| Dr B A Hussainmiya |
THE world of the Malays or more precisely the Malay World has on October 20, 2014, lost one of its most valuable sons – Tan Sri Dato’ Professor Emeritus Ismail Hussein – who passed away in Kuala Lumpur following illness at the ripe age of 82.
His death has plunged into grief many hundreds of his followers and well-wishers world over who have associated with him and benefitted from his single minded commitment to the revival of Malay culture in all its forms in particular and the Malay World in general. He has many friends and followers in Brunei Darussalam where his older brother the writer Abdullah Hussein served once as an editor in Language and Literature Bureau (DBP) in the late 1980s.
Tan Sri was a no ordinary academic, but above all a Malay savant and activist who devoted his life time energy to revive Malay literature and culture. His involvement resulted in the production by a plethora of new writers who wrote poetry, novels and short stories. He sponsored many workshops, seminars, contests and rewards to encourage young Malay writers. To achieve this, he garnered multiple avenues. In Malaysia he worked closely with the university system as he was long serving Professor of Malay Studies at the University of Malaya and the Director of the Institute of Language, Literature and Culture (IBKKM) at the University Kebangsaan Malaysia, government sponsored institutions like Language and Literature Bureau (DBP), and above all through the renowned Gapena, the Malaysian Writers Association which he founded way back in the 1971 and remained at its helm until 2003.
The Kedah-born Ismail, who was the first Malay to obtain a first class degree in Malay Studies at the Universiti Malaya (UM), and the first Malay to complete Drs at the Leiden University under the tutorship of late Professor Teeuw. The young Tan Sri was later appointed to the Chair of Malay Studies at UM, a post he held until his retirement in mid 1980s and later served also as the Director of the IBKKM.
Tan Sri Ismail was not a narrow Malay nationalist, but a universal thinker. He hailed from an Achenese background, treated anyone with propensity to be a world Malay. In fact, the Malay gatherings which Tan Sri had organised were held at local, national and international levels. He initiated the so-called Nusantara workshops to promote regional literary clubs all over Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam. Thus, he was closely associated with Brunei’s Asterawani, the Malay writers’ organisation when he used to travel frequently to hold meetings and discussions with his colleagues here as well as with officials at the DBP.
Through his activities, indeed, Malay literature in Sabah and Sarawak too reached their peak. More importantly he linked up with his Indonesian counterparts to promote common literary approach between the two neighbouring nations by holding workshops and visits by various delegations. Above all, he promoted – like no one ever did – to expand the boundaries of the Malay world all the way Sri Lanka, Madagascar, South Africa, the Philippines and Cambodia. In order to promote this larger Malay world, he initiated the first Malay World symposium in Melaka in 1982 followed by the second World Malay symposium in Sri Lanka in August 1985 of which Tan Sri and I became co-chairmen. He sponsored similar world gatherings in Kuala Lumpur as well.
I first met Tan Sri by chance in early 1975 when I was passing through Kuala Lumpur on a journey from Colombo to Melbourne. As a doctoral student attached to the Indonesian and Malay Department at Monash University, Victoria, Australia, I had been on a field trip to my home country Sri Lanka in search of Malay manuscripts. Late Professor Cyril Skinner, the Chairman of the Department was excited to hear about my discovery of more than hundred odd Malay manuscripts. While visiting University of Malaya, I met Tan Sri by chance introduced by my good friend (now Prof Dato) Shahril Talib in the Arts Faculty senior common room. As I explained my mission to Tan Sri and showed my hand list of Malay manuscripts, he almost hit the ceiling. Of course he had known about the Sri Lankan Malay people, but he would not know that they have inherited a Malay literary culture of classical kind, one of his pet subjects.
Tan Sri and I have been corresponding regularly to exchange views on Malay affairs and especially on literature. As early as 1977 when he made a visit to the Indonesian and Malay department at Monash University we discussed our future plans to promote Sri Lankan Malay cause. He was truly stunned to see the wide variety of the literary and religious texts in my possession and commented that and how rich will be the study of Malay literature once I finished my thesis.
After I finished my studies at Monash University in late 1978, I became close associate of Tan Sri. He invited me regularly to attend meetings in Malaysia. The fruits of my research and my association with Tan Sri culminated in the 2nd Malay World symposium that took place in Colombo in August 1985 attended by hundreds of delegates from Malaysia and Indonesia and officiated by the then Sri Lankan President late J R Jayawardena. Tan Sri was honoured on this occasion by the award of a title-Pendeta-unanimously decided by the island wide Malay representatives who wanted to show their appreciation for Tan Sri for the recognition he had brought upon on the Malay community of Sri Lanka.
When Tan Sri attained the age of 75, he completed a noble deed by organising a huge meeting at his birthplace, Kedah, inviting all his friends from locally and abroad including me to witness his handing over of his life time collections of Malay manuscripts, texts and books and other material to the Alor Setar Public library for preservation and reference by future researchers. I last met the ailing Tan Sri at his home in Petaling Jaya in February this year when we reminisced on many events that had passed by. He was very conscious and made warm inquiries about my family. This obituary write up is my fitting memory to this noble soft spoken Professor whose contributions will ever light up the path to an enlightened Malay World. As the legendary Hang Tuah once said, ‘Takkan Melayu hilang di dunia’ literally, ‘The Malay will never be lost in this world’.