his articles (usually edited down to magazine-article length) in Aliran Monthly. After several such occasions, Rustam, applied to become an Aliran member not long ago. We were thrilled to bits that he considered us worth joining. No doubt, his articles in Aliran Monthly have helped to enhance our appeal.

In conclusion, Aliran wishes to record its deepest condolences to Puan Rohani Zainal Abidin, to Rustam’s children Azrani and Azriani, his daughter-in-law Ku Salha Ku Adnan, and his grand-daughter Arissa Azrani.

Semoga Allah mencucuri rahmat-Nya ke atas roh beliau dan memberti kekuatan kepada seluruh ahli keluarga beliau. Amin!

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