HE lived in the shadow of his famous father, Ahmad
Sani Kecil, better known as Ahmad Boestamam. To the literary community he
was Ruhi Hayat -- poet, novelist, essayist.
He was a journalist with Utusan Melayu and later Warta
Malaya but more importantly he was a nationalist and freedom fighter.
He was imprisoned many times for his beliefs.
Rustam Abdullah Sani, who used the name Rustam A. Sani,
was brought up in a household where perjuangan (struggle) meant
everything. He, his sister and their mother endured difficult times.
Rustam, born in August 1944, knew what his father
stood for. In fact, his views were moulded by his father's struggles.
Understandably, he was attracted to politics.
His leftist leaning was no secret. He was involved
with his father's party, Parti Rakyat Malaya. But whatever principles
he stood for, he was a fair man with a penchant for objectivity.
He had reasons to use his writings to pursue his
political objectives, but Rustam knew the limits. He was an intellectual
first, a politician last.
I should know better. When I was the chief editor
of the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka's stable of magazines back in 1988, I
invited him to write for Dewan Masyarakat.
His column, simply labeled "Pendapat" (Opinion)
graced the pages of the monthly magazine for two years. He was one of
the reasons why Dewan Masyarakat was a respectable publication
in those days.
There were other popular columnists at the time,
Hassan Ahmad, Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, Salleh Majid and Adam Kadir.
Rustam wrote about almost everything under the sun.
I teased him on the word peloncoan which means ragging in one of
the articles. Why use a word that probably less than a hundred people
would understand? He said the magazine should be audacious enough to
introduce new words and pharses. After all, there was no exact Malay
word for ragging. And he was adamant, peloncoan or no article
for the month.
The piece Peloncoan: Budaya Sesat Yang Berterusan
came out in the September edition of the magazine in 1989.
Unfortunately, peloncoan was one of those
Indonesian words that simply did not catch fire.
Rustam was then with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia,
teaching at the Department of Political Science. He was instrumental in
helping us to organise a roundtable discussion on the nation's economy.
We engaged thirteen scholars from the university, dubbed
The Thirteen Samurai by participants.
Rustam stopped writing for the magazine after I
left DBP. When I joined the Utusan Melayu group in November 1992, I
invited him to write for the daily paper Utusan Malaysia. We named
his column Sudut Pandangan (Point of View). He was one of the
best columnists we ever had. He had his following.
There were times when I got his angry calls very early
in the morning complaining that the meaning in a particular piece was
lost in editing or something to that effect.
There were other arguments: he complained he was
paid a pittance as a columnist. (That had not changed over the years).
But on the whole, Rustam was critical but his eloquence and mastery of
language camouflaged even his most brutal assessments.
Nevertheless, he irked many who found his writings
too harsh and uncompromising.
There was this fixation with the former prime minister
that I found intriguing. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad probably was a reader
of Rustam's column. And he had high respect for Dr Mahathir yet was critical
of him and his policies. Dr Mahathir engaged him in dialogues and probably
even had a series of discussions with him.
He was included in one of Dr Mahathir's overseas trips.
Call it a love-hate relationship, but Rustam despite his disagreements was
one of Dr Mahathir's admirers. We all were.
But 1998 changed everything. I lost my job, he lost
his column. His last column appeared on July 15, a day after I left. We
went separate ways. He was disturbed by what happened that year. He joined
the reformasi movement and became one of the most articulate spokespersons
for the cause.
Perhaps Dr Mahathir had always been in his system; little
wonder that the last piece he wrote in his blog two days before he died was
entitled Mahathir Lagi: Bilakah Akan Reda? (Mahathir Again: When Will
It End?). He was still talking about the public interest in the man (perhaps
his, too) and words and phrases like "combative", "vintage Mahathir",
"dogged attitude" were used sparingly.
He was commenting on Dr Mahathir's performance on BBC's
We used to meet at our favourite teh tarik joint
in Petaling Jaya. But as time went by, we hardly saw each other. The last
time we met, he was complaining that he had too little time to write
about too many things that were happening.
He joked about his greying hair. Add a bit of grey,
he told me, to indicate some semblance of wisdom. Long before blogging
became chic, Rustam had his websites, Suara Rakyat and Karya
Semasa. He would write about me in his blog, not necessarily pleasant
things, but I would swiftly respond. Perhaps that was one way to keep in
touch with each other. His wife, Rohani, whom I have known since our
DBP days, would occasionally chip in.
Apparently old friendships are strengthened in the
Internet era by such engagement.
Whenever we met I reminded him that he ought to write
more poems. He was after all a poet of substance. Not particularly a
productive one, but enough to assemble his own anthology, Riak-riak
Kecil, published by DBP in 1977 and comprising 39 poems. But Rustam
will be best remembered as a scholar and intellectual. His stints at the
University of Malaya and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia solidified his
academic credentials. But his writings will be his true legacy.
Two of his books to be launched today, Failed
Nation?: Concerns of a Malaysian Nationalist and Social Roots
of the Malay Left may not be part of the mainstream narrative of
It might even create waves and invite condemnation.
But Rustam would not want it any other way. He is a believer in the
need for "mental hygiene" among the people. Being critical and tolerant
towards criticism is the prerequisite of a civil society.
Rustam A. Sani
(1944 - 2008)