Rustam Sani – Patriot and Intellectual (1944-2008)

by Bakri Musa

I am saddened to hear of the sudden death of Rustam Sani. In Rustam we had a true patriot, one whose love for the country is pure. It is so because it came from the head as well as the heart. It is patriotism unadulterated by the pursuit of material wealth, public adulation, or political power. A genuine intellectual, he was not one to fit his ideas to the fashion of the day.

He recognized early the heavy duty and responsibility of being a patriot. His was not one consumed with endless exhortations. As the son of a renown nationalist, Rustam must have been immersed in the patriotic fervor and fiery speeches of his late father, Ahmad Boestaman. Yet at a very young age he knew that the new independent Malaysia would need leaders who not only love the country but also be well equipped with the necessary skills and intellect to lead it.

Consequently he focused on his school work fully aware that he was among the fortunate few among the youngsters to have the privilege of attending school. From his local sekolah attap (village school) in Behrang Ulu and the Methodist School Tanjong Malim, he went on to the University of Malaya via Victoria Institution. From there it was on to graduate work at Kent and Reading in Britain, and later, Yale.

He was a scholar as well as a practitioner of politics. His intellectual accomplishment was never diminished by his political involvement. He had penned more academic papers and popular commentaries as well as books than many fulltime academics. It was only yesterday that I read his latest (and alas his last) posting on his blog. Rustam was in his usual sharp element; that posting was a trenchant commentary on Mahathir’s interview on BBC’s Hard Talk. Rustam was also to have launched his latest books, Failed Nation? Concerns of a Malaysian Nationalist, and Social Roots of the Malay Left, later this month. Imagine two books!

As an academic, Rustam molded thousands of young minds. That may be his greatest though not easily visible legacy. Rustam may not have been successful in electoral politics, nonetheless his contributions to the nation dwarfs those of “successful” political leaders.

Rustam is survived by his wife Rohani, son Azrani and daughter Ariani, as well as daughter-in-law Ku Salha and granddaughter Arissa. My condolences and prayers go to them in this moment of sadness. May Allah shower His blessings and Mercy on this great Malaysian patriot and intellect.

[I patched below an essay I wrote on Rustam on September 17, 2007.]

One heartening development in Malaysia (and elsewhere) in the last few years is the emergence of personal blogs and the Internet news and commentary portals. This development may prove to be even more transforming socially, politically and in many other ways than the introduction of the printing press five centuries ago.

Rustam Sani’s Vox Populi is the latest. He came on aboard a few weeks ago, and has been busy updating it regularly. His recent essays dealt with the current political leadership crisis, as well as commentaries on such topical issues as education.

A sampling of recent topics includes “The Silat Bunga of Abdullah and Mahathir,” and “Something is Rotten in the Kingdom of Higher Education.” Rustam is indeed the voice of the people.
As elsewhere, blogging is now fast becoming mainstream in Malaysia. This process is hastened considerably by the many bloggers who were once mainstream journalists, beginning first with the late MGG Pillai, and later with the likes of Kadir Jasin, ( and Ahirudin Atan ( entering the scene.

The younger pioneers like Nizam Zakaria are still there, active as ever and expanding their field of commentary. I particularly enjoy his take on the local arts scene and his excerpting his new novels.
Even more encouraging is the appearance of many blogs and Internet portals using the Malay language, as with Kassim Ahmad’s ( His website also serves as a readily accessible repository of his earlier essays and commentaries, including his banned works like Hadith: A Re-Evaluation. Kassim, like Rustam, is facile in both Malay and English. Unlike many, they both stick to one or the other language with their essays; there is thankfully no jumbling mixture of rojak that I find so irritating and difficult to read.

The appearance of many blogs in Malay indicates that the Malay masses are now no longer captive to the mainstream media and government propaganda machinery (they are both the same). My favorites include Laman Marhean and Agendadaily.

While many are lamenting the current political leadership crisis in UMNO, there is already one positive consequence to this: the spawning of many new websites and blogs in the Malay language.

These enterprising and productive individuals are doing more than those bureaucrats and pseudo scholars at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and other public agencies to project our national language globally. Unlike Dewan’s glut of salaried men and women, these cyber contributors cost the government not a penny!

