Saturday February 27, 2010

Up Close and Personal with Royal Prof Ungku Aziz


SPEND an hour or so interviewing Royal Prof Ungku Abdul Aziz Ungku Abdul Hamid, and you can bet you will spend some time after that on Google and Wikipedia. You have to, because the man is apt to casually throw in obscure references and esoteric bits of information as he fields questions with natural ease.

Word of the day: teleology. It is the philosophical study of design and purpose. As in “She’s very, very teleologically-minded.” That’s how Pak Ungku – everybody seems to call him that and it does sound affectionate yet respectful – describes his daughter, Bank Negara governor Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Abdul Aziz.

He means she is highly purpose-driven. “And her purpose is to be excellent in her particular field of international finance,” he says.

Do you know what an amygdala is? That, he explains, is a little thing like an almond inside the brain that plays a big part in how we process and recall emotional reactions.

Apparently, Pak Ungku’s amygdala is wired differently than that of the average worrywart. He says the amygdala can make people victims of their inability to let things go.

“All the time you have things rolling around in your mind. It’s terrible. You wake up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘How did I get in this pickle? How do I get out of it?’ I don’t have that,” he adds.

He mentions plenty of names too during the 80-minute session at his Azair Sdn Bhd office in Mont’ Kiara, Kuala Lumpur.

It is a diverse list – for example, French actress Catherine Deneuve; creative thinking guru Edward de Bono; Jean Piaget, the Swiss expert on the education of children; Jane Austen; Mozart; Za’aba; and Hans Overbeck, an European scholar who once declared that Malay literature was dead.

No, this is not Pak Ungku, 88, being pompous or self-consciously clever. After all, what do you expect from an economist and academician – our sole Royal Scholar – who had decided early on in life that he wanted to be a “very smart guy”?

He had joined Universiti Malaya (UM) in 1951 and retired in 1988, serving the last 20 years as vice-chancellor (VC).

When people are asked to identify Malaysia’s leading thinkers, his name is always likely to come up. And this is the man who was instrumental in the establishment of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), Lembaga Tabung Haji and the National Cooperative Organisation of Malaysia (Angkasa).

Passion for pantuns

These days, Pak Ungku’s principal designation is executive chairman of Azair, a company he founded in 1992. Its main business is the construction and maintenance of tubewell systems to supply water, mainly at rural schools in Sabah and Sarawak.

He, however, does not spend all that much time at Azair, leaving it to his eldest grandson to manage the company.

Pak Ungku is also chairman of Cosmopoint Sdn Bhd, which is in the education and training business. In this case, he takes on the role of an elder statesman to forty-something entrepreneur Datuk Idrus Mohd Satha, Cosmopoint’s founder and president.

“I sign all the 1,800 graduation certificates once or twice a year. And I go in and talk to Datuk Idrus, who really runs the whole thing. I give him advice and I visit the different parts of the group. I maintain a kind of avuncular interest,” Pak Ungku explains.

He is, in fact, in semi-retirement. But he is far from idle. He keeps himself busy working on a book on a particular form of Malay poetry – the four-line pantun.

The plan is to sift through his huge and painstakingly compiled database of pantun, compare and group them in certain categories, and piece together a portrait of traditional Malay life as reflected in the pantun. He envisages producing a book that goes 800 to 900 pages.

“I’m analysing these 16,000 poems in terms of rhyming, meaning, psychological connections and so on,” he says.

There are additional ways to slice and dice the pantun, such as going by subject matter. For example, he intends to have sections devoted to love poems, poems that offer advice and wise sayings, and children’s poems, “which I love very much”.

“And there are erotic poems, quite a lot. Most people think the Malays are very dull people,” he quips.

As a rehearsal for writing the book, he accepted an invitation to talk in a lecture series organised by DBP and the Malaysian Linguistic Association. He delivered the lecture, titled Pantun Dan Kebijaksanaan Akal Budi Melayu (roughly translated, Pantun and the Wisdom of the Malay Mind), last December.

