In memoriam: Khoo Khay Jin

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He had a deep and complex understanding of the human condition that made him rail at the meanness, injustice, and dishonesty towards the dispossessed, writes Khoo Boo Teik.

Crossing the Benalih in the Baram with Rocky Bujang, an Eastern Penan.

It might seem strange and banal to say that perhaps I don’t truly know Khay Jin very well, despite having ‘known’ him for many years, let’s say, over the entire period of my mature life. That’s partly because he wasn’t someone who talked about himself, or revealed things placed deeply inside him, even to close friends.

No doubt, if one were sufficiently sensitive to his moods, the hints that he dropped, the snippets of elation, angst, or hope that he let through – or, for that matter, their absences – one would have a better idea of the complex person he was.

Learning from him

Naturally that’s not to say that Khay Jin was a quiet person who spoke little. On the contrary, one of the most endearing things about him was his inclination to talk a lot – and talk on all manner of subjects. In Malaysia, among many, many multi-talented friends, I cannot think of anyone who came close to Khay Jin in possessing a catholic grasp of knowledge, in being so endlessly curious, ceaselessly critical, and perpetually engaging that one might think – and maybe he himself would have thought – that he was a kindred spirit to that busybody in an ancient drama who said, ‘Nothing human is alien to me!’

For all that, Khay Jin characteristically wore his knowledge and his perceptivity lightly, if confidently. He neither used it to beat less knowledgeable people on their head nor withdrew from earnest discussions with them. As a result, it was fun, and more than that, it was often an experience, to hear him talk, because if you had the patience to listen, he always found the time and energy to talk. And all the while, he didn’t set out to teach you, but because he could summarise, clarify and synthesise ideas and arguments – on academic and non-academic subjects like few other people can in and out of academia – you could learn from him if you were so inclined.

And, because he had no use for the petty proprietorship of ideas, you could freely pick his brain and just as freely use what you picked – and many local or international postgraduate theses bear sincere acknowledgements of those rewarding encounters in conversation with Khay Jin. More than that, if you approached him with a problem or a puzzle, personal or professional, you might initially feel that he’d made it his own, from the intensity and seriousness with which he reviewed it. But, as Liok Ee pointed out to me many years ago, over the matter of selecting a publisher, you’d realise soon enough that it was your problem, your puzzle, and how best to help you, that concerned him.

Yet, if he was ready to help you, he wasn’t about to do so with insincere flattery or half-hearted ‘feedback’ – at least not in intellectual work, which was usually my reason for consulting him. Once he chided me for using a title and an opening paragraph in an essay: I thought I was being inventive, he rejected them as being ‘pretentious’. To this day, I’m unsure if I should be sorry that I listened to him and dropped both! On another occasion, he warned me that if I pursued a certain conclusion far enough, I’d soon become a full-blown pomo (‘postmodernist’, for those who know Khay Jin’s ambivalence towards that trend of inquiry in the humanities and social sciences); in that instance, I’m happy to recall, he meant only to pull my leg!

In short, was it not intimidating to have a friend review your work who would actually read it critically from the beginning to the end? It could have been, but, on the whole, and especially when I had to write something fast, I found it reassuring just to know – from Khay Jin’s comments, typically given promptly even when he was busy – that I hadn’t written something really foolish.

Here, I must talk shop for a while. Many people in academia and think-tanks glibly talk about value-added research and scholarship, not knowing what they are talking about. But Khay Jin could simply and truly add value to one’s work with some suggestive comments, thoughtfully crafted and honestly given. In the social sciences, many people routinely declare that they will provide nuanced interpretations of this and that subject, when in fact they only follow academic fads. But Khay Jin was nothing if not nuance and subtlety, as capable of teasing out a contrarian angle as engaging the big picture or hunting down the devils that resided in details. Just look at his academic work that ranged, for example, from the scrupulous and fascinating scrutiny of the household budget of the royal house in Kedah’s history to the finely wrought and original study of the ideological and policy dimensions of the 1987 battle between Mahathir and Tengku Razaleigh, the repercussions from which remain to this day. (By the way, Sam Loh has always been relieved and proud that he managed to get Khay Jin’s essay on the latter topic in time for Fragmented Vision, the volume of essays that Sam co-edited.)

