By Aznan Mat Piah
There are perhaps a lot of things that could be learned by young academics from the talk delivered by Tun Arshad Ayub, a leading figure in educational innovation and administration, recently.
Among others, is the thought for academics to move out of their comfort zone and take a bold and brave step to contribute towards the larger society and the nation. In other words, considering on the urge to make a significant mark or to leave a succinct impact on society and the nation in their respective roles.
Tun Arshad was speaking in a murabbi talk series organised by the University.
Earlier in welcoming Tun Arshad as the speaker, the Rector, Prof. Emeritus Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, stated that IIUM is striving very hard to elicit or to find a role model of what an academic leader would be like.
He said, it is befitting to have someone like Tun Arshad who started from scratch, from ground zero, and moved up the ladder of leadership in education by starting with the establishment from a small RIDA college to what it is today – Universiti Teknologi MARA or UiTM – the largest university, which is a pride as far as the country is concerned. RIDA stands for Rural Industry Development Authority.
Noting that education remains top priority to contribute to the nation’s progress, the Rector said the lecture was to benefit young academics who are trying to establish themselves as leaders in the academia. Tun Arshad, he said, would be giving a different perspective altogether – different windows, different views, different ideas – going back to the 1950s.
Starting from scratch
Tun Arshad did not easily mince his words as he believed in the possibilities of what a human being can do. He shared his own long years of experiences in leading a prominent Bumiputra tertiary institution from scratch into what it proudly stands today as the largest university in the country, with campuses in many parts of the country including in remote places.
In fact, what Tun Arshad did for ITM then was the result of his personal experiences such as in introducing pre-science courses for students he brought into the Institute at Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) or School Certificate level to prepare them for their career in science related fields.
UiTM started as a college known as Dewan Latihan RIDA to train small scale Bumiputra entrepreneurs which developed into Maktab MARA and later transformed into MARA Institute of Technology (Institut Teknologi MARA or ITM) to produce professionals in various fields to meet the needs and demands of nation building, particularly in early 1960s to 1990s.
He said when he became the director of ITM he was faced with many challenges. But the experience he acquired in RIDA and his early years of exposure to the community had taught him a lot of lessons. There was a time when he had to sell tapping knives and prawn pastes, and conducted visits to plantations and rural areas to look at the real issues and problems on the ground.
He told the audience that his focus in ITM was largely on student development. The entry to the Institute may be lenient considering those Malays and Bumiputras who have been left behind in terms of academic qualifications, but once they came into the university, he had to ensure they meet a certain standard in producing quality graduates. He later introduced counselling and guidance services to help the students who were particularly from poor background to seek proper guidance.
During those days, he shared, he could not find lecturers with PhD qualification and even to get those with masters’ degree was not easy. Given the limited resources, he was prepared to take the risks by getting two-thirds of the teaching staff from the industry and other institutions of learning on a part time basis. In fact, he said, 95 percent of the teaching staff were non-Malays where he had “to put into their minds to serve the students well as he felt students needed the encouragement”. But he emphasised that he received the support of both the government and the industry in carrying out his job. Now, he said, it is the reverse, where the University has 95 percent of teaching staff who are qualified Malays holding higher qualifications.
Setting up branch campuses
Tun Arshad said among his early efforts at the Institute was to set up branch campuses in the remotest parts of the states in Peninsular, Sabah and Sarawak. Instead of the rural students coming to the city, he brought the institution to the remote places.
At one point he thought to himself if he was making the right decision in setting up branch campuses in places like Dungun, Arau and Jengka (Pahang) which were in the outskirts of major towns. But then when Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad started Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) in Sintok, Kedah, he said “I was not wrong”. He said Dr. Mahathir had even intended to turn the university into a top business school but could not get a suitable candidate to lead.
He was convinced that English was important when he was leading ITM. English was therefore made the medium of instruction for all the courses to train and educate the Malays despite sentiments and opposition expressed from certain quarters who argued on nationalism platform. But then he insisted that he was doing the right thing for the Malays.
He later introduced other languages like Tamil and Mandarin which he described were important for the students to be exposed to, particularly in the context of a multiracial country and the need to interact in the industry. His visit to the rubber plantations those days had triggered his mind to start a course on plantation industry management and for students to study Tamil to handle plantation workers who were mainly Indians. He later started courses on other foreign languages that included German, French, Russian and Japanese by bringing in Australian, German and Canadian experts to teach the languages.
He then started to introduce new courses like hotel catering and management, estate plantation management and mass communication, apart from business studies, accountancies, public administration and law, and engineering. The external professional courses were based on twinning programmes with foreign professional institutions in the United Kingdom and universities like Ohio University, USA.
He stressed the importance for students to undergo one to three months of practical training at the industry as he felt that students should not only learn the theories. But, he said, he had to go down to make sure that students who were on attachment with companies were given real exposure to the industry rather than just learning to make coffee “although making coffee should be taken in all humility”.
