The rock star professor
Published: Sunday February 21, 2010 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday June 13, 2013 MYT 2:51:26 PM
Who is this man who gives attention-grabbing quotes on controversial subjects and writes books that make politicians sit up and take notice?
FARISH Noor and I have a rather curious relationship. We’ve communicated sporadically over the last seven years mostly through e-mail, but we’ve never actually met. In fact, even though we’ve done a few phone interviews – including for this profile – I’m still not sure he knows who I am.
Still, I’ve got pretty good reason to believe that Farish Ahmad Noor (to give him his full name) does actually exist. After all, at least 50 mutual acquaintances have met the man, who is currently Senior Fellow at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. On more than one occasion I myself just missed running into him.
Anyway, the fellow (sorry, couldn’t resist) recently published a couple of books: a history book with an alternate emphasis, What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You, and Quran and Cricket, which is more travelogue than anything else.
Intrigued anew by the books, I looked the man up but, despite having access to a well-stocked archive, I was unable to find any proper personality profiles on him in the mainstream media. So I figured I’d try to provide a decent picture of this man who has often given frank and revealing sound bites as well as provided much fodder for thought with his provocative books.
As luck would have it, Farish was busy again, and we ended up doing the interview through Facebook! I’m sure we’ll meet one day, but for now you’ll have to be content with a jigsaw puzzle instead of a canvas painting.
History of truth
Penang-born Farish, 42, is a mildly prolific writer and a wildly prolific traveller. We first “met” in 2003 when he was based in Berlin and I e-mailed him some questions upon publication of a collection of his writings entitled The Other Malaysia – which grew from a malaysiakini.com column into a published book, to a website (othermalaysia.org) and, finally, a series of lectures!
Farish comes from quite the cosmopolitan family as he has Jawi-Peranakan (ie, Javanese and Eurasian-hybrid) and Indian and Arab blood. His mother, Noraishah Che Teh, was the first woman announcer to appear on RTM TV in the 1960s, while his father, Ahmad Noor, worked for Radio Malaysia. Farish and his younger brother studied mainly at St John’s Primary and Secondary school before Farish went off to Britain via a four-year detour in Sabah.
Initially a student of philosophy at the University of Sussex (where he attained an MA in 1990) Farish found himself fascinated with the past and became part of a wave of Malaysian thinkers who used the relative freedom of the post-Tun Dr Mahathir era (circa 2003, when Tun Mahathir stepped down as Prime Minister) to publicly re-examine the country’s official version of history.
“My background was in philosophy and I’m a philosopher by training. Much later I moved to political theory and began to work on the history of politics in Malaysia, pertaining to the history of the respective political parties.
“That was when I realised that even political parties distorted their own histories and some party members did not even know their own history. I was shocked when I interviewed a leader of a party who didn’t know the date of its foundation!
“And that’s when I realised that there were facets of Malaysia’s past that had been kept from most of us.”
Given the melting pot of races, religions and languages in this country, it can be argued that an honest examination of our history could lead to greater understanding. Farish thinks we should start with some basic truths.
“For a start, if people can read the Hikayat Hang Tuah to the end and realise that the man eventually renounced violence and became a pacifist, and if we can accept the long-term history of the keris as a Hindu-Buddhist object that emerged from a time when society was more cosmopolitan, that would be good enough for me. As a start!”
(Hikayat Hang Tuah, or Annals of Hang Tuah, is a Malay work of literature that tells the tale of legendary 16th century warrior, Hang Tuah.)
While many lament the weakness of our education system and have proclaimed the virtual death of an intellectual culture in Malaysia, Farish was pleasantly surprised by the interest shown when he launched his own lecture series in 2008.
“When I started The Other Malaysia lectures at The Annexe Gallery (the alternative arts/discussion space at Central Market, Kuala Lumpur), we were surprised that hundreds of people came. Once we had 200 people attend the lecture on Valentine’s Day!
“Now, they were not there to wish me happy Valentine, so it has to mean that there are plenty of Malaysians who want to learn and know more.”
