Sunday 19 May 2024
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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on December 25, 2023 - January 7, 2024

All of us are undoubtedly much influenced by the circumstances in which we live. Profesor Diraja Dr Ungku Abdul Aziz Ungku Abdul Hamid (Jan 28, 1922 to Dec 15, 2020) chose a path less well taken by his peers of privilege, dedicating himself instead to a nation not yet born, to the poor, the solidarity economy and conserving the rich cultural heritage of the Malays.

After all, Ungku Aziz was born and spent the first few years of his long and eventful life in London. A grand-nephew of New Johor’s first Sultan Abu Bakar, his mother was Armenian-French and paternal grandmother Circassian from the Ottoman palace.

It would have been unsurprising if he had taken a different path. But he chose a path less well trodden, dedicating himself to a post-colonial nation not yet in existence, then still “imagined” differently by various cultural communities and political tendencies.

He chose not to study abroad, not even to return to the University of Cambridge of his father. Instead, Ungku Aziz chose to study at Raffles College, and subsequently worked at the University of Malaya, first in Singapore, and later in Kuala Lumpur. This was an unexpected choice, especially for someone as privileged as Ungku Aziz. But it anticipates other choices he would make.

Singapore in Malaya

When the Japanese invaded Malaya from Dec 8, 1941, and the British surrendered Singapore 10 weeks later, Ungku was barely 21 and studying at Raffles College. The Japanese wanted to groom young scions of Malay aristocrats for collaboration. In Japan, Ungku became a ward of the Shogun, Tokugawa.

The role of Sharifah Azah, Ungku Aziz’s wife, has not been fully acknowledged. Azah Aziz was immersed in Malay journalism and culture. She opened up a world often superficially known to men in the larger Malay world of letters. With her help, Ungku Aziz articulated many women’s concerns.

After Japan’s surrender, Ungku Aziz continued at Raffles College, where he received first-class honours in economics. In 1949, the college became the core of the new University of Malaya (UM). Despite the many options open to him, he chose Serving the Nation, the title of his collected works.

Less mentioned today is Ungku Aziz’s role in establishing the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP). Supported by Utusan Melayu and Angkatan Sasterawan 50, or ASAS 50, UM’s Malay Language Society organised a historic conference at UM in Singapore in 1955.

This led to DBP’s establishment in 1958 in Johor Bahru under Ungku Aziz’s leadership. For an anglophone, often surrounded by Anglophiles, his new role was all the more remarkable.

Ungku Aziz was seen by many of his contemporaries as a “Renaissance man” — a man of letters, a man seriously interested in the arts and, philosophically speaking, one who appreciated knowledge, ilm, science. At UM, he initiated the teaching and study of the history and philosophy of science, personally giving lectures himself.

Perhaps inspired by the 1947 Perlembagaan Rakyat (People’s Constitution) and Utusan Melayu, Ungku promoted the Malay language in an inclusive way. Progressive students at the Chinese-medium Nanyang University were thus inspired to demand a Malay studies programme, reflecting their inclusive sense of what the new nation should be.

His promotion of Malay letters and the arts more generally was also significant. At UM, Ungku found niches for the visual artists Ibrahim Hussain and Syed Ahmad Jamal, among others. He chose Ariff Ahmad, a significant cultural figure in his own right, to set up UM’s Pusat Budaya.

UM honoured writer Ishak Haji Muhammad, or Pak Sako, once chair of the Labour Party of Malaya. With PAS head Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy, Socialist Front (SF) leader Ahmad Boestamam, former Umno minister Aziz Ishak and Pak Sako were detained under the Internal Security Act in the mid-1960s. Ungku Aziz even spoke at the SF coalition’s events, mainly in Labour Party education programmes.

Ungku Aziz was instrumental in setting up Lembaga Urusan Tabung Haji in 1961. The initiative built on his early 1950s research investigating the low savings rate among rural Malays. His late 1950s follow-up note proposed how to encourage savings without involving interest.

Tabung Haji has since sought to promote Malay savings while avoiding interest. These savings are also linked to the prospect of fulfilling the Muslim duty to go on pilgrimage to the holy land.

Of course, Ungku was closely associated with the development of higher education in Malaysia. However, his contributions are only partly captured by the official institutional histories of these institutions, including UM.

Poverty and exploitation

Besides Ungku Aziz’s role in building at least three major Malaysian institutions, three major intellectual contributions are also worth noting. Despite being born into privilege, Ungku made an “option for the poor”, trying to deepen public understanding of poverty, especially among rural Malays.

Sadly, his “sarong index” proposal for asset estimation has been much mocked, so much so he did not want attention to it later in life. Although superseded by other measures, it was an eminently practical measure of the modest assets of rural Malays in the 1950s and beyond.

Today, people prefer using monetary income as a measure of well-being. But historically, this has not been the best measure of income, assets or well-being. Money measures can mislead as researchers who study incomes and assets of poor rural communities readily testify.

Contrast the well-being of poor rice farmers to rubber smallholders with higher cash incomes. Fieldwork in Kedah found children of poorer rice farmers much healthier due to supplementary nutrition from rice fields (for example, “cheap” canal fish) not available from rubber land.

Nutritional well-being not well captured by money measures probably influenced Ungku Aziz’s interest in “protein poverty”.

Even today, poverty is still often blamed on the poor, for having the wrong values or ideas. In the 1970s, Ungku’s cousin, Prof Syed Hussein Alatas repudiated such notions in his The Myth of the Lazy Native.

His early 1970s work, Siapa Yang Salah?, had demolished Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s The Malay Dilemma and Umno’s Revolusi Mental blaming poor Malays’ “wrong” ideas and attitudes. New versions of such thinking remain influential, invoking new pseudo-scientific jargon cloaked in fashionable new discourses and language.

Ungku Aziz’s understanding of exploitation involved many elements, not only commercial, marketing or supply chains. Ungku Aziz emphasised credit and debt, elaborated by Mokhzani Abdul Rahim, one of his early students. Likewise, the question of land, the most important productive asset in agriculture, was emphasised by Syed Husin Ali, among others.


In an age of decolonisation, Ungku Aziz wrote on nationalism, still not deemed a subject amenable to economic analysis. Clearly, he was responding to the challenges of the times as he saw them.

Ungku Aziz recognised the major challenge of his times as that of nation-building. His Jejak-jejak di Pantai Zaman (Footprints in the Sands of Time from Za’aba to Aziz) traced the evolution of Malay understandings of poverty and backwardness while hinting at the special needs of the new nation.

Tun Abdul Razak Hussein’s 1971 New Economic Policy sought to create conditions for forging the new nation after May 1969 by reducing poverty and inter-ethnic disparities via affirmative action programmes. This challenge was taken up again in Mahathir’s Vision 2020, which included forging a bangsa Malaysia (Malaysian nation), first mentioned, without elaboration, by Abdul Razak in 1971.

Sadly, more than six decades after Malayan independence, we seem further away from building that nation. For Ungku Aziz, as for all who agreed to the compromises underlying the 1947 Perlembagaan Rakyat demanding independence, patriotism, not genealogy, was to be the basis for citizenship. We must now earn this inheritance from Pak Ungku’s invaluable legacy.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram is currently senior adviser at Khazanah Research Institute. A former economics professor, he was United Nations assistant secretary-general for economic development. He is a recipient of the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.

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