Introducing Rustam Sani

I first heard of Rustam Sani in 1985 when he delivered the public oration on the occasion of Kassim Ahmad receiving an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Universiti Kebangsaan. That Kassim deserved the honor was beyond question, nonetheless I found the university’s action surprising, although a very pleasing one. Kassim had then just released his harrowing account of detention under the ISA, Universiti Kedua (Second University).

Kassim is an independent thinker; it must have taken great courage for those at the university to so honor him. Rustam was then head of its Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and who nominated Kassim. I was heartened that at least there was one soul at the university brave enough to go against the grain and managed to convince his colleagues in the university senate to go along.

Rustam and I share many commonalities. We both attended English schools in our respective little towns (Tanjong Malim for him, and Kuala Pilah for me). We then went on to the “big school” for our Sixth Form, the venerable Victoria Institution for Rustam, and Malay College for me.

From the University of Malaya Rustam went on to Reading and Kent in Britain. Later as a Fullbright-Hayes scholar, he obtained double masters from Yale. Like me, he returned home, but unlike me, he stayed and put up with the system.

Ponteng (opting out) was never a consideration for him; the nationalist’s blood runs too deep in Rustam’s veins. His father, the late Ahmad Boestaman, was a firebrand nationalist and an early leader in the movement for Merdeka. Firebrand is an apt adjective, for Boestaman was active in API (lit. fire), the acronym for Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (The Committed Youth Movement).
Boestaman later founded the socialist Parti Rakyat Malaysia and served in Parliament in the early 1960s. It was tribute to the way things were then that young Rustam did not suffer the consequences of having a father active in opposition politics. How different things are today!
Tribulations of A Social Scientist

Life as a social scientist in Malaysia must be terribly trying, both professionally and personally. Your field of enquiry touches on so many “sensitive issues,” at least sensitive to the establishment. You cannot follow your intellectual interests, unless the authorities grant you permission. That is quite apart from the funding issue.

When you have someone like Rustam who dares to think differently, life could be even more difficult, on as well as off campus. Rustam was lucky to have been spared the harsh fate meted out to Kassim Ahmad, Syed Hussin Ali, and others. Perhaps Allah in His Infinite Mercy and Wisdom decided that the Boestaman family had suffered enough, and thus spared Rustam the fate endured by his father. The British detained Ahmad Boestaman for eight years for his leftist activities during the Emergency. Just to show that Malaysian leaders did learn a thing or two from their British masters, the Tunku later jailed Ahmad Boestaman for four years under the ISA in 1963. He became the first sitting Member of Parliament to be so detained. That is a mark of distinction and honor in my book, not a blemish.

On campus, unless you toe the official line you would definitely be sidelined no matter how productive you are. Rustam was one productive academic; I came across his writings many times when researching for my books. Unfortunately, on Malaysian campuses intellectual productivity is not valued. To advance, suffice that you are an enthusiastic cheerleader for the authorities.
Far from being satisfied as a detached scholar-analyst, Rustam was actively engaged as a political practitioner and activist with Parti Rakyat Malaysia. He walks the talk; he practices what he preaches.

Off campus, the same oppressive atmosphere prevails. The pages of the mainstream publications and airtime of radio and television are the exclusive preserve of unabashed supporters of the status quo. To these pundits, their sultans would always be donning a samping sutra (silk cummerbund) even when they are wrapped in bark loincloth. Once that sultan is out of power, these cheerleaders would, without skipping a beat, go on praising the next one and unhesitatingly damning the old one. Witness the current vulgar vilification of Mahathir by his once ardent supporters.

The mainstream media have lost their precious credibility, as well as balance and objectivity! In the end it is their readers (and thus the nation) who are not being well served. It is not a surprise that the blossoming of the Internet news portals and blogosphere coincides with (or perhaps the cause of) the decline of the mainstream media.

When Gutenberg introduced his printing press five centuries ago, he did more than simply made reading materials readily available for the masses. He emancipated them, freeing them from the tight controls of the clergy and ruling class who then had exclusive access to written works. They were the exclusive arbiter and interpreter on matters religious and others. The masses need only follow them meekly, as a flock of sheep would their shepherd.

