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A Lifelong Commitment to the Poor

Remembering Prof Ishak Shari (1948-2001), one of Malaysia's leading researchers into poverty and marginalisation in society

ishak Professor Ishak Shari, noted Malaysian scholar and economist, passed away on the morning of 30 June 2001, hardly two weeks after he underwent major surgery for cancer. Born on 4 January 1948, he was only 53 when he died.

Coming from a humble family background, and growing up at the same time as his country did, he entered the world of scholarship with a deep and life-long commitment to a vision of a shared and just future.

Shaped by the intellectual and political ferment of the late 1960s and early 1970s, he became one of the active student leaders who helped define the moral and intellectual horizon of Malaysian student politics in England during that period. That early moral and intellectual integrity and social commitment never left him throughout the course of a long and illustrious career.

His early work on poverty in the traditional fishing sector, the focus of his PhD dissertation, was a reflection of this understanding of Malaysian social science in the service of a developing nation. Throughout his life, this commitment to the poor and the marginalised was to inspire his teaching, research and writing.

Aware of the changing global landscape, he consistently drew attention to issues of inequity and was also concerned, in his later work, with the onslaught of global neo-liberalism and unfettered economic liberalisation.

Ishak obtained his BSc (Hons) and MSc in economics and statistics from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in 1970 and 1972. In 1985, he obtained his PhD in development economics from Universiti Malaya and moved on to an illustrious career at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).

Starting as a lecturer in 1972, he rose within the ranks to become Professor of Development Economics in 1991, Dean of the Faculty of Economics (1988-1990), and Dean of the Centre for Graduate Studies (1994-1997).

In 1997, he was appointed Director of the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), a social science research institute at UKM, a post he held until his untimely death. Ishak’s leadership helped turn IKMAS into a respected regional centre for globalisation and transformation studies.

Although trained as an economist, Ishak always transcended the confines of his discipline and embraced the social sciences as a whole. Standing for the integration of the social sciences, he was firmly against their fragmentation and compartmentalisation and translated this stance not only through his position as IKMAS Director, but also through his involvement in the reform of social-science teaching and research in UKM.

A careful, meticulous scholar who could read statistics, and as importantly, interpret them, with a practised eye sharpened by sustained reading of theoretical literature, Ishak developed into one of Malaysia’s finest development economists and a leading authority on national income distribution and social transformation.

In the past few years, and in line with his concern with the whole person, he further broadened his studies to cover cultural issues. Within this framework, he drew attention to questions of culture without divorcing them from economics; in this manner he emphasised the role of civil society in its broadest sense.

In his Inaugural Lecture of 1999, he reiterated “the proper relationship between market, state and civil society needed to realise a world for all humanity has to be thought through by all who desire justice, freedom and peace.” The title he gave to this lecture, The Earth for All Mankind, encapsulates the belief which had driven his scholarship and his understanding of scholarship as a form of service to humanity.

When the Kampong Medan disturbances erupted recently, Ishak observed that the attacks took place in one of the most depressed areas around Kuala Lumpur. “These areas are usually oppressive,” he said, pointing to the utter lack of amenities and proper housing. He observed that it was easier for the urban underclass to compare their plight with their well-to-do neighbours as they were right next door to them. Such comparisons, he noted, invariably led to resentment and to a heightened sense of deprivation among the underclass and in such depressed settings, all it needed was a small issue to spark off ill-feelings or conflict.

Ishak emphasised the need to develop social safety nets for the poor and other vulnerable groups. Apart from economic development, he believed that “the capacity to bring about a condition which empowers people to raise their creativity is no less important”.

This commitment to the marginalised was evident in his role as Director of IKMAS. He constantly guided his colleagues to focus their investigations and writings on IKMAS’ central research area - the impact of globalisation on the Malaysian nation and society and how best to manage it to nurture and promote national resilience and social cohesion.

Ishak’s work was recognised both within the country and abroad. He was appointed as consultant to many important projects by the government and international agencies such as the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). He was a past president of the Malaysian Social Science Association and was appointed as an expert to the Second National Economic Consultative Council (NECC II).

Ishak was a star in the community of scholars and intellectuals in the region. He was appointed Chairman of the Selection Committee of the Southeast Asian Studies Regional Exchange Programme (SEASREP) and Joint Chair of the Executive Committee of the Asian Public Intellectuals Fellowship Programme (API Fellowship), launched in July 2000. Ishak was also a prime mover of the Southeast Asian Public Intellectuals Fellowship (SEAF) Programme. In 1996, he was awarded a fellowship in the Asia Leaders’ Fellowship Programme (ALFP).

It should also be mentioned that Ishak was a member of Parti Rakyat Malaysia. Although he did not hold an official party post, he served as Chairperson of PRM's Congress in recent years. His quiet, but steady contribution to PRM has also been much appreciated.

For all his achievements, Ishak was utterly devoid of any airs. One of the things that struck those who met him was his simplicity and humility. Indeed, he seemed to dislike formal functions and after attending one such function immaculately attired in a business suit, he remarked that he felt uncomfortable in such settings.

He will always be remembered as a true friend and a leader whose gentleness, generosity, patience, cheerfulness, openness, optimism and unfailing concern for the progress and welfare of his colleagues and wards was unparalleled.

He was industrious to a fault, with little care for himself not even when ill. Ishak leaves behind his wife, Rashidah Md Dali, and five children.

His passing is not only a huge loss to IKMAS and UKM but to society in general. His inspiring academic leadership in analysing the causes of marginalization, poverty and oppression will remain as a shining example of how an academic can promote a deeper understanding of society’s woes, and in the process, help in the discovery of fresh solutions.

Ishak chose the following words of Iqbal to conclude his Inaugural Lecture. His choice reflects the soul of the man who has departed from us with such suddenness:

The journey of love is a very long journey but sometimes with a sign you can cross that vast desert. Search and search again without losing hope. You may find sometimes a treasure on your way.

May his soul rest in peace.

This piece was largely compiled from three separate tributes paid by:
  • The Institute of Malay-sian and International Studies (IKMAS), UKM
  • Prof Dr Abdul Rahman Embong, President, Malaysian Social Science Association
  • Participants of IKMAS’ inaugural South-East Asian Fellowship (SEAF) programme, 2000