Malaysia’s Renaissance Man turns 90 today

While walking down memory lane with her hero and mentor, Royal Professor Ungku Abdul Aziz, Nooraini Mydin recalls his many achievements and exploits

(New Straits Times) – WHO doesn’t know this sagely figure with the white beard? A list of Royal Professor Tan Sri Ungku  Abdul Aziz’s achievements would probably fill this whole newspaper.

 But of all his achievements, Ungku Aziz will be best remembered for the way he  touched people’s lives.

Ungku was born in London on Jan 22, 1922. His father, Ungku Abdul Hamid, was a Johor Royal and was part Turkish, while his mother, Hamidah, was English. She died when he was 2 and his father brought him back to Malaya. Ungku  Hamid  died when Ungku Aziz was 17.

Although orphaned, he did not seem to lack confidence as he battled life’s challenges.

Ungku Aziz married his cousin, Sharifah Azah. When he proposed, Kak Azah reportedly asked, “What about my education?” To which his reply was: “Marrying me is the best education you can have.”

I  greatly admired this intellectual figure whose wisdom  frequently filled the pages of the Straits Times (as the New Straits Times was known then), since my school days.

It was at Universiti Malaya that I got to know Ungku Aziz. I was an undergraduate at the Faculty of Economics and  had a deep interest in photography and unhesitantly joined the photography society, which Ungku Aziz started.

I used to tag along Ungku Aziz during his famous morning jog, a sport he’d popularised.   I was fascinated by his wealth of knowledge; there was no subject he couldn’t elucidate on. A Renaissance Man, indeed.

I learned much about the way he ran the university on these walks. Nothing escaped him. He’d query builders on  why a retaining wall was built the wrong way, or why a notice was in the wrong colour.  Workers skiving off for a smoke would slither away as soon as they spotted the figure in a track suit approaching.

Like a Lord inspecting his estate, he would notice if a tree had been felled without permission.  He developed an arboretum, Rimba Ilmu (the Forest of Knowledge). Even the trees around the campus had their botanical names attached.

On these walks, Ungku Aziz would be approached by staff with one problem or another  (to get an appointment with his secretary wasn’t easy) and he’d give them all his attention and help when it was a legitimate concern.

But Ungku Aziz did not do favours. I remember one of my lecturers coyly waiting for him to try and get his son a place in one of the university’s foundation courses and was told to go through the proper channels.

Even I, having learned at the end of my first year that Ungku Aziz was starting the Creative and Descriptive Writing Programme at the Malay Studies Department, could not persuade him to help me get a transfer.

Ungku Aziz’s ability to pick up new subjects  and be knowledgeable in them  in great depth is astounding. As a young man during the Japanese Occupation, he was slapped by a soldier for not bowing  as he didn’t understand Japanese.

While others would simply  hate the Japanese, he proceeded to learn the language and ended up earning a scholarship to study in Tokyo.

He can talk passionately about any subject. On his travels, he was talking to a friend about a painting in a gallery when other tourists started following him around thinking he was the resident expert.

Yusof Osman who worked with him for seven years as the editor of the university’s newsletter Budiman, said at a science conference, a Japanese professor asked him which area of science Ungku had specialised in and was surprised to learn that he was actually an economist.

Ungku’s education in Japan was cut short when the war ended. He graduated from Universiti Malaya (in Singapore) in 1951 with a first class bachelor’s degree in Economics and started teaching.

In 1964, he completed his PhD in Economics from Waseda University, Tokyo. He was a Professor and Dean of the   Economics Faculty until he became vice-chancellor in 1968 — the first Malay and Malaysian to hold that position. Twenty years as   vice-chancellor is a tremendous record for any academic.  

His achievements are remarkable. Starting with his studies on rural poverty, he became involved in several projects and created several institutions that are still thriving today.

He had  learnt that rural Malay farmers would sell  their land in order to pay for the haj pilgrimage to Mecca. Upon their return, they would  end up working for the Chinese landowners.

He initiated the Lembaga Urusan dan Tabung Haji, or Tabung Haji as it is known today, in 1959 (it was established in 1962), which enabled these farmers to save their money through an Islamic financial institution.

Rural Malay students did not get a fair chance to enter university because  rural schools were not well-equipped, especially for science subjects. It was Ungku  Aziz who started the foundation courses that enabled bright students to take courses like Science, Medicine and Engineering after Form Five.

He pioneered the cooperative movement and created the Cooperative Bookshop (Pekan Buku) and the Universiti Malaya Press, and monitored them closely.

Ungku established the Museum of Asian Art at the university and travelled the world collecting antiques to fill it. He was also involved in the creation of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

When funding for the university was whittled down after the establishment of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Ungku Aziz used his contacts, like the Japan Foundation, to get donations.

Even though he retired in 1988, he did not stop working   and was appointed  director of  several organisations.

He was president of the National Cooperative Movement (Angkasa) for 37 years until he was forced out in 2009.

Among his awards are: Royal Professor (1978), Tokoh Maal Hijrah 1997, and the first recipient of the Merdeka Award  for  Education and Community  in 2008. He was fortunate to see his only child, Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz achieve the same award in 2010.

I once approached the School of Oriental and African Studies in London  about a PhD based on Ungku Aziz and Professor Ulrich Kratz warned me that it should not be a hagiography.  

I had to confess it would be, because how do you write about such a great man without turning him into a hero?