The ready availability of the printing press upended all that. The resulting mass literacy made possible the reformation, and an end to the Medieval Age.

  1. #1 by ADAM YONG IBNI ABDULLAH on Thursday, 24 April 2008 - 8:28 am

    AL- Fatihah.

    the nst reported ” among those who paid their last respects were dsai,wan azizah,tian chua, chandra muzaffar, samad said,kamrauddin jaafar, lim kit siang.

    where than is ” maaf zahir dan batin “,? that abdullah badawi , najib are not there as reported.

    where than is umno slogan of “demi agama, bangsa dan negara ?

    demi agama :- is not rustam sani a muslim.!!!
    demi bangsa:- is not rustam sani a malay.!!!
    demi negara:- is not rustam sani a malaysian.!!!

  2. #2 by ADAM YONG IBNI ABDULLAH on Thursday, 24 April 2008 - 8:30 am

    the nst reported ‘ among those who paid their last respects were dsai, wan azizah,tian chua,chandra muzaffar, samad said,kamaruddin jaafar and lim kit siang.’

  3. #3 by lakilompat on Thursday, 24 April 2008 - 8:36 am

    Sadly, there’s no one representing the Federal govt.

  4. #4 by wormie on Thursday, 24 April 2008 - 9:59 am

    How I wish for the day when Malaysian politics is able to differentiate politics from patriotism. If one is able to serve the country and is willing to do so, why shouldn’t he be choosen for the task irrespective of his political persuasions. After all, aren’t politicians fighting for a chance to better the country?

  5. #5 by JDoe on Thursday, 24 April 2008 - 10:48 am

    those gomen people only attend people like zakaria mat deros’ funeral.

  6. #6 by lakilompat on Thursday, 24 April 2008 - 11:44 am

    “those gomen people only attend people like zakaria mat deros’ funeral.”

    Those who really contribute is not been valued, those overnight tyrant will be showered and worship like god. This is Malaysia political now.

  7. #7 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 24 April 2008 - 12:23 pm

    Interesting that Kit described the late Rustam A. Sani in last blog thread as “academician” and “scholar” whereas Bakri Musa, a “genuine intellectual”, of which there must surely be a difference between the mutually exclusive terms. Maybe he was both.

    I suppose the word intellectual may be used to describe someone whose interests and pursuits (usually writing & speaking to public) require exercise of intellect with reasoning, abstraction and analytical powers usually concerning societal and public issues….There are the arm chair types and types that are on the ground. Malaysian Intellectuals do not, until recently, make much impact on politics – except the kind like Dr Mahathir. Things have changed since proliferation of blogs and Internet usage as means of communication and information of dissemination. I am sure Malaysian Intellectuals including people like Farish Noor, Bakri, Jeff Ooi & Kit – and even RPK (if you can call him one) – through their blogs have a significant part to play in creating momentum leading up the March 8th political tsunami. Earlier ones like Professor Alatas, K Jomo etc did not have such an impact probably they used less of ICT/blogs. I call on Malaysian intellectuals (of whom there are many) whether arm-chair types or the other types to take a leaf from what a fellow intellectual like Rustam A. Sani did in Rustam Sani’s Vox Populi (as what Bakri said) to rise, use and marshal their God given or acquired skills to help Malaysia to become a better place by speaking not only to Power but ordinary Malaysians (not only through books and printed materials but via speaking engagements and blogs/websites) since democracy can best flourish when its bottom (at ordinary citizenry level) broadening upwards in demand for their rights, for accountability and good governance.

  8. #8 by Jimm on Thursday, 24 April 2008 - 1:16 pm

    Great individual that Malaysain need most to keep our rich culture and belief flaming …
    Sadly missed by me.

  9. #9 by Short-sleeve on Thursday, 24 April 2008 - 1:25 pm

    Great man. Had the honour of meeting him once.

  10. #10 by moose on Thursday, 24 April 2008 - 4:39 pm

    A noble & great man..This is what every Malaysian must strive to emulate like him. Let us not forget our struggle in fighting what is right against corrupt pratices of BN’s ‘thugs” who blinds Malaysians with their lies..Long live Pakatan Rakyat

  11. #11 by grace on Thursday, 24 April 2008 - 5:49 pm

    Not surprising that none of BN top guns were at the funeral.
    They are of low mentality. When a man pass away, enimity between them is forgotten and forgiven. But not to BN.
    Anyway, Rustam did not need their attendance to make him great!

