Royal Prof Ungku Aziz, a Man Ahead of His Time
Much has already been celebrated about the impact, contributions and legacy of Allahyarham Royal Professor Ungku Aziz in honour of the memory of one of Malaysia’s greatest sons.
However, this writer feels there is more to be said especially in relation to what could have truly made him such a visionary and a rarefied personality in Malaysia’s modern history such that we would be able to build on his legacy in a more comprehensive manner.
Although Ungku Aziz’s academic inquiry can be classified to some extent in the “development economics” category, much of his concerns, writings and ideas appears to go beyond the discipline of modern economics and reflects a broader conception of development that regards religion, ethics, culture, history, and language as important considerations for development.
If we scrutinise Ungku Aziz’s early life, readings and milieu, the facts reveal that Ungku Aziz’s vision of development and thinking in general must have been shaped by the various personal and intellectual exposures throughout his life—starting with the basic religious awareness imparted by his father, who, according to an account documented by Asmah Hj Omar, advised his son to hold on to his prayers and perform the requirements of Islam.
In a later interview, he regarded Al-Ghazali (d. 1111), Jalaluddin Rumi (d. 1273), and Ibn Khaldun’s (d. 1406) as his sources of inspiration, which shaped his understanding on social philosophy, and the meaning of life, all indicated his basic commitment to the philosophical outlook and value-system of Islam. According to former colleague of Ungku Aziz at University of Malaya, he would consult his cousin, Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, on matters of religion as he regarded him as more conversant on the subject.
This is fortified further with various literatures and heritage of mankind, which he personally admired such as the Samurai tradition’s code of conduct, Confucius’ philosophy, Anton Chekhov and Dostoevsky.
Herein lies the key point which we should pay more attention to about Ungku Aziz’s legacy: as noted by his daughter, Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz more recently, ther father had always encouraged students to recognise different disciplines or the interconnectivity of disciplines of knowledge.
In other words, Royal Prof Ungku Aziz espoused a more universal outlook and integrative approach towards life and scholarship, which was most likely informed by the great literatures and philosophies he was acquainted with. Indeed, the literatures made him more humane, more selfless, and more thoughtful about his specialised field—economics.
In fact, according to the late H.W. Arndt from Australia, Ungku Aziz was “one of those distinguished economists who has never been entirely happy with economics as a discipline.”
Therefore, one can deduce that Ungku Aziz did not necessarily see the problems of the world through the lens of his specialisation but likely in a more interconnected way which regarded the following into the equation: the quality of the thoughts, the ethics and morality, the languages, the art, and the historical consciousness—the domains of what we today associate as the “humanities”.
Indeed, such a standpoint of Ungku Aziz is more emphasised in his article on “The Role of the University in Asia in the 21st Century” (1990), in which he had said,
The traditional barriers between subjects are being reinforced by increasing scholarly specialisation for administrators in higher learning. In reality, the problems of the modern world have not conveniently fitted themselves into the pigeonholes of university departments. Many problems involving complexity need to be studied from a cross-disciplinary approach.
It was perhaps for this reason also Ungku Aziz was espousing that Malaysia must not neglect the proper appreciation of the great literatures and discourses of mankind of the past in the context of progressing as a country. He once said, “”The study of literature and mankind’s heritage should not be forgotten even though Malaysia is gearing towards becoming a scientific and progressive society in the next century… man could not live by science alone as he needed cultural nourishment for his mind… We have examples of advanced nations where scientific advancement is balanced by an education system that encourages learners to appreciate the great works of the past and present and to be familiar with at least a portion of the creative works and discourses of mankind through time and across the globe.” (New Straits Times, 7 December 1991)
Furthermore, having been exposed to great literary works of the world, Ungku Aziz recognised the importance for the Malays to be connected to their own literary and intellectual heritage even in the context of progress and development. In a newspaper report in 1985, Ungku Aziz publicly urged the learned community in Malaysia to study “the thinking of the Malay people of the past so that the findings can be used to contribute to the progress of this nation.”
This shows that contrary to mainstream or Western doctrines and conceptions on development that restricts development merely as economic growth, Ungku Aziz pursued a broader meaning of it—he was not an uncritical imitator of the West. It is thus for the next generation of researchers to further scrutinise the concepts he employed, the solutions he proposed, and his development vision as a whole.