Home 2012: 1 A privilege to have travelled with you, Khay Jin

A privilege to have travelled with you, Khay Jin

A tribute to Aliran's long-time friend and supporter, the scholar-activist Philip Khoo Khay Jin, who passed away in December 2011. (Republished in 2021, 10 years after his passing.)

Khay Jin at a food security conference organised by Aliran and UNDP on 15 November 2008: One of the best read scholars of his generation and brilliant statistician

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So many friends showed up at the apartment on the night of 22 December 2011, as soon as they heard that Khay Jin had breathed his last. Many more then attended the wake the following night and the funeral service held in the Catholic Church in Pulau Tikus, Penang, on Christmas Eve.

That was a lovely service which was conducted by Rev Fr Fabian Dicom who, just a week ago, had had a long chat with Khay Jin, which ended with Fabian praying over Jin, and expressing his admiration for how Jin had led his life in search of the Truth and in the service of others, especially the marginalised and forgotten like the Penans. Just two hours before he died, Fabian had also given Jin ‘the last rites’. No doubt, Jin was at peace as he left us.

Subsequently, many friends who could not be physically present in Penang to bid Khay Jin farewell, wrote to his wife Jane and his son Chen to express their condolences. Many recalled how they had been touched by Jin on some occasion. For some it was his profound intellect, vast knowledge and inquisitive mind; for others, it was his compassion for the downtrodden and his life-long commitment to combat injustice and discrimination; for yet others, how he combined all of these.

The tributes that have been reproduced in this issue of Aliran Monthly are a sample of what many more friends have expressed in writing as well as orally to Jane and Chen. In his Eulogy (reproduced below), Andrew Aeria captured the essence of the man when he stated:

He had great personal and intellectual integrity….He had very high standards and he lived by them. [And although] he had a fearsome intelligence, was articulate and wrote brilliantly…he was a very unassuming person, even shy, who never sought any public limelight….he was a very humble person.


For me, he was the model of a scholar-activist, a public intellectual. He was my fellow traveller. Perhaps I can share a bit more about some of Jin’s last thoughts about his projects and dreams. For, not only have I have known Jin for some 50-odd years, but I had the privilege to re-unite and interact with him quite intensely these past two months as he struggled with his failing health.

Jin grew up in Penang and attended St Xavier’s Institution like I did. He must have excelled in Mathematics like some have said; what I do remember was that he was the school’s pianist and on several occasions played concertos with the school’s orchestra. In the late 1960s, when it was still unfashionable to go to the US for further studies, he won a scholarship to attend Manhattan College in New York City, where he majored in Mathematics and Philosophy.

It was in the 1970s when we were undergraduates, and then graduate students in northeast America, that we first began to interact with one another intensely. Whereas most Malaysian students in the US studied the sciences, we turned to the social sciences. Those were heady times in the US and we were also caught in the throes of the social and cultural turbulence that engulfed American society, especially its youths then. We learnt as much in classes as outside them.

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We next became colleagues in the School of Social Sciences in USM, Penang. Apart from teaching the same students and fighting the same battles in the School Board, we also conducted joint-research. Not for us to be ivory-tower academics for we desired a more just and free Malaysia and to this end we egged each other on to dedicate ourselves to be scholar-activists. We had lunch together, and debated on all kinds of issues over coffee and cigarettes, almost every day. We were fellow travellers.

But Jin was always several steps ahead of me. He had read more, had a more inquisitive mind, and had deep powers of absorption. While I would still be mulling about a problem, he had decided what ought to be done to overcome the predicament. Although I possessed a PhD and he did not, he was always more insightful and intelligent. He was my mentor.

In 1995, after 20 years in USM, Khay Jin transferred to Kuching. It was the beginning of a new phase in his life: for he turned anthropologist, trekked into the forests, and developed a special relationship with the Penans and other Orang Ulu in Sarawak. He was already there before the Bakun Dam project was launched. He took lots of photographs, filled many log books, and collected invaluable data about those times. Over the next fifteen years, he witnessed the worsening of the Penans’ plight first-hand. Inevitably, he took up their cause.

In this regard, Jin was very different from so many of us would-be scholar-activists. For as many of his peers grew in intellectual stature and moved up the academic hierarchy, and not a few becoming globe-trotting public intellectuals and assuming overseas positions, Khay Jin did the reverse! He dug deeper into the Borneo hinterland … and into local political issues. He even extended his interest to fathoming the ethnic violence in Kalimantan, across the border. And when Jane decided, upon her retirement from Unimas, that she wanted to move back to Penang to establish a new laboratory, Jin was reluctant to leave Sarawak

‘Who’s not tired?’

During his fifteen years in Sarawak, we interacted less often, and less intensively. But we kept in touch, via among others, Aliran and Aliran Monthly, for which he wrote several important lead articles.

It was because of his illness that he showed up in Penang more frequently. And when he contracted an infection that weakened him significantly in late October, Penang once again became his home coincidentally.

As Jin’s illness took over his body, Jane gave him her all. But he preferred not to meet too many people. I suspect that he did not want them to see how helpless he was. For the first time in his life perhaps, he was unable to give, so he must have thought. In fact, I was privileged to have easy access to him, to continue ‘picking his mind’ on a host of things during November and December 2011.

However, it was disturbing that Jin stopped accessing his computer and communicating with others via email beginning late November. One of my roles, as I understood it, was to engage with him about worldly affairs from which he had cut himself. By doing so, Jane and I thought that he could take his mind off his physical unwell being. In his good days, Khay Jin devoured whatever I could deliver and offered his usual critical insights into a situation. He remained argumentative.

