is hard to ignore Dr Jomo Kwame Sundaram.
First, there is his rather unusual name.
His late father, greatly fascinated with
the African nationalist movement, had
named him after the two leading lights
of African politics then – Jomo
Kenyatta of Kenya and Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah.
He was anointed, as his friend and fellow
intellectual Rustam A. Sani put it, "in
the spirit of that age".
Then there is no way one cannot notice
him because, at well over six feet, he
looms head and shoulders above most people.
Third, there is his distinguished career
as an economist, academic and author/editor
of some 80 monographs and books. He is
a reference point for many other academics
and his work widely cited by them. His
CV runs into 23 printed pages.
Finally, Jomo is a respected intellectual,
if not a leading public intellectual,
in these parts.
More recently, the former Universiti Malaya
professor was in the news with his appointment
as assistant secretary-general of the
UN Economics and Social Affairs Department.
It is a newly created post that apparently
had him in mind from the point of conception
and which will see him in the role of
chief economist of sorts to the United
Nations. Officially, his role is to assist
the Undersecretary for Economic and Social
Affairs in strengthening the economic
work and analysis done by the United Nations.
Many UN posts are filled by internal staff
moving up the ranks or on the recommendation
of governments and, in some cases, as
a sort of golden handshake. But Jomo's
appointment, as some of his friends have
taken pains to point out, was made solely
on merit – based on his reputation
and integrity as an economist and thinker.
This is the highest UN post yet to go
to any Malaysian, so why has the home
ground reaction been somewhat subdued,
to say the least.
Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid
Albar had congratulated him but had added
rather tersely that he hoped Jomo would
discharge his duties in a "balanced
and fair manner."
Syed Hamid also urged Jomo who is known
as a "critic of the Government"
to make Malaysia proud by championing
the agenda of the developing world.
The point is that Jomo, whom some may
find hard to ignore, has been quite pointedly
ignored by the establishment.
Over the years, this Yale and Harvard
graduate has acquired repute as a person
of unconventional, even radical, views,
who goes against the grain and is unafraid
of contradicting establishment opinion.
"He has ruffled feathers with his
sharp and critical mind but he does not
criticise blindly. He does give credit
to the Government but he is not immune
to flaws and mistakes. But he has used
the academic space well to articulate
views affecting society, the nation and
the world at large," said Universiti
Kebangsaan Malaysia academic Prof Datuk
Dr Rahman Embong.
"His opinions have conflicted with
those in power but at the international
level, they take a broader view and they
In short, Jomo is not a yes-man.
A number of his publications have been
critical of government policy and leaders.
He has also made no bones about his ties
with Parti Rakyat Malaysia right from
the days when the political party still
had the Socialist tag to its name.
His political alignments probably did
not help much given the highly personalised
nature of the Malaysian political culture.
Political personalities dominate the public
sphere and articulated opinion is more
often assessed by who one supports than
by facts and figures.
And during the political upheaval of 1998,
when a great number of the Malay intelligentsia
sided with the opposition over the sacking
of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Jomo went
public with his opinion, declaring himself
"He has always come across as someone
who has married intellect with conscience.
He's used his economic expertise to promote
the cause of the downtrodden and that
makes him pretty unique," said think-tanker
But the man himself insisted that he is
merely prone to calling a spade a spade.
"Government critic, social critic
... those are labels that people use in
chatting about all kinds of things,"
He said he does what he does because he
believes "there is a role for people
who want to think independently and who
want to share what they think to better
understand society and for social progress."
He added: "There's nothing very novel
in what I say. Very often, I am only saying
things that people privately believe in
but do not say out loud or think they
are not free to do so. I go to a place,
sometimes even in men's toilets ... people
come up to shake my hand and congratulate
me for having said something which I thought
had been kind of obvious.
"Actually, it is not all that simple
for it requires a great deal of courage,
self-conviction and perhaps even a dose
of ego to speak the truth to power, as
the late Palestinian intellectual Edward
W. Said put it."
But, he said: "The truth may hurt
and offend but I don't deliberately go
around trying to offend people."
On how the mainstream media have sidestepped
him over the years, he said: "I've
become a bit more conscious about the
seduction of the sound bite. It's about
resisting the temptation to succumb to
one's vanity or to be gratified just because
one is quoted."
But Rustam, a former university lecturer
and an intellectual in his own right,
believes quite rightly that Jomo had made
very conscious choices whether as an academic
or an intellectual.
"Whatever his actions, he knew what
was in store for him. He could have gone
anywhere he liked outside of Malaysian
academia. He could have become a Tan Sri
and get to sit on advisory boards but
he reserved the right to express things
his way," said Rustam.
There is also the perception that Jomo
was sidelined in his career as an academic,
but Rustam said that while the former
was never appointed dean nor would he
even have a blue-moon chance of becoming
a deputy vice-chancellor, he did make
it to professorial rank.
"They could not deny him that,"
Even Jomo's lifestyle is consciously unostentatious.
For years, he used to drive around in
a beat-up Nissan and his cotton batik
shirts and slippers were trademark attire
for him on campus.
He turned up for this interview in a pale
grey, striped shirt that looked like it
had seen better days, and grey slacks.
If not for anything else, the outfit matched
his greying hair.
But despite his stoop, a result of his
towering frame, Jomo has an insouciant
elegance about him. And his eloquence
and intellect makes him a compelling speaker.
Despite his public reputation, he is,
as Rustam pointed out, an extremely private
Now 52, Jomo left Universiti Malaya this
year and is a senior research fellow at
the Asia Research Institute, National
University of Singapore. He has two children
from his first marriage and he recently
married Noelle Rodriguez, an academic
from the Philippines.
He told friends who congratulated him
on his UN job, which he will take up next
month, that he should have left academic
"I'm no great fan of Henry Kissinger
but he once said that university politics
is really the pits because the methods
people use are so vicious but the stakes
so petty and trivial," he said by
way of explaining the reason for finally
calling it a day in academia.
It is a rather big career change at this
point in life and he admitted to being
a little apprehensive about becoming a
At the same time, the international post
seems a natural stage in his long career.
He joined Universiti Malaya in 1977 and
his early years saw him immersed in publishing
magazines and working with grassroots
groups. He was away on sabbatical when
Operation Lalang occurred in 1987.
Jomo described Operation Lalang as a time-marker
that led to his transition to a greater
interest in regional and eventually international
Four days before Sept 11, he set up IDEAs
(International Development of Economics
Associates), a South-based network led
by economists in developing countries
and whose aim is for progressive economists
to do and promote research, teaching,
dissemination and application of economic
policy and development.
The idea, said one of his friends, is
typical of Jomo – always trying
to meld ideals with expertise and to put
it into practice.
"Like him or hate him, he has been
an honest intellectual," said Razak.