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  Sunday Star Interview - Driven to pursue ideals
   
 
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By JOCELINE TAN Sunday Star, 5 Dec 2004.

His views are often perceived as too radical for the establishment, but that does not detract from the fact that Dr Jomo Kwame Sundaram is a leading public intellectual. JOCELINE TAN spoke to him following news of his appointment as assistant secretary-general of the UN Department of Economics and Social Affairs.

 

IT 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 respect him."

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 an "Anwarista".

"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 Razak Baginda.

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," Jomo insisted.

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," said Rustam.

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 person.

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 life earlier.

"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 bureaucrat.

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 economic debates.

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.

 
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