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The difference was that he would tire after about an hour and would excuse himself to take a rest. Or, as he grew weaker, he would doze away in the midst of a conversation. On his bad days, I just sat in front of him. And when he opened his eyes and saw me, we would exchange a smile. No words were necessary.

Yes, I bothered him about our Aliran problems, too. In early November 2011, as Aliran’s 35th AGM approached, I told him that Ramakrishnan, who had served as president for 18 years, had intimated once again that he wished to step down to devote more time to his family. Many in the Exco were trying to persuade me to step up.

I told Jin that I was reluctant to accept. For I had been Aliran’s secretary for most of the time that Rama had been president, and had served in the Exco for more than 20 years. I was also tired. In response, Jin gave me a cold stare that said, “What a cop-out, who’s not tired?!”

Writing for Aliran

After I’d been elected president about a week later, I shared with him what had happened at the Aliran AGM on 20 November and explored with him plans to transform Aliran into ‘the people’s think tank’, and to transform Aliran Monthly (AM) into an on-line publication. This was due to declining sales. He fully supported both proposals which I appreciated.

Years earlier, when AM street sales first started declining, we had deliberated the possibility of closing the AM. Then and now, Jin stood firm that Malaysia had a need for at least one magazine like the AM, even though it was published in the English language. The on-line dailies were important for breaking news but there was not enough analysis contained in the news reports and commentaries, always written on the run as they kept to deadlines. And though there were many blogs and social media nowadays, they were all too speculative for him. In fact, some were down-right racist and did more harm than any good. For Jin, AM had to plod on.

And he was consistent in finding time to write for the AM, raising its profile and reputation each time he did so. Alas, due to his operation and illness, he had not written his usual well-researched, analytical and provocative articles for the AM since mid-2010. But he more than made up for it by writing short commentaries for Thinking Allowed Online (TA Online), which Aliran launched about a year ago.

In early December 2011, as Aliran was preparing its submission to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform (partly reproduced in this issue of the AM), we discussed what ought to be highlighted. Some of the points Jin raised found its way into the submission that we made. He commented: ‘That’s the first task for the people’s think tank!’. He apologised that he could not offer to do more.

After the political tsunami of March 8, 2008, Aliran held a two-day ‘retreat’ in Penang for Aliran members and friends. On the first day, various people, including Khay Jin, shared their analyses of what was happening in the country socio-economically, culturally and politically. I recall vividly his intervention on how neo-liberal economic growth and industria-lisation had transformed the structure of Malaysian society into one with widening disparities between the rich and poor of all races, and on the particular plight of the Indian poor which for him explained the appeal of Hindraf – an argument buttressed by all the necessary statistical data. All present were deeply impressed with his clear analysis. On the second day, with Khay Jin, we surmised that struggling for the realisation of a two-party system was consistent with the project towards deepening Malaysian democracy. That said, we still needed to invest in consolidating those civil society forces independent of the political parties, and outside of the electoral process.

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There is no doubt that I shall miss Jin’s insights and mentoring. But his example will inspire me and many others. Goodbye dear friend. What a privilege it was to travel with you.

Khoo Khay Jin: Brief biodata

Born: 15 October 1948. Penang
Deceased: 22 December 2011.
Married to Prof Jane Cardosa, with one son.

St Xavier’s Institution, Penang; B. Sc (Mathematics, 1971) Manhattan College; M. Phil (Anthropology, 1975) Columbia University, NY.

Employment Experience
Lecturer, Sociology/Anthropology, School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia (1975-1995)

Consultant Researcher, PE Research Sdn Bhd (1996 onwards)

Academic Adviser to The Nippon Foundation Fellowships for Asian Public Intellectuals Institut Kajian Malaysia dan Antarabangsa (IKMAS), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (2000-2002)

2005 onwards: Assessor/Auditor on the social component of RSPO or Timber Certification, the latter under both the MTCC as well as the FSC schemes, principally in Sabah and Sarawak; and Consultancy work relating to poverty and inequality analysis and assessment, under which would come work for Rio Tinto/Salco for the CSR and due diligence in relation to the “licence to operate” communities displaced ; and the Bakun Hydroelectric Dam, Poverty and inequality analysis and assessment of Sabah and Sarawak for the UNDP Malaysia/EPU, and responsibility for MDG-1 and overall responsibility for the MDG 2010 report for UNCT Malaysia/EPU.

Selected Recent Papers/Presentations (2006 through 2009)

2008 – Poverty and Inequality. chapter in UNRISD Poverty Reduction and Policy Regimes Project, Malaysia component, headed by Khoo Boo Teik.

2007 – Poverty, Inequality and Welfare in Sarawak. International Poverty Conference: Poverty and Income Inequality in the 21st Century, 11-13 December, Kuala Lumpur.

2007 – Health care in Sarawak: model of a public system. In Chee, H.L. & S. Barraclough (eds), Health Care in Malaysia: The dynamics of provision, financing and access. London: Routledge

2006 – Presentation: Using the Census – Dynamics of Social Change and Ethnicity. Paper presented to the IKMAS, UKM, seminar series, 16 November 2006.

2006 – Presentation: Meeting Targets…and missing people? Paper presented at a UNDP Workshop on the Millennium Development Goals, 7 September 2006, Kuching, Sarawak

2006 – Presentation: Kalimantan – Ethnicity, Inequality and Violence. Paper presented at a workshop of the CRISE Project at LIPI, Jakarta, 10-11 August 2006.

2006 – Presentation: Region, Ethnicity and Class in Sarawak. Paper presented to the seminar “Balanced Development in Malaysia: Bringing the Poorer States into the Mainstream”, 13 July 2006, Kuala Lumpur.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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