Just as I was looking forward to getting his two new books Social Roots of the Malay Left and Failed Nation? Concerns of a Malaysian Nationalist I received the shocking news that writer Rustam A Sani passed away a few hours ago. He was 64.
I first met him in the early 1990s when he was at ISIS and I was writing for the NST. I continued to read his articles in Utusan Malaysia, which was one of the few independent-minded spaces in that UMNO-run daily, until his column was abruptly terminated in 1998.
Some of his political courage must have come from his late father, the left-wing nationalist Ahmad Boestamam, on whom he reminisces here. (This was quite a moving piece because it turns out that the two didn't even manage to live under the same roof for any long period of time).
The fact that he did not write for the 'mainstream' media after 1998 caused him to be a bit marginalised. But, as he points out in the last paragraph of this blog post he wrote after my own 'sacking,' being marginal is no big deal if it means a preservation of your intellectual spirit.
I never knew him personally all that well – I think the last time we bumped into each other was 2 years ago, when I gleefully showed him a naked picture of himself in a book (don't ask) – but the best way to get to know a writer is to read his books. So I suggest you start, if you have not already.
Yes, his belated involvement in party politics (after academia) made him very partisan. Some would complain that he did not apply the same fierce critical scrutiny to, say, Anwar Ibrahim that he brought to bear on other leaders.
And although he had his hobby horses (his not-exactly-bewildering antipathy towards the former Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin being one of them) Rustam stood as a model for progressive and enlightened politics. For example, his exemplary take on the Hindraf rally.
His sociological training meant that he would often look at hot-button topics in not quite the expected way, and then express these views in an accessible manner – the very definition of a public intellectual.
I would have loved to read his take on the new, and newly evolving, Malaysian political scenario, but this was just not to be – and we are all the poorer for it.