Outside academic research

Were our domestic academic and intellectual milieu more vibrant and creative, many more would have appreciated the significance of Khay Jin’s writings. More pertinently, it might have kept him longer and far more productive in academia. It was not to be – to the misfortune of the broad area known as Malaysian studies, I might add. Yet, even that cloud had a silver lining: much of Khay Jin’s best and most important work as an intellectual and social activist was accomplished outside academic research, strictly speaking. Very few people have seen the monumental three-volume Socio-economic Impact Study of the Bakun Dam and Hydroelectric Power Project, which he completed with Yii Tan and PE Research towards the end of 1995. That was soon after Khay Jin had left USM to be, in his words, a pensioner in Sarawak. Or, if you read the United Nations Development Programme’s latest Millennium Development Goals report on Malaysia (which you can download from the internet), you’d find that that the findings in that contemporary, meticulous and balanced study of poverty and inequality in Malaysia owe a good deal to the persevering and committed work that Khay Jin performed, right into the period of his unfortunate illness.

Someone observed of a great intellectual hero of Khay Jin’s that the former chose not to write for posterity – because that would have been the same as writing for himself, rather than writing for others. No doubt, were he still with us, Khay Jin would scold me for making such comparison. Yet, on a smaller scale, it was true of his intellectual exertions: a lot of what he researched and wrote was unpublished, or published under pseudonyms, or not credited at all. It is to be found in the numerous studies he completed of the socio-economic impact of huge projects and the resettlement of non-Malay bumiputera communities in Sarawak, the commentaries he wrote for the Aliran Monthly, and, for those who recall its one-time significance, the countless writings he did for Mimbar Sosialis. Knowing this, we have no reason to be disappointed – on his or anyone else’s behalf – if in a wry and self-mocking tone, Khay Jin once described himself as an ‘academic underachiever’.

Rising again and again

I wish I could say of our departed friend that he was all sweetness and gentleness. He wasn’t. Many of us know, from his frequent outbursts and his almost characteristic scepticism, that he could be quick to anger, bitterness and exasperation. But we knew, too, that little of that was personal in the sense of being directly related to his well-being or contentment.

Fundamentally it had to do with his deep and complex understanding of the human condition, in our society or over the world, which made him, if you will, consciously and restlessly unhappy. Which of us here, who had known him long, wouldn’t remember how predictably, if sincerely, he would rail at meanness, injustice, and dishonesty, in social and political matters that made the lot of the dispossessed so unfair but so difficult to repair?

Yet, it would be a mistake to think that Khay Jin was given to despair. His attitude was probably closer to that of Pramodeya Ananda Toer, the Indonesian writer whom he very much admired. When Pramodaya was asked what he thought of the Bible, he said he liked it immensely – for the Bible was full of accounts of people who were put down again and again, but who rose up over and over again!

I’m no expert on the Bible or the metaphors derived from it. Still, in the past year and a half, supported by the creative and caring treatment he received from his doctors, Chang and Jane, didn’t Khay Jin rise over and over again against the cancer that kept dragging him down? And, if only from email correspondence with him, I rather fancy there was enough respite for him to find moments of happiness when he witnessed people rise over and over again, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street proliferation.

It’s not my intention to make Khay Jin larger in death than he was in life. He’d have disapproved. He’d have disapproved, too, of too many references to his many, many talents. But, I’d like to think that he wouldn’t have been unhappy if he knew that we appreciate that if he seemed ordinary in his ways of living, working and dying, that was the very source of this extraordinary character we shall dearly miss.

24 December 2011

Unable to attend Khay Jin’s funeral, former Aliran exco member Khoo Boo Teik wrote the above recollection that was read out on the evening of 24 December at the house of some friends where a long-scheduled Christmas party was turned into a memorial service for Khay Jin.

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