Obituary: Rustam A. Sani
By Jomo K. S.
I write this in haste from afar without the benefit of any reference material. But I must do so, as I have lost another brother, taken away before his time.
I first met Rustam, soon after joining the UKM economics faculty in early 1977, then still at its temporary campus in Pantai. The crammed facilities in the PKNS flats there forced a certain physical closeness which was, in turn, conducive to generating close personal relations.
Rustam was then in the Anthropology and Sociology Department with Halim Ali, Sanusi Osman, Hood Salleh, Dahlan Hj Aman, Ting Chew Peh, Cheu Hock Tong, Shamsul Amri and others, many of whom had been students of Syed Husin Ali at the University of Malaya in the 1960s.
Struggle for the Nation
Born towards the end of the Japanese Occupation in the Perak border town of Tanjung Malim, Rustam grew up in the shadow of his famous father, Abdullah Sani @ Ahmad Boestamam.
As a mature student at university, Rustam quickly established a reputation in his own right as an essayist, poet and pamphleteer in the Socialist Club and promoting the national language at the University of Malaya. He often joked that if he had agreed to run in the May 1969 election, he would have become Selangor Mentri Besar at the age of 25!
Instead, he opted to do a Masters at the University of Kent in Canterbury where he indulged and mentored a variety of undergraduates including PAS Secretary-General Kamaruddin Jaffar, economist Ghazali Atan and publisher Tan Siang Jin.
There, he deepened his preoccupation with the challenges of Malaysian nationhood, an enduring theme in his writings since the 1970s, and the subject of one of his two latest books to be launched posthumously by his old friend from the 1960s, citizen Anwar Ibrahim.
Soon after I joined UKM, I left for a semester to finish my thesis, returning only to find him preparing to leave soon after with his wife, Rohani, and young children, Azi and Rini, for Yale. But after passing the tough comprehensive exams there, he lost interest, preferring instead to write a statistics textbook for those afraid of such quantitative methods.
Back at UKM, he switched to the Politics Department as his old Canterbury friend, then ABIM Secretary-General Kamaruddin left to join Anwar in UMNO and the government. With Syed Husin at the helm of the Malaysian Social Science Association (PSSM), Rustam and I started a bilingual quarterly journal, Ilmu Masyarakat, to try to open new Malaysian debates under the then new Mahathir dispensation, to which the former UKM academic as well as PNB and Guthries chief executive, Selangor Mentri Besar Khalid Ibrahim was an early and insightful contributor.
Patriot and Statesman
At the end of the 1980s, Rustam accepted Nordin Sopiee’s invitation to join ISIS. There, he crafted Mahathir’s 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.
Frustrated by its lack of serious commitment, he left ISIS in the mid-1990s to become a writer, translator and reluctant businessman. Soon after, he agreed to become Deputy President of PSSM, later inaugurating the biennial series of international Malaysian Studies Conferences in which we tried to reposition Malaysian studies as a national -- and nationalist --discourse, rather than as post-colonial area studies.
However, the events of 1997-1999 disrupted our plans, and Rustam rose to the popular national call for reformasi following Anwar’s incarceration and persecution, becoming its most thoughtful ‘participant observer’. As deputy president of the party his father had founded almost half a century before, he negotiated its principled unification with the political movement which had emerged around Anwar despite several high profile defections.
Rustam was always a reluctant politician and had little patience for the intrigues which seemed to preoccupy some of his counterparts, including his fellow former academics. Generous in spirit and encouraging of younger talents, he never hesitated to give his all to the writing he enjoyed, regardless of the sacrifices involved. Although principled, he never claimed the high moral ground or used his language, writing and other talents to put down others.
Although I only saw him a few times after leaving the country in 2004, we kept in touch. March 8, International Women’s Day, must have given him great satisfaction indeed, as he saw the people give the nation another chance. He must have been pleased that Anwar – another son of the Burhanuddin Al-Helmy tradition to which he himself belonged -- will launch his last two books today as he moves to take his rightful place in our nation’s history.
Boestamam -- who had allegedly taken the names of his two heroes, Ahmad Sukarno and Subhas Chandra Bose -- had been a young follower of the Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) from the late 1930s in Perak, emerging after the war as the militant youth leader of API (Angkatan Pemuda Insaf) to the older and more moderate Dr Burhanuddin Al-Helmy and Ishak Haji Muhammad (Pak Sako) of the Malay Nationalist Party (PKMM).
PKMM, in turn, led PUTERA (Pusat Tenaga Rakyat) which joined with the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU)-led All Malayan Council of Joint Action (AMCJA) to craft the People’s Constitution in 1947 as the basis for Malayan independence, years before UMNO switched its slogan from ‘Hidup Melayu’ to ‘Merdeka’ under Tunku Abdul Rahman’s leadership.
Boes was detained without trial for seven long years from early 1948, before the Emergency was declared in mid-1947, together with thousands of other Malay youths demanding independence. This pre-emptive repression by the colonial power was to ethnically colour the subsequent anti-colonial resistance.
Soon after he was released in 1955, he set up the Partai Rakyat Malaya, and later joined with the Labour Party of Malaya, chaired by Pak Sako, to create the Socialist Front, which later also included the popular expelled UMNO agriculture minister Aziz Ishak’s National Convention Party. Detained again without trial over the mid-1960s together with many other leftist politicians and activists, Boes faded from the headlines of Malaysian politics as Rustam came of age.
Jomo K. S. is United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development and received the 2007 Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.