Tributes to Khay Jin

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Friend and colleagues of the late Khoo Khay Jin pay tribute to this voice of social conscience whose heart was close to the marginalised.

Khay Jin (left) with wife Jane and Andrew Aeria

We only just heard that Khay Jin lost his battle with cancer while travelling down from Bakelalan and we are not able to be with you. We are so very sorry for your loss. Our greatest sympathy to you and your son and all family members.

He was a great man acting as the social conscience for Malaysia, providing a voice for those who have none. His passing will be felt around the world.

I travelled extensively with Khay Jin listening to the stories and problems of those who are marginalized, especially the Penan. I learned so much from him; from his friendship and his mentoring. He has the rare skill in being able to delve to the root of the issues at hands through insightful questions.

His work is not finished and his friends will continue on with this. His friendship, his wit, his vast knowledge will be missed by all who knew him and he will be mourned across Sarawak.

Jayl Langub (IEAS, Unimas) and Ann

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Please accept our condolences at this challenging time. Soong had met Khay Jin a few weeks ago at a vigil in KL and he had shared that he had cancer. Little did we know he would depart so soon!

It is many many, years since we last met, yet I easily recall the warmth and hospitality with which you welcomed myself and our children, via Anizan, to your home during operation Lalang, when Soong was detained in Kamunting even though we did not know really each other! You both had busy lives and your son was only 11 years old and still you made time for us.

Such support made all the difference to our experience of Lallang and I recall having some deep discussions with Khay Jin about socio-political stuff during which as I recall it now, he showed remarkable diplomacy and patience at a time when I was probably rather “prickly” because of the personal hurt and the sense of community injustice I was feeling through Soong’s detention because of his engagement with the Chinese Schools issues. Your heartfelt support is what made all the difference. Thank you both for being there at that time in that way!

We shall remember Khay Jin with love and value his considerable contribution to making Malaysia a better place.

Dr Anne Munro-Kua and Dr Kua Kia Soong

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Khay Jin was a very principled and committed person to the progressive ideas he upheld. He proved this in his actions. He helped as an active behind-the-scenes organiser when Kassim and Mohideen stood for elections in Balik Pulau. Later he helped in organising campaigns when I stood at PJ Selatan. When Kassim Ahmad and I were detained, he took up the responsibility of producing the party organ, Mimbar Sosialis, and did a very good job of it.

He was always simple, humble, unassuming and friendly. He was very well read and had a brilliant mind. After I was released from detention in 1980, I presented a paper in a social science conference and he was the discussant. I was very impressed by the depth of his knowledge and clarity of analysis. Indeed his was one of the most brilliant minds I have met in academic and political circles. I respect KJ highly. I have lost a great friend.

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Dr Syed Husin Ali, scholar-activist and former deputy president of PKR

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I had known for some time through friends…that Khay Jin was seriously unwell. Even so, the news of his death, when it reached me on the following morning, came as a real blow, in part because Noi and I had been discussing some news of his condition over the dinner just the night before, proabably around the very time of his death, with Mavis Puthucheary and Khoo Siew Mun.

There is no need to say what everybody is saying, but it must be said again: Khay Jin was a man of remarkable talents, intelligence, generosity and humanity. Such people are rare, and generally irreplaceable. To the world at large they are a great loss. To those who were close to them, the pain of loss must be unbearable. All one can say, in consolation, is that so many good people share, in some small way, your own sense of loss and are thinking of you all at this time. There have been so many “brushes” with mortality in recent times; so many good people, good friends, have died before their “proper” time. i am feeling quite ravaged by it all. Noi joins me in sending her sympathies and whatever consolation may be had from the sense of profound loss that we all share.