Pak Ungku usually works on the book project three to four hours in the early mornings. “I appointed myself to do this big study. At my age, it really doesn’t matter. You can go on and on doing it – three years, four years, five years,” he says. “This is what I’m doing now. So really, that’s the interesting thing in my life.”

Taking care of mind and body

He reserves the afternoon for reading, another great love of his. The walls of his home, he says, are covered with books, and there is plenty of reading material on the floor as well. “I read what I want to read, for example, the Barry Wain book,” he declares with a laugh that perhaps has more than a tinge of mischief.

Wain’s book, Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times, is said to be critical of how Dr Mahathir had performed as Prime Minister. Pak Ungku says he got his copy from Singapore and calls it “a very fascinating book”.

Recently, he has set a target of re-reading all seven novels of Jane Austen and is almost done with Emma. His deep interest in English literature goes back to his student days and he even had thought of working in that field.

“But I realised I would only have a career as an economist. So I decided that I would have this interest. So I’m very familiar with English literature,” he adds.

When he is ready to set aside the book, he goes for hour-long walks. “That makes me sweat, which I think is very good.” Still, it is a notch less vigorous than the Pak Ungku who was once one of Malaysia’s most famous joggers and runners.

He stopped jogging about 10 years ago after his doctor had advised him to turn to fast walking instead to preserve his knees. “Otherwise, I would have been very keen on continuing. I even took part in marathons last time. But I don’t want to get knee problems,” he says.

Pak Ungku has long been known for being health-conscious and he continues to eat healthy, with salads as a favourite meal.

His after-dinner routine includes watching movies, although the latest Hollywood blockbusters do not seem to figure prominently in his must-see list. Even in entertainment, he seeks brainy diversions.

He fancies classics from the French New Wave and is happy about his recent purchase of a complete set of Alfred Hitchcock mystery movies. Every title comes with an hour-long discussion on behind-the-scenes matters. “I find that almost as interesting as the movie itself,” Pak Ungku admits.

The university years

He left UM more than 20 years ago but many people still remember him for his time there. “I can go anywhere, say, get out of a taxi in Tanjung Malim, and somebody will ask, ‘Lu universiti punya?’ or something like that. Or if he’s Malay, he will ask, ‘Ini Ungku Aziz ka?’”

The highlight of his two decades as VC came when he was just months into the job. It was during the May 13 riots in 1969 that he felt he had his finest hour as the UM head.

“We closed the gates symbolically and nobody outside came in, whether they were Chinese or Malay. I went to the store and I got food and meat, and distributed these within the campus,” he recalls.

The university administration were informed that there were a few Chinese students stuck in predominantly Malay areas and there were also some Malay students stranded in Chinese areas who needed to be brought back to UM. Pak Ungku decided to take on the task.

“If I were to sit in the car, I’d expect that I wouldn’t have too much trouble,” he says.

When he went into a Chinese area on this mission, he puzzled the residents there. “They probably thought, ‘Who the devil is this fellow coming here?’ But you didn’t take too long. You went in and you got out. Nobody attacked you.”

Pak Ungku did not witness any violence in those dark days, but he has a vivid memory of a narrow escape. On the May 13 night, he and his wife and daughter were supposed to catch a movie at the Federal cinema in Kuala Lumpur.

At the office, he got word that trouble was brewing and cancelled the plans for the evening. That night, people were killed in the cinema.

Asked about regrets of his UM years, Pak Ungku says he has none. “When the time came for me to go, I had a long period of service and so I was quite happy to go. When I left various other things at different times, I made a clean break.”

In other words, he is not one to look back and wonder of what ifs. “No, anything you stop, you stop. So if I say I want to stop doing this, I’ll stop. I don’t want to have anything to do with this people and I am going to do something else. I have never lacked for other things to do.”

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