The power of ideas

I am delighted to return to my alma mater Asia-Europe Institute (AEI), University of Malaya, to attend a book launch by the Sultan of Perak, Tuanku Sultan Nazrin Shah.

When I was planning to do a master’s degree, Professor Rajah Rasiah suggested that I do it at AEI, which I eventually did between the years 2005 and 2006. He was then deputy director to the late Professor Shaharil Talib (1947-2018) at AEI. After a hiatus of 17 years, Professor Rajah, a distinguished economist, has just recently returned to lead AEI as director.

During those years, we were already aware that Raja Nazrin, who was still Raja Muda Perak, had a team of researchers occupying rooms on the top floor of the institute working on reconstructing the economic history of colonial Malaya.

It was very meaningful to witness Sultan Nazrin revisiting AEI today. As usual, Sultan Nazrin delivered a highly intellectual and impactful speech.

“Contesting Malaysia’s Integration into the World Economy” – edited by Rajah, Professor Azirah hashim and Professor Jatswan S. Sidh – is a festschrift to celebrate the works and influence of Professor Shaharil.

I was reminded this morning that one of Professor Shaharil’s many scholarly contributions is the idea of tanah and air, which focuses on the maritime nature of the archipelago. Malaysia indeed is a land surrounded by water. I was influenced and fascinated by this brilliant innovation of Professor Shaharil when I first heard about it years ago.

In Malaysia’s inaugural Defence White Paper presented to the Parliament by former Minister of Defence, Sdr Mohamad Sabu, the idea that Malaysia must organise itself as a maritime nation permeates the entire document and the thinking process behind it. Sometimes we don’t realise how ideas from the past can have such a strong influence over us, guiding our outlook even after so many years have passed.

Ideas live on even after the thinker is long gone.

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