Tun Arshad Ayub leaves a legacy of academic and professional leadership

By Aznan Mat Piah

Tun Arshad Ayub who passed away on Tuesday (14 June) was a leading figure in educational innovation and professionalism whose contributions to the development of the nation were immense. Described as the best intellect of his generation he was indeed a priceless legacy to the nation.

He is known as an architect in the development of an institution that has now become the largest university in the country – Universiti Teknologi MARA or in short UiTM. Undoubtedly, Arshad had a share in the success of this university owed largely to his dedication and vision.

Arshad laid the foundation of this university which started as a training centre known as RIDA college (RIDA stands for Rural Industry Development Authority) to train small-scale Bumiputra entrepreneurs. It then developed into Maktab MARA and later transformed into Institut Teknologi MARA (ITM) or MARA Institute of Technology to produce professionals in various fields to meet the demands of nation-building, particularly during the early years of the 1970s to 1990s.

As a student when Arshad was at the helm of the Institute, I am glad to have been part of the development of this tertiary institution. I cannot imagine ITM without him during its critical and formative years. He was a man of excellence, determination, and dedication. At the time when the nation needed professionals to go into the field, Arshad was there to lead. He brought the Malays from rural backgrounds to the Institute and moulded them to become professionals and technopreneurs.

Prominent journalist Johan Jaafar wrote: “Many came from rural areas, uprooted from their complacent surroundings and thrown into an institution that demanded more than just hard work. It was about changing mindsets too. Arshad knew these students had potential. But to change the culture was another issue. They needed confidence, self-esteem, and the winning spirit.”

Arshad was more than a teacher and an administrator – to the students he was very much a father figure, to Malay professionals, he was a role model. As the director of ITM, Arshad gave a lot of attention to the development of students. He was there to challenge and to jolt them out of their complacency.

Under his leadership ITM offered a range of professional courses such as engineering, architecture, computer science, accounting, insurance, banking, law, plantation management, sciences, to public administration, library science and mass communication. During the initial years of its establishment, Arshad shared that he had to face a lot of challenges. He told a Murabbi session organised by IIUM in March last year that he could not find lecturers with a PhD qualification, even getting lecturers with master’s qualification was not easy.

Despite the limited resources, he worked hard by collaborating with foreign educational institutions and professional bodies in the country to develop these professional courses. Some of the external professional courses were based on twinning programmes with foreign institutions in the United Kingdom and universities in the United States such as Ohio University.

As a strict disciplinarian himself Arshad wanted graduates from ITM to prove themselves in the professions they choose to go into. Rightly so, thousands of graduates that the Institute produced had held important or key positions in various organisations including business organisations, the corporate sector as well as in government-related agencies.

Arshad was true to his mind when he decided for English to be the medium of instruction in ITM. He did this despite strong opposition from Malay nationalists as he strongly believed that to survive in their professions in the face of global challenges, graduates needed to be proficient in the English language.

To his detractors and critics on the language front, he had this to say, “I am saving the Malay race and not the Malay language.” English is the language of the wired world. He recognised English being the international language and the language of business and commerce. Arshad also encouraged students to acquire fluency in other languages when he later introduced courses like Mandarin, Tamil, Japanese, French and Russian at ITM which he thought was useful for graduates venturing into the field.

Arshad had every reason for wanting young Malays to succeed in education. Coming from a poor family himself, he knew what education could do for people. That was why he devoted so much attention to the development of students as he wanted to see Malays seek a better life. It was about changing their mindset. Students studying in ITM needed more than hard work. They needed confidence, self-esteem, and most importantly the winning spirit. Arshad knew these students had the potential, but they needed to adapt themselves well.

I remember among the innovations and experiments Arshad did in the Institute those days was to encourage students to take bread for lunch instead of rice. I went through this episode when I was a student. Though it appeared a simple change in dietary habit, it was symbolically a paradigm shift to change our lifestyle. It was a cultural shock to many students who were used to having rice for their meal. But he made the students learn to endure it and move on.

As a graduate in communication, I feel that Arshad’s decision to introduce courses in mass communication to ITM in 1972 was the right move. If this course was looked upon as a ‘trade’ course which should not be offered by a tertiary learning institution, as it was perceived as a non-academic course, the introduction of the mass communication programme in ITM had served its purpose well. This is particularly so, at the time when the nation was moving fast toward economic development where knowledge and skills in communication were required to position organisations in a positive light as well as in managing issues to serve the media and communication industry.

Hence, from the year 1975, ITM (and now UiTM) had produced thousands of mass communication graduates in the field to serve the needs of a developing Malaysia. During those days it was difficult to get lecturers to teach the course. Many therefore had to come from the industry. We had lecturers who were experts coming from media organisations like New Straits Times, Berita Harian and Utusan and government agencies like the information department apart from those from advertising and public relations firms.

We also had part-time lecturers from other public universities and American Peace Corps volunteers to teach us academic components like social sciences and research work. Arshad brought in people with working experiences because he wanted to stress the importance of industry knowledge, not just the theory part.

He also made it compulsory for students to undergo practical training or internship at various private and public sector organisations as he believed that students should not only learn theories but also to get industry exposure. Today, communication graduates are everywhere heading some of the major media establishments and organisations in the communication field. Some had chosen to join the academia in various universities and institutions of higher learning in the country to teach communication courses. With that move, we see knowledge of communication had begun to expand tremendously.

Despite the ‘frightening’ years living under Arshad’s leadership, ITM graduates were reshaping the nation, redefining excellence, and helping to restructure society. Arshad taught graduates the meaning of self-respect, the importance of credibility, and maintaining dignity and accountability. He motivated graduates to communicate and articulate their views. He instilled in them the values of resilience and survival in life.

As I reflected on the early years of studying at ITM, I felt the dynamism of Arshad’s leadership had greatly impacted the way I performed my job in the field throughout my career in the civil service and in the academia. ***

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