by Abdul Rahman Embong
It is with great sorrow that we learnt of the passing of a dear friend, respected scholar with a fine creative mind, leading anthropologist and renowned cultural activist from academia, who succumbed to a heart attack at dawn and passed away peacefully at 6.47am yesterday at his home in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
Despite his failing health, which he had to face for some years, the late Prof Wan Zawawi Ibrahim, 75, kept up the fighting spirit to pursue his passion and vocation as best as he could.
His unexpected demise is a big blow to his wife and family and a big shock to his friends in academia, former students and fellow cultural activists in the arts community.
The Malaysian social science community has lost a fine leading anthropologist, meticulous researcher, prolific author and teacher, while the creative arts community has lost a great talent with a creative mind who hailed from academia.
On behalf of the Malaysian Social Science Association (PSSM) – of which the late Wan Zawawi has been a strong intellectual pillar for many decades – we would like to extend our deepest condolence and our sense of deep loss to his wife and family, and pray that they remain strong and steadfast during these moments of grief.
Born on 7 November 1947 in Terengganu in a family of educationists, Wan Zawawi completed his secondary education at the Sultan Ismail College, Kota Bharu, before proceeding on a Colombo Plan scholarship for graduate and postgraduate studies in anthropology at Monash University, Australia. He obtained his BA in 1972 and his PhD in 1978.
Wan Zawawi was in the academic world for about five decades from 1973 until his passing on 18 May 2022. Though having firm roots in academia and in the world of anthropology and ethnomusicology, he was not rooted in any one institution for too long.
He first joined academia fairly early – first, as a tutor between 1973 and 1979 at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology in Monash before becoming a lecturer and chairman of the development studies programme at the School of Social Science, Universiti Sains Malaysia in 1980-1984.
He then spent the next 14 years as an associate professor at the rural development division in the Faculty of Economics and Public Administration of the University of Malaya between 1984 and 1998. He served as head of that division for a few years before becoming a professor at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) for about six years between 1998 and 2003.
In Unimas, he served first as dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and later as deputy dean (postgraduate and research) at the Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts in Unimas.
After serving for about six years in Sarawak, he came back to Semenanjung (the peninsula) to become professor and principal fellow at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation (Atma) in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia between 2003 and 2008, serving as the institute’s deputy director during his last few years there.
Then he moved back to the University of Malaya to become a professor at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences for two years between 2008 and 2009, before moving again, this time to become a professor at the Faculty of Artistic and Creative Technology in Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) in Shah Alam, Selangor.
His moves to other institutions were like a journey. His next move was to the University of Brunei Darussalam (UBD), where he spent about nine years between 2011 and 2019. After returning home to Malaysia, he was appointed as a visiting professor at Taylor’s University Malaysia for two years.
In UBD, he undertook a lot of research and writings and published several significant works which became part of his intellectual legacy.
Wan Zawawi was a fine scholar and renowned anthropologist who consistently worked at the higher end of knowledge.
This was evident in his masterpiece, his PhD dissertation upgraded into a book, The Malay Labourer: By the Window of Capitalism, first published by the Institute of South East Asian Studies (Iseas), Singapore in 1998, and reprinted by SIRD in 2022. His foray in pushing the analysis of class exploitation beyond the classical economic to that of culture, of status exploitation, of maruah, was novel and superb.
When anthropologist Arjun Appadurai proposed the five scapes or flows of globalisation (ethnoscape, technoscape, ideoscape, financescape and mediascape), he made an important contribution by suggesting a sixth scape, the knowledge-scape to show the importance of knowledge flows across borders as part of the scapes of globalisation.
Towards the end of the 1990s and the early 21st Century, when American empiricism held sway in the social sciences, with many scholars becoming obsessed with being empiricists at the expense of theory, he stood firm on the side of theory, ensured his works were theoretically informed and guided others especially younger scholars to be conceptual and not to deviate from theoretical discourse and orientation.
His keen sense of scholarship was also clearly demonstrated in his important and well-attended professorial inaugural lecture “The Anthropology of the Malay Peasantry: Reflecting on Colonial and Indigenous Scholarship” delivered on 6 October 2009 at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya. In his lecture, he enunciated his ideas of the anthropology of the Malay peasantry, which took stock of the colonial and indigenous scholarship on the subject.
While working at the higher end of knowledge, he never lost sight of the subaltern groups and subaltern studies. He gave voice to the voiceless – marginalised groups – such as Aids victims, the Orang Asli and the Penan – on the margins of society and empowered them in the process.
This humanist spirit flowed into his creative works in ethnomusicology – his songs and music were beautifully woven to reflect the inner soul of the downtrodden. In fact, in a number of such works, he wrote beautiful soulsearching lyrics for songs rendered by himself or by noted icons in the music industry.
This is indeed very rare for someone in academia. We just have to listen to his musical score for Monuments of the Rainforest, The Sounds of the Crocker Range and Dayung, a CD album consisting of poetic songs of the Orang Asli and of Mak Yong.
Wan Zawawi was one of the intellectual pillars of PSSM, a life member for decades, partaking actively in the flagship programmes of PSSM such as the biennial International Malaysian Studies Conference and in a series of capacity-building workshops for young scholars as part of initiative to groom successors.
We in PSSM are deeply saddened by his loss and are deprived of his thoughtful insights and contribution.
Wan Zawawi was married to Noorshah M Salleh, a former lecturer at UiTM, and blessed with three children, two boys – Rendra and Hameer – and a girl, Kaisha.
May Allah shower his soul with His blessings. Al-Fatihah!
Emeritus Professor Dato’ Dr Abdul Rahman Embong is special advisor to PSSM. This statement was issued on behalf of PSSM president Professor Dr Sity Daud, deputy president Professor Dato’ Dr Rashila Ramli and the entire executive committee of PSSM