As illustrious as its alumni

  • Education
  • Sunday, 12 Jun 2005


IN MARKING this year as its 100th anniversary, the University of Malaya traces its beginning to 1905 in Singapore. There it started as the Straits and Federated Malay States Government Medical School.  

Renamed the King Edward VII College of Medicine in 1921, the school, upon the recommendation of the Carr-Saunders Commission Report, merged with Raffles College to form the University of Malaya in 1949.  

Over its long history, UM has produced prime ministers, governors, cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, and top corporate leaders and professionals in Malaya and in Singapore. Indeed, no university in this country has as illustrious a list of alumni as that of UM. 

The anniversary celebrations, which begin next week, is also an occasion for the university to look ahead in its efforts to maintain academic excellence. For some 70 years of its history, UM was the only higher education institution serving the Malayan and Singapore territories.  

Since then, new universities and colleges have been established in the country and some of these are seriously threatening the premier position of UM. Overseas universities, meanwhile, are turning global while regional centres of educational excellence are established in neighbouring countries. It is a more competitive and challenging environment that UM now has to contend with. 

Student politics in Universiti Malaya (UM) in the early 70s.

Evolving in a largely pre-war colonial setting, UM drew upon the rich material and intellectual diversity of its surroundings. The early building projects were financed by generous endowments from Straits Chinese merchants such as Tan Jiak Kim, Tan Chay Yan, and Eu Tong Sen and, later, rubber magnate Lee Kong Chian. Funding came also from governments of Malay states and the Straits Settlements. And on the university’s Foundation Day on Oct 8, 1949, seven of the nine Malay rulers graced the occasion. 

Lecturers were largely expatriate then but locals such as Dr Lim Boon Kheng and Dr Wu Lien Teh, known as the plague fighter of China, were called upon to help out. Writers such as Han Suyin, James Michener and Eric Ambler as well as local bankers and politicians were invited to engage with lecturers and students on contemporary concerns.  

Distinguished scholars 

Back in 1950 already, UM was anxious about its international academic standing. In a convocation address that year, Sydney Caine, UM’s Vice-Chancellor, spoke of the need to attract top scholars to the university and pointed out that to get them UM must compete with universities world wide.  

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali at Dr M's graduation.

Some fairly distinguished scholars were already associated with the university. Among them were Richard Winstedt, the well-known scholar on Malay literature and Malaysian history, historian C.N Parkinson famed later for his Parkinson Law theory, economist T.H. Silcock, L.A. Sheridan of the Law Faculty and Zainal Abidin Ahmad or Zaba, who taught Malay.  

In time, UM produced a new generation of local scholars. T.J. Danaraj, A.A. Shandosham, Ungku Abdul Aziz, Hamzah Sendut, Chin Fung Kee and Wang Gungwu all studied at UM and served briefly in Singapore.  

In 1957 several of them moved to Kuala Lumpur to start the Lembah Pantai campus. They were joined by Ho Peng Yoke, Lloyd Fernando, Rayson Huang, Ruth Wong, Syed Hussein Alatas and C.J. Eliezar; together, they laid the foundation for sound scholarship.  

All went on to become Deans and Vice-Chancellors, either in UM or in overseas universities. The shift towards a more Malayan institution proceeded under them.  

In 1962, the two campuses in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore became separate universities. For UM, Tunku Abdul Rahman, then Prime Minister of Malaysia, was installed as Chancellor while A. Oppenheim became Vice-Chancellor. 

The university attracted in its early years the best and the brightest students from throughout Malaya. Tun Abdul Razak and Lee Kuan Yew were there briefly. Others who came in after World War II included Tun Mahathir Mohamed, Siti Hasmah, Hamdan Sheik Tahir, James Puthucheary, Aminuddin Baki, R.S.McCoy, Siew Nim Chee and Tan Chee Koon, all of whom rose to prominence in various fields.  

These young men and women lived through remarkable times of a world war and decolonisation, and while in the university, they sensed that their generation was destined to assume leadership of a new nation. They formed societies and held political debates. It was an experience that prepared them for the roles they were to take.  

Political hotbed 

Discussions on politics continued to be lively and open in the early years of UM in Kuala Lumpur. There are those today who still remember the sometimes heated political forums organised by student groups such as the University of Malaya Students’ Union held at Lecture Theatre A of the Arts Faculty in the 1960s.  