Farish cites Herodotus (c 484-c 425BCE), Ibn Khaldun (1332-1395CE) and Simon Schama (1945-) as historians who have influenced him.
“Herodotus wrote of popular history, while contemporary (British) historian Schama showed that popular history need not be poorly researched vulgar history. The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun saw history as a discipline akin to sociology and not merely a recounting of dry facts.
“I would also cite South Asian historian K.K. Aziz (1927-2009), who wrote The Murder of History and taught me about the distortion of history by nationalist historians, as another important influence.”
As a history buff myself, Farish is certainly a man after my own heart. There aren’t too many people who can talk offhand about the Kandy kings of Sri Lanka or the Bangladesh coups of 1975, which makes him an ideal go-to-guy when I need some scholarly input to some of my more rambling socio-political articles.
But just where does one begin reading Farish’s stuff? I noted a certain degree of overlap between the original The Other Malaysia book and What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You (published last year). The latter has been superbly packaged by Amir Muhammad’s Matahari Books (mataharibooks.blogspot.com) and I wondered if Farish considers it to be his definitive work?
“No, I would say that my book on the history of PAS (see bibliography below) is my definitive work.
“That was truly a labour of love and it took me three years to work on that. It started my career and launched me as a historian, and I will be forever grateful to the Malaysian Sociological Research Institute for publishing an enormous book that size.
“It’s just a pity that the person who did the cover couldn’t spell properly, and there was actually a typo on the cover! Three years’ work and it ends up with a typo in the cover! I’m still smarting when I think of that!”
The good ex-husband
Having flexed his muscles as a non-fiction writer, one wonders if he’s tempted to swing both ways?
“I plan to retire early (when he turns 45) and when I do, I plan to do just that (turn to fiction).
“I’ve already started working on a graphic novel, as I happen to be an amateur artist as well, a hobby I’ve cultivated since my teenage years as drawing relaxes me, allows me to be at peace with myself – and gets me hot dates!”
Indeed, Farish is said to be something of a “rock star” within Malaysia’s intellectual community – and the man makes no effort to deny it!
“I cannot help it if I happen to be hot,” he types, presumably tongue in cheek. “I was born that way. Blame my mother for her looks. It’s genetics and I had nothing to do about it and cannot claim credit either.
“But I do draw! Frankly, I find it rather amusing at times, and it makes up for having to work on nasty politics and dealing with the banality of Malaysia’s public political life.”
At the risk of setting into motion an orgy of introspection, I ask Farish what sort of person he himself thinks he is, and his reply is telling: “My ex-wife (fellow academic Dr Christele Dedebant) once said, ‘You’re a lousy husband but the best ex-husband any woman could want’.
“I suppose it takes time to get to know me, as I still don’t really know myself, and I’m learning more all the time.
“The only thing that matters to me now is to remain on that path of honest discovery and to be truthful with myself.
“I’m not interested in politics even though it’s the subject of my research and teaching. I’m not impressed by wealth. I don’t have a television and have not watched anything on one for two decades now. I hate technology invented after 1945 and I still post letters that I write by hand.
“I suppose that makes me a historical object. Like an artifact. Or maybe a fossil.”
So there you have it, Farish Ahmad Noor, in his own words.
In other words
But I’m not content until I run a quick background check and try to get a little dirt from Farish’s friends.
His publisher, (author and indie filmmaker) Amir, reminds me that, back in the day, Farish ran afoul of the religious authorities.
“We first met when I interviewed him several years ago for a magazine. The article then became the basis of Persatuan Ulama Kedah issuing a fatwa (religious edict) against him! From then on I knew we were destined to work together!”
Indeed, Amir went on to feature Farish in his 2003 docu-drama, The Big Durian, in which Farish speaks Malay with a Kedah accent.
“Farish is a person who cares deeply about things, which of course makes him a bit annoying at times.
“I have a great anecdote about him but, unfortunately, it’s unprintable for legal reasons … let’s just say that a female politician is involved,” says Amir intriguingly.