Clive Kessler, Emeritus Prof of Anthropology, UNSW

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I was saddened to learn that Khay Jin passed away a few days ago. Please accept my sincere condolences on the loss. It has been a very long time (40 years!) since we last saw each other. Thinking of him (and you) during our college days in NYC brought back a stream of fond memories. We were all dirt-poor and struggling, but reasonably happy and innocent. Seems like we were always cooking Malaysian food every holiday or break…. Among the Xaverians I have known, Khay Jin stood out as being the most intellectually precocious. Long before the rest of us, he delved passionately into learning and understanding the rich history of humanistic, economic and political thought which have increasingly shaped and informed world affairs in the past 40 years (not least the recent economic meltdown which continues to play out). I recall fondly how it was nearly impossible to walk in his apartment because one had to avoid upending waist-high columns of books. Most of the time, I had no idea what he was talking about but, in hindsight, he was light years ahead of the rest of us. I still remember Khay Jin patiently teaching me the word “reified”…

I was impressed to learn from the tribute written by his colleagues (including Jomo —AiHwa sent it to me yesterday) that Khay Jin was active in fighting for the Penan tribe in Sarawak. Increasingly, my thoughts have turned to what one can claim as a lasting accomplishment, during one’s short time here. Khay Jin has left his mark in his social activism on behalf of these disenfranchised folks. He has made a big difference with his life. This may be the finest tribute that one can hope for. He is gone, but he certainly will not be forgotten.

I occasionally read about the very nice research on the Nipah virus that you are undertaking…. The first time I learned about it was when Science wrote a perspective, with photo, on your research about 8 years ago. I couldn’t find your email then. Keep up the wonderful pioneering work.

Prof Ong Nai Phuan, Princeton University

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Khay Jin wrote the most perceptive and empirical study I have read on socio-economic ethnic inequalities in Malaysia. His study contributed to the chapter on ethnic and spatial inequalities in the UNRISD Poverty Report, which would have been poorer without his insights. Even when his illness was at an advanced stage, Khay Jin worked courageously in revising his paper for the forthcoming book Policy Regimes and the Political Economy of Poverty Reduction in Malaysia (edited by Khoo Boo Teik, and to be published by Palgrave). I believe his chapter “Poverty and Inequality” will be a major reference for scholars of ethnic inequalities in Malaysia and elsewhere. Discussion of ethnic inequalities is a sensitive subject in Malaysia; household income and expenditure data are systematically collected but published only in summary form. However, Khay Jin was able to access some of the raw data for the UNRISD study, making his chapter in the Malaysia book a compelling read. I met Khay Jin in Penang in 2007 during the UNRISD workshop on the Malaysia study. His contribution in the discussion was always sharp, engaging and empirically grounded. He was also very friendly. His friends and colleagues will miss him greatly.

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Yusuf Bangura, Research Coordinator at UNRISD and the lead author of the Poverty Report

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I am very sad to learn of Khay Jin’s passing. It’s all the more distressing for me because I had only met him once, and had hoped to be in his company in the future…. We met in Kuching during some Malaysian Social Science Conference. We had dinner together along with Cecila Ng and a few others. He chatted to me about his new interest in quantitative methods and how his results showed Indians to be in a bad state.

He was very humble and engaging, and confirmed to me his reputation as a passionate intellectual willing to always understand the world in new ways. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, and told myself that one day we would meet up at length.

I wished I had learned about his illness earlier, and tried to contact him. Such is my situation of relative isolation from Malaysia.

It must be a very difficult time for you and your son. We only met twice I believe in our adulthood – once showing up in your apartment with the most stinky feet, and another time at a petrol station in PJ. But you figure prominently in my mind, as neighbor, as sister to Chang, whom I got to know well, and as the brilliant but concerned scientist married to one of Malaysia’s most genuine intellectuals. Khay Jin must leave a big vacuum, and I hope time proves be to a healer.

Prof James Jesudason, Colorado School of Mines

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I worked with Khay Jin a few years ago on the Kalimantan project he was involved with at Oxford, and I have just heard from Boo Teik about his passing. I hope you don’t mind hearing from another random academic who crossed paths with Khay Jin, but I felt moved to pass on my condolences. Although I only interacted with Khay Jin briefly over a relatively short period, he made a lasting impression on me, not just for the strength of his intellect, but also for his infectious curiosity. I remember hearing him talk about his work with us in Kalimantan at a workshop in Penang and being truly amazed at his ability to combine insightful academic analysis with a compassionate human story.