  12. #12 by lakilompat on Thursday, 24 April 2008 - 6:08 pm

    PL should kiss his toes, to show his support for reform.

  13. #13 by patriotic1994 on Thursday, 24 April 2008 - 7:20 pm

    In developed country, they build monument to commemorate a history event and lesson. In Malaysia, we have this monument where our soldiers are brave to fight off communists. But where is the monument for those lost their lives during May 13 racial conflict? The monument can remind us race integration is key to unity and we MUST NOT fight among races.

    Now assuming within this year Pakatan Rakyat took over the government, then we shall have monument to remind parties and government that People is the Boss and don’t bully the people. I bet there will be lengthy of examples to show how BN failed the people all these years in the monument.

    Back to Rustam, similar monument can also be built to remember his contributions to the country. You know when you drive around in city, you can see wasteful water fountain or some kind of “thing” in the middle of roundabout. Why not put a meaningful monument there? A statue of Rustam or something that can help all passing by to remember to be a patriot like Rustam and many other similar patriots.

    What you think?

  14. #14 by undergrad2 on Thursday, 24 April 2008 - 7:52 pm

    “Why not put a meaningful monument there? A statue of Rustam..”

    Let us not go overboard! Islamic theology more than frowns upon the use of stone images. It forbids the use of stone images because of its ties to paganism.

  15. #15 by undergrad2 on Thursday, 24 April 2008 - 7:57 pm

    Strict adherance to Islamic theology would require that stone images like the Malaysian ‘Iwo Jima’ statue standing in the Lake Garden be torn down along with that of the Tunku which I presume is still standing within the grounds of Parliament.

    PAS may want to consider this!

  16. #16 by limkamput on Friday, 25 April 2008 - 2:32 am

    …………….PAS may want to consider this!

    Just wonder what is the motive of all these, unless it was stated in jest.

  17. #17 by lakilompat on Friday, 25 April 2008 - 10:50 am

    In Penang, there’s this roundabout near Jelutong junction

    “some kind of “thing” in the middle of roundabout. ”

    Initially ppl. complain it looks like a condom, those national flowers cost previous state govt. more than RM 100K what a waste, and now no more light etc. Stupid ppl. is in charge for stupid project.

  18. #18 by patriotic1994 on Friday, 25 April 2008 - 11:44 am

    If the use of monument is a problem, then think of other way. As long as there is a mean to remember the efforts of forefather done to the nation which is useful and important, and this item should last forever (at least many generations later). It does not have to be monument. Perhaps make it into education material, part of history book taught in schools, in library, or in Wikipedia. I just think that monument is the most effective one.

    About monument… if Islam so against it, why Saddam can have his while he ruled Iraq? Rules are man made.

    I think our today’s mentality will not see monument as a stone to pray. The 12th GE is proof that people are awaken and know what they want for the country.

  19. #19 by patriotic1994 on Friday, 25 April 2008 - 11:50 am

    OK, if you so against the idea of Rastam stone in the middle of roundabout, then forget that idea. Any symbol that represent the love to the country and Islam-compatible, then it should be good. It could be a fountain but with some messages. It must have meaning and with the right meaning.

  20. #20 by ilovedap on Friday, 25 April 2008 - 2:31 pm

    My condolences to Rustam’s family. May you rest in peace, Mr Rustam.

  21. #21 by lakilompat on Tuesday, 29 April 2008 - 4:45 pm

    About monument… if Islam so against it, why Saddam can have his while he ruled Iraq? Rules are man made. Those who embrace ethnic cleansing is not ISLAM. If he’s a pure ISLAM he won’t end up been hang by non ISLAM.

    Like what Lingam said, he looks like an Islam, sounds like an Islam but he’s not….

  22. #22 by haveaview on Sunday, 4 May 2008 - 10:56 pm


    Mr lim views …blog of Malaysian songstress Ning Baizura’ ??

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