Another of Farish’s publishers, Raman Krishnan of Silverfish Books, was effusive about Farish’s commitment and integrity.
“I first met Farish in 2002 when I published The Other Malaysia, and we have since developed a close working relationship. If I have to describe him in one word I would use ‘intense’.
“He’s an avowed socialist and always on the side of the downtrodden and the victimised, and I can never find fault with his sense of fair play and his sense of humour.
“He is also indefatigable! When I was editing Quran and Cricket, I thought to myself that this guy is crazy. I was amazed at the lengths he went to get the stories, often putting his life (not to mention his sanity) in danger.
“I was watching a BBC news item on Patani once while editing the book, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, how lame is that?’ Compared to Farish’s reporting, most of the current news media have no clue what is going on.”
(Patani is the southern Thailand region that has been embroiled in waves of separatist violence over the past decade; Farish writes on its problems in Quran and Cricket.)
“I realise that this is because most reporters cannot (and are not willing) to get down to the ground like him. Can you imagine Abu Bakar Bashir giving such an interview to a Western journalist?
(Bashir is the controversial Indonesian Islamic cleric linked to terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah; Farish interviewed him for TV station Al-Jazeera in 2006 and writes two chapters on him in Quran and Cricket.)
“Farish is willing to live, eat, sleep, walk and pray with the ‘extremists’ for weeks to get a story.
“His is not a report done from an air conditioned office. He follows in the tradition of the great travel writers of the past.”
Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim heads Universiti Malaya’s (UM) History Department. What does he make of this “rock star” academic?
“He’s got a very good command of the (English) language. He’s a good speaker, good writer and a very knowledgable man. I asked him about his accent (Farish has a unAsian accent), in fact, but he said he didn’t know where he had got it from. I suppose it’s because he’s travelled a lot that he’s knowledgable and confident.
“I haven’t read his books, but often read his articles. He thrives on controversy, of course, that keeps him alive, but he’s actually a very likeable person.”
A friend of Farish’s who initially consented to be named and then thought better of it, comments on the man’s popularity (with more than a hint of envy in his voice): “They say, nowadays, if you throw a stone you can hit a Datuk. Well, if you go to a human rights gathering on Myanmar or East Timor, the stones will be bouncing off one Farish Noor groupie on to the next!”
Dr Azmi Sharom is an Associate Professor at UM’s Faculty of Law, and he penned the foreword to What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You. He also writes the fortnightly Brave New World column in The Star.
“I guess we are pretty tight,” says Azmi. “The first time I saw him was about 10 years ago. I attended a lecture at UM. I had heard about this young, clever fellow, and thinking myself a young, clever fellow, I went to check out the competition. It turned out he was miles ahead, so I was upset and quickly slipped away!
“One thing I can tell you is that Farish is perpetually teaching. It is actually difficult to get him to talk about light-hearted things. If you begin a conversation about Star Wars, he will change the topic into a discussion on mythology or French New Wave cinema of the 1950s.
“When I went to visit him in Jogjakarta, he was very accommodating and I was treated to four days of intense lectures about all things Javanese. I must say, though, that he is a wuss because he can’t take hot food!”
What Farish wrote
THIS is a partial list of Farish A. Noor’s books – as opposed to his academic texts, some of which have also been published.
- The Other Malaysia: Writings on Malaysia’s Subaltern History (2002)
- Spirit of Wood: The Art of Malay Woodcarving (with Eddin Khoo and photographer David Lok, 2003)
- Islam Embedded: The Historical Development of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS 1951-2003 (2004)
- Writings on the War on Terror (2006)
- From Majapahit to Putrajaya: Searching For Another Malaysia (2007)
- Quran and Cricket: Travels Through the Madrasahs of Asia and Other Stories (2009)
- What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You (The Annexe Lectures, Vol. 1) (2009)
To find out if any of the earlier books are available, contact Farish through his website, othermalaysia.org. The books published last year are available in most major bookstores.