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When the Community Gathers*

Syarahan Perdana: Abdul Rahman Embong 26 September 2003 , UKM
  by Associate Professor Dr Diana Wong Vice-President Malaysian Social Science Association and IKMAS Senior Fellow  
  It is one of the most important events in the life of the university as a community of scholars - when the community gathers to listen to the inaugural lecture - the syarahan perdana - of a newly appointed professor. As a rite, it heralds the entry of a new voice of recognised scholarship into the community, as a ritual, it brings the community together to celebrate its vocation of research and teaching, and as an intellectual feast, it serves the seasoned fare of a mature thinker.


On 26 September 2003, there was standing room only in the Dewan Senat of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) when Abdul Rahman Embong delivered his syarahan perdana entitled "Pembangunan dan Kesejahteraan: Agenda Kemanusian Abad Ke-21" (Development and Human Well-being: Humanity's Agenda for the 21st Century). A community of over 300 people came together to listen to the new professor deliver his thoughts on the meaning of development as a 21st century agenda for mankind. Prof Dato' Dr Abdul Rahman Embong is Professor of the Sociology of Development and Principal Fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), UKM.


The lecture was a spirited defence of development as a national good, and one worth defending in the face of an ideology of neo-liberal globalisation which could undermine national prosperity, and indeed, the nation-state itself. Development would be worth defending however, and this was the crux of the argument, only if it were development for all, and not just for the builders of monuments and the fliers of kites, as Asian state elites of the past were wont to be. Such development could only be defended, Rahman concludes, by a reformed and reconstructed state run on the principles of ketelusan (transparency), penyertaan (participation), pertanggunjawaban (accountability), integriti (integrity) and kecekapan (efficiency). Globalisation as such is not to be rejected, indeed a globalisation with a human face, a globalisasi mesra manusia , should constitute the shared agenda for mankind in the 21st century.


Rahman, born in 1944 in a village in Terengganu, one of the country's "backward states", as he would sometimes say, thus revealed himself in his syarahan perdana as an unreconstructed idealist and modernist, committed in his scholarship to the universalist vision of a Bumi Semua Manusia , the Earth for All Mankind, the title of the previous syarahan perdana (1999) to have emerged from the ranks of IKMAS scholarship, by the late Prof Dr Ishak Shari, a close friend and intellectual soul-mate.


Both Rahman and Ishak shared the experience of crossing the divide from the Malay-medium to an English-medium education in the early years of the nation's history, to be followed by a rigorous intellectual formation in the cosmopolitanism of post-colonial London in the late-sixties. Theirs was also the generation whose conception of scholarship was irrevocably forged by the intellectual ferment and the monumental political events - international and domestic - of that period, not least of which was the May 13 riots in 1969, which almost rent the country apart. Scholarship thence on was never to be purely "academic". It was always to be addressed to the public.


Rahman returned from London in 1971 to join the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the newly-founded Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia as its fourth staff member. In 1974, he was the moving force behind the first national conference on the social sciences to be held in the country, a precursor to the formation of the Malaysian Social Science Association in 1979. By that time, he had left on what he calls his "unpaid sabbatical". He returned to the university in 1995 and was appointed Professor in January 2001. The same year he received the title of Dato' Paduka Mahkota Terengganu (DPMT) from the Sultan of Terengganu.


The institution of the syarahan perdana at UKM has the added distinction of being a public lecture. The academic community was not just to talk to itself; it was to address the public, especially the syarahan perdana from the social sciences and humanities. Abdul Rahman Embong's lecture was the 22 nd in UKM in this tradition, began in 1972 by Professor Syed Muhammad Naguib al-Attas address on Islam dalam Sejarah dan Kebudayaan Melayu .


The public which made its way to Bangi on 26 September was testimony to the standing of the man at the pulpit. It was also an affirmation that this practice of committed scholarship can create the kind of pluralistic public, from diverse backgrounds and sectors, this country so badly needs. The UKM academic community was present, but so were colleagues from Universiti Malaya, Universiti Putra Malaysia , Universiti Islam Antarabangsa, Universiti Teknologi Mara, Universiti Utara Malaysia , University Malaysia Sarawak, Kolej Universiti Sains dan Teknologi (KUSTEM) and UNITAR. Leading journalists from different generations, such as Said Zahari (former Editor-in-Chief of Utusan Melayu) and Hishamuddin Rais (former columnist of Malaysiakini) were sighted, as were intellectual leaders from the Chinese community, as well as a few senior civil servants and politicians, and members of the private sector.


Besides several of his old friends from the 1960s, many of those who came would have known of Rahman through his work as President of the Malaysian Social Science Association, an institution crossing the divide of university boundaries in the country. Others would have come across him in his manifold other border-crossing activities, between research and politics, between sociology and literature, between men and women of different faiths and race.


Not all would have agreed with all that Rahman had to deliver that day. Some would quarrel with him on theoretical, others on empirical, and yet others on ideological grounds. Two principles re-enacted that day - with efficiency and dignity by UKM - remain however to be cherished and nurtured, if the forces of development and globalisation are to be made fruitful for all. Scholarship has to address the public, and scholarship has to seek to create a public in which people from different backgrounds and sectors can come together.
  Note : The full text of Professor Abdul Rahman's inaugural lecture is available in book form (72 pages) at the UKM bookshop as well as at IKMAS at the price of RM 15.00.  
  * A shorter version of this write up was published in The Sunday Star (Education, p. 23) under the title “Spirited Defence of Development”.  
  30 September 2003