Dr Graham Brown, University of Bath

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The community of social science scholars and public intellectuals in Malaysia and Malaysianists are once again shocked and grieved, this time to hear of the untimely death of Khoo Khay Jin, a brilliant social scientist, a leading public intellectual and an out-of-the-box thinker. Khay Jin, a Penangite, was diagnosed with cancer of the gallbladder some time in the middle of 2010, underwent surgery and a course of treatment at the Selayang Hospital, Kuala Lumpur. But, unfortunately, he succumbed to his illness on 22 December 2011 at 9.00pm in Penang.

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One of the best read scholars of his generation and a brilliant statistician, Khay Jin was a multi-talented person. He was a gifted child prodigy in mathematics and music, and played the piano in his younger days under the name of Philip Khoo. He was also one of those rare individuals who could speak with penetrating depth and convincing clarity on a broad range of subjects. When he spoke, one couldn’t help but listen with sheer admiration.

Upon leaving USM in 1995, he became an independent research consultant. Despite his relatively short life and untimely passing, as an academic, Khay Jin contributed numerous scholarly works on Malaysia, including Globalisation and its Discontents Revisited (co-edited), “Using the Census: The Dynamics of Social Change and Ethnicity”, “Meeting Targets…and missing people?”, “The educational attainment of the Orang Ulu”, “Region, Ethnicity and Class in Sarawak” and “Sarawak: A Status Report”, a paper to a workshop on health care in Malaysia.

He also made an important contribution to the recent UNRISD flagship report “Combating Poverty and Inequality” for the Malaysian case study with his penetrating chapter “The Causes, Dimensions and Dynamics of Inequality and Poverty”. At the time when he was diagnosed with cancer, Khay Jin was lead consultant for the EPU-commissioned report on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the United Nations. A professional and perfectionist, Khay Jin, despite his worsening condition, devoted his final days to completing that project.

He was a lifetime member of the Malaysian Social Science Association (PSSM), a role he took very seriously, believing that this was one area in which he could nurture and mentor future Malaysian social scientists. It was within PSSM that Khay Jin played a central role in the many Young Scholars’ workshops and seminars organised by PSSM

He was also an Associate of the Socio-Economic and Environmental Research Institute (Seri), established by the Penang state government, served as a member of the Sarawak Development Institute and was a consultant/social assessor for a variety of development programmes, many of them in East Malaysia. This was so typical of him as he had a special compassion for the plight of one of the most marginalised groups in Malaysian society, the Penan, and a deep concern for the environment. He also kept a sharp watch on growing income inequalities not just in Malaysia but elsewhere.

Malaysia in the last decade or so has lost a number of brilliant social scientists and public intellectuals, among them H M Dahlan (1997), Ishak Shari (2001), Syed Hussein Alatas (2007), Rustam A Sani (2008), and Osman-Rani (2011). We believe that Malaysia today is a much poorer place without the insights of these leading intellectual luminaries. Its latest loss is this intellectual giant, Khoo Khay Jin.

We take this opportunity to extend our deepest condolences to Jane, Wu Chen, and the rest of his family. May his soul rest in peace.

  • Professor Abdul Rahman Embong (PSSM President 2000-2010 and IKMAS Principal Fellow);
  • Mr Anil Netto (SEAF participant, 2000);
  • Dr K S Jomo (Assistant Secretary General, United Nations);
  • Emeritus Professor Clive Kessler (UNSW);
  • Professor Mohd Hazim Shah (PSSM President 2010-, University Malaya);
  • Professor Norani Othman (UKM);
  • Professor Wan Zawawi Ibrahim (PSSM Exco and Life Member, University of Brunei);
  • Professor Diana Wong (USM);
  • Associate Prof. Zaharom Nain (University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus).
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