Lee Kuan Yew was among those who took part as he debated Malaysian Malaysia while Musa Hitam and Dr Mahathir Mohamed responded with equal eloquence. Later, there were the Speakers’ Corner in front of the Main Library and the demonstrations of the Malay Language Society led by Anwar Ibrahim.  

The energy and the initiative of students extended into Orientation Week, a programme for new students, with a float procession through the streets of KL, the selection of a freshie queen and a gala dance as the highpoints. It was a week during which freshies picked up campus vocabulary which includes “tutorials”, “bursar’s office” and “JCRC” as well as “frust”.  

But ragging and panty raids into Third College became too exuberant for the authorities to tolerate. Liu Chang Lan, Anwar Faizal and Krishen Jit preceeded a long list of leaders who promoted union as well as cultural activities, some of which were publicised in the campus newspaper called Mahasiswa Negara. 

Throughout this period, UM was not only the country’s premier university but also an institution well respected for its teaching and research. Its library assembled a fine collection of books and research materials. There were foreign scholars who arrived to spend their sabbatical or to teach at UM under international exchange programmes. 

In research, especially on Malaysian and Southeast Asian studies, UM ranked among the leading universities. A number of visiting scholars went back to prestigious positions in their universities; among them was David Wyatt who headed the renowned Southeast Asian Studies Centre at Cornell University. Some of their research while in Malaysia as well as those of UM staff members became standard references in the world of scholarship. 

Democratisation of education 

In a setting of decolonisation and nation-building, UM had increasingly to contend with new and competing expectations. Following independence, there were calls for greater democratisation of higher education opportunities. There were also demands that UM fulfil national aspirations, especially in reflecting a more local character.  

In response, university places were greatly increased and recruitment of academic staff speeded up to accommodate the growing number of school leavers. Malay replaced English as the main medium of instruction. 

During this transition, there were anxious calls to safeguard academic standards. Some staff members were apprehensive that the quality of undergraduate teaching could, in time, be compromised. They urged that UM should remain an institution free to nurture the spirit of critical enquiry and warned that otherwise, UM would be unable to develop lecturers capable of generating new ideas and be a catalyst for change and progress.  

Royal Professor Ungku Abdul Aziz, became UM’s first Malaysian and longest serving Vice-Chancellor at this crucial juncture. His task was not easy because university funding and scheme of service came increasingly to be regulated by government procedures.  

And at a time when more staff had to be recruited, the university proved less attractive than opportunities in the civil service and private sector. Yet, Ungku in his own style stamped his mark on the campus in a period when deans were elected and a University Senate jealous of its academic prerogatives. 

Since then there have been other vice-chancellors and professors. Those who graduated more recently are still familiar with the names of Asmah Hj Omar, Ahmad Ibrahim, Mohd Taib Osman, Abu Bakar Hamid, Ismail Hussein, Lam Sai Kit, Chan Kai Cheong, Khoo Kay Kim, Rama Subbiah , Yip Yat Hoong, and Thong Saw Pak. 

Many generations of Malaysians have passed through the lecture halls and laboratories of UM. Each remembers only a brief segment of the university’s long history and relies on the memory of others to assemble a larger narrative.  

Certainly, UM can look back with some pride that it has over the last one hundred years contributed to the nation’s political and economic development. The early commitment to a free and open enquiry, a willingness to engage with people of diverse views and ideas, and a determination to strive for excellence are enduring strengths it inherited. But in an increasingly globalised and competitive world, the challenge for UM is to uphold and safeguard these values. 

UM Vice-Chancellors post-Merdeka 

PROF A OPPENHEIM (pic 1)Sept 1956 – June 1965 

DR JHE GRIFFITHS (pic 2)April 1967 – Sept 1968 

ROYAL PROF UNGKU A AZIZ (pic 3)Oct 1968 – Feb 1988 

DR SYED HUSSEIN ALATAS (pic 4)May 1988 – Jan 1991 

DATUK DR MOHD TAIB OSMAN (pic 5)March 1991 – March 1994 

TAN SRI DR ABDULLAH SANUSI AHMAD (pic 6)March 1994 – March 2000 

PROF DATUK DR ANUAR ZAINI MOHD ZAIN (pic 7)April 2000 – March 2003 

PROF DATUK DR HASHIM YAACOB (pic 8)April 2003 – present 


Related Story:Much ado about a hundred years 

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