Tun Arshad is regarded by Emeritus Prof. Datuk Dr. Shad Saleem Faruqi, a law professor from UiTM, as “the greatest educational innovator and administrator the country has known”. Writing in New Straits Times in November last year, Prof. Shad described Tun Arshad as the son of a rubber tapper, with strong determination and discipline, who overcame his initial environment handicap to obtain formal education at Serdang (Agriculture College), Aberystwyth (United Kingdom) and Lausanne (Switzerland). Arshad devised many specially tailored remedial, pre-university programmes to upgrade students who would not otherwise qualify for professional courses.
Experience of hardship and sufferings
Tun Arshad had vast experience not only in leading and managing an educational institution but was also involved in leading public institutions including in finance, agriculture and rural development contributing ideas to generate growth for the nation and the people particularly those from the rural areas to participate in entrepreneurial and professional development. Besides being at the helm of the educational institution like ITM, Tun Arshad held key positions as deputy governor of central bank (Bank Negara Malaysia) and later as Secretary General of Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Land and Regional Development.
He shared that he went through hardship during his school days as he was suffering from typhoid. There was a time when his name was strike out from the register when he was in 4th form because he did not attend classes not until his classmate visited him and later told the headmaster that he wanted to continue his schooling. But he was told to go to hospital for treatment before he was allowed to continue with his study. He shared that when he sat for his Cambridge School Certificate examination he was shivering because he was having malaria.
He went to study at the University of Malaya in Singapore for two years from 1949 to 1951, but he could not make it because of the circumstances he faced at that time. He found that he had to compete with his university mates who he described were in far better position than him. He was lacking in English as he did not have the opportunities to read more other than English literature books like MacBeth and Charles Dickens, which he found were greatly insufficient. It was this experience that led him to motivate his students to spend more time reading when he helmed ITM.
Faced with a set-back, Arshad took it as challenge for him to improve himself in learning the language and improving on his reading, which became the motivation not only for him but later on to inspire his students when he led ITM to train Malays to become professionals.
Based on his own personal experiences and the sufferings he went through during the early days, he said, he never felt that it was a failure but considered that as a set-back and lessons to be drawn from the experiences and challenges that he had encountered.
He was unemployed after he got back from Singapore but got himself a job before deciding to join College of Agriculture Serdang (now Universiti Putra Malaysia, from being Universiti Pertanian Malaysia also UPM). But here in the college he found he had to study science subjects like Botany, Physics and Chemistry. As he did not have a good background in pure science subjects he had to struggle to learn the subjects with the support of his lecturers. This was later to become his guiding principle to start pre-science courses at ITM to allow students from rural areas to take up science subjects before majoring in science-based courses. He did this because he recognised the value for students to study science subjects.
He shared that in leadership one must learn to delegate. But the leader must also have knowledge in the field so that he or she would not be easily played out or become too dependent. His experience and exposure to the field of management and finance he had acquired during the courses he attended at leading business schools and institutions in France and Switzerland were useful to guide him in later years.
On his student days in the United Kingdom, he shared where he came into contact with other Malaysians studying there who were later to become prominent figures in their fields. But he said his interactions with international students from various countries like South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda and France gave him good exposure. In this context, he alluded that IIUM is in a great advantage position because of the university being international having students from across the globe.
Tun Arshad also said prominent figures like Tan Sri Taib Andak, Raja Tun Mohar Raja Badiozaman, Tun Salleh Abas and Tun Muhamed Suffian (whose names were closely associated with the early years of Malaysia’s development) whom he came to know during his early days were great sources of inspiration to him.
Good time for Review
Responding to a question from the moderator on his views about UiTM today, Tun Arshad said he felt that now is the time for UiTM to do a review as he looked back at its performance since its beginning. He said, “If they can set up a commission and spend five years to do a review on how far the institution has progressed, they can plan for the next 50 years for the university to play its role further in the development of the Malays and the nation.”
He also felt that at post-graduate level UiTM should open the doors to non-Malays and bring in more international students as well to allow its students to compete academically.
In response to another question from the moderator on the role of the university, Tun Arshad said, if we could think of a course that could provide employment to replace jobs now performed by the immigrants, that would mean a lot not only in terms providing employment opportunities to our graduates, but also to contribute towards our long-term goal in nation building.
Perhaps what is needed by young academics to succeed in establishing themselves as leaders in the academia today is to be convinced of their potentials, and to come forward with a clear mission to offer themselves to do more for society and the nation.
The two-hour session held on 30 March was chaired by Prof. Dato’ Dr. Ahmad Murad Merican from International Institute of Islamic Thought (ISTAC).
Readers who are interested to watch the full session can access the YouTube video here. ***
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