Rustam Sani 1944-2008

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rustam saniThe world that many hope is now coming into being is a world that Rustam would have loved and in which he would have thrived, and flourished, and delighted, writes Clive Kessler.

Alongside some of the great minds of our time whom I knew as colleagues in leading universities in Britain and USA, Rustam Sani was one of the half dozen or so brightest, smartest people whom I have ever met.

Like all truly intelligent people, Rustam had a mind whose deep creativity was displayed in an irrepressible playfulness. When he spoke, its high-voltage character shone out alike in his sparkling words and wit and through his twinkling, mischievous eyes.

People like that, who are not just smart and wise but who wield their exceptional talents without arrogance or pretensions, are rare.

Needless to say, such people — and here Rustam ran “true to type” — do not have much time for stupid and humourless drudges. And people of that kind, especially those risen to positions of power way beyond their talents and abilities, reciprocated that treatment towards Rustam, amply and often brutally.

Rustam was the gold standard

When I think of this aspect of Rustam’s life and fate, I often recall those words from the Biblical book known as Ecclesiastes [or “The Preacher of Jerusalem”] that was written, so old traditions maintain, by King Solomon/Nabi Sulaiman:

“There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, the kind of wrong that is the doing of rulers:

“Fools are put in high positions, while the rich [in wisdom] are made to occupy the low ones.

“I have seen slaves on horseback, while princes go on foot like slaves”

[Ecclesiastes 10: 5 – 7].


Rustam was one of those princes, a member of the nobility not of blood and lineage but of character.

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Rustam was the gold standard of what, in a now very debased and abused verbal currency, is these days known as a “public intellectual”. He was simply the real thing.

To recognise this, you only have to look at the weekly column that he used to write in Utusan Malaysia. There he not only addressed important, and often unrecognised, issues with insight and courage.

To do so — to address his fellow citizens in direct and thoughtful conversation about matters of importance and common concern — he had not only to know what he was talking about.

That was the easy part. He also had to create in Malay the language or “diction”— since it did not exist, and was not available simply to be picked up and borrowed — for that kind of public conversation: for respectful, challenging, egalitarian political engagement.

He had to create that modern Malay language and intellectual attitude. Through them he sought to transform his readers into a new kind of political public, to summon in them a new public political consciousness appropriate to modern Malaysian citizens. In doing so, he created himself as a —indeed, as the exemplary — modern cosmopolitan sophisticated Malay, at home in the world and its new ideas yet deeply grounded in his own culture and committed to his own society and country.

That this initiative was not allowed to grow and prosper but was strangled is one of the great tragedies of Malaysian public life.

And now Rustam is dead. He lived long enough to see the dawning last March of the political day of which he had dreamed all his life.

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His passing more poignant and painful

Yet that only makes his passing more poignant and painful. Perhaps the public world that is now coming into being in Malaysia will be one that would not simply have had space for Rustam and his enormous talents but which might, in its own best interests, have made use of his wisdom and built upon it.

The world that many hope is now coming into being is a world that Rustam would have loved and in which he would have thrived, and flourished, and delighted. It is one to which Rustam, had he lived, would have been central.

Now we will somehow all have to do without him: his wisdom and insight, his humour and passion, his way with words and ideas and with people, remarkable people and everyday people, all people.

That cruel loss has not been just his personally and his loving family’s but that too of his wider family, Malaysia.

May his memory long outlive him, and us; may it be a blessing and an inspiration to Malaysia and a beacon lighting the way that the nation will travel.

Clive S Kessler is Emeritus Professor in the School of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He has been researching and writing on Malaysian affairs, especially on Islam and Politics for close to 40 years.

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READ MORE:  Malaysia is home to all Malaysians since 1963 - full-stop

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