Farish A Noor

The rock star professor 

By Martin Vengadesan

Published: Sunday February 21, 2010 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday June 13, 2013 MYT 2:51:26 PM

SOURCE: The Star Newspaper (http://www.thestar.com.my/)

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.

SOURCE: The Star Newspaper (http://www.thestar.com.my/)

By Martin Vengadesan

Posted in Islam, Sejarah | Leave a comment



Aku mengarang sebuah puisi
yang pertama bagiku
Sebagai ingatan hanya kepadamu

Pernah satu waktu
Namamu terpahat dikalbu
Dari jauh aku memerhatimu
Dalam diam hatiku terpaut padamu

Tidak pernah kupinta perasaan itu
Ia datang pergi tak mahu
Akhirnya aku sendiri sedar
Ia bukanlah salahku
Hanyalah kerana
fitrahmu sememangnya begitu

tanpa izin hatimu kuambil
dan kerana itu aku bersalah
hanya maaf darimu kupinta
kerana bukan aku sengaja

Dan hari-hari yang berlalu
Ternyata sungguh syahdu
Engkau datang di setiap waktu
Engkau hadir dalam setiap lagu

Sedang asyik aku bermimpi
Tiba-tiba aku terpana
Hatiku mencari-cari
Seperti ada yang tidak kena

Mengapa begitu duhai hati
Menangiskah engkau didalam diri
Sungguh aku tidak mengerti
Lantaran apakah engkau jadi begini

Aku mencari dan terus mencari
Di waktu malam dan juga pagi
Sudahnya  kutemui apa yang kucari
Aku lupa cinta Yang Maha Tinggi
Cinta Ilahi
Ampunkan hambaMu ini  ya Rabbi
Melebihkan makhluk ciptaanMu sendiri
Ku pohon dakaplah hati ini kembali
Menuju jalan yang lurus
Yang Engkau redhai

nukilan sahabatku : Zulshamalin Nasrullah

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pintu yang kau pilih

bersih suci tiada noda
lalu dicorak ibu dan bapa
mula membesar meniti masa
remaja, dewasa tempuh segala.

baik dan buruk bisa disangkal
tahu dunia tiada kekal
juga sedar pentingnya bekal
maka perlu terusnya cekal.

pilihan sentiasa berlegar bebas
putih hitam sedia terbentang
khilaf sendiri andai terbabas
masa lalu tiada diulang.

sesal silap berkurang girang
tunduk terduduk diri merintih
mesti insaf mulai sekarang
fikirkan pintu yang (akan) kau pilih.


tinta kecil

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Sesat Dalam Rindu

Ku resah mencariMu dengan akal
Dengan bersama sifat-sifat pinjaman
Kau ku rasakan semakin menjauh
Tersesatlah aku dalam rindu

Ku satukan firasat mencariMu
Dan ku terlontar di penghujung alam
Kau masih tidak dapat ku jejaki
Betapa malangnya nasib ku

KeranaMu ku tinggalkan segalanya
Sendiri aku terpedaya
Punya akal dan firasat yang tidak ke mana
Hanya jalan yang sengsara

Zahir musnah bagi yang mimpi
Zahir ada rahsia mencari
Lalu ku selami di dalam diri
Dibawa arus nafas ku
Asal serah janji dahulu
Mula hidup pasti mula cinta

Engkau kasih ada di sini
Engkau kasih ada menanti
Kau kasih aku jua kasih

| Damasutra |

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Of Hope and Fear

Listen O servant! Listen well, and clear.
For vain are your hopes if you lack fear.

Know that obedience lies in reproach.
Fear Me! And make haste your approach.

O servant! You think less of Me when you say,
you love Me, each and every day.

You lie! You sleep, yet you dare speak.
You love yourself! It’s fame you seek.

You fool the rest and say such and such.
Be quiet! You have not travelled much.

Practice not, yet to them, you preach!
O fool! You only have your self to teach!

Understand Ibn ‘Arabi, so you claim!
Your own self, you know not! What shame.

Your acts of worship, you depend on so,
Depend on Me only! Stop this show.

You say, ‘I want only You!’ What greed.
Want not to want, servant of Mine.Take heed!

True servants want nothing. Humbled, abased.
Them from themselves, completely erased!

Know your place. Realize My Might!
Only when grounded, you will take flight.

Be in need. And cling to fear.
Only then, you’ll see that hope is near!

Something to ponder upon.


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Mawlaya salli wa sallim da’iman abadan
‘Ala habibika khayril khalqi kullihimi
Mawlaya salli wa sallim da’iman abadan
‘Ala habibika khayril khalqi kullihimi
Ya Rabbee salli ‘aleeh
Salawatu Allahi ‘aleeh

All the poetry ever written
Every verse and every line
All the love songs in the world
Every melody and rhyme
If they were combined
They would still be unable to express
What I want to define
When I try to describe my love for you

Every sound and every voice
In every language ever heard
Each drop of ink that has been used
To write every single word
They could never portray
Everything I feel in my heart and want to say
And it’s hard to explain
Why I could never describe my love for you

There’s not a single person
Who can ever match his worth
In character and beauty
To ever walk on earth
I envy every rock and tree
And every grain of sand
That embraced his noble feet
Or that kissed his blessed hands
Ya Rasool Allah
Ya Habiba Allah
Grant us the chance to be with him
We pray to You Allah

MawlayaMaher Zain

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Of Angels and Men

Allah made the angels out of heavenly light
created for His service, to do what’s right.
Whatever Allah commands, they must obey
and from these duties they never stray.

Unlike Humans, they cannot choose
so when Allah commands, they can not refuse.
They are the dedicated servants of our Lord.
They wont do anything on their own accord.

Some angels are told to worship and pray
and they follow these commands night and day.
Some performing Sajda and others in Ruku
From the moment of creation this is all they do.

Every angel has tasks that Allah has assigned.
Some are commanded to serve mankind.
Some provide sustenance from hunger and thirst.
Others are with us from the moment of birth.

Two angels are assigned to record our deeds,
whilst some take care of our other needs.
Like bringing us sunshine and also the rain.
Like protecting us from harm and also from pain.

There is another creation – it is called man.
They live on Earth for a very short span.
After their time expires they are returned
and through their deeds, paradise is earned.

Adam was first and he was made from mud
which was then turned into flesh and blood.
Unlike the angels, he has a choice to obey
– to go for guidance or to go astray.

So humans have choices to be the best
as freewill can raise them above the rest.
The ability to choose between wrong and right.
To return from darkness to knowledge and light.

Through choice we can follow Allah’s command
and refrain from everything Allah has banned.
We can follow Islam, becoming pious and just
so both learning and practice become a must.

If we ignore Islam and follow our desires
and lose ourselves in building our empires.
Our purpose in life becomes obeying our lust
– chasing the Dunya we become spiritually bust.

When our whims and desires is all we select.
Our real purpose in life we tend to neglect.
When Islam isn’t the centre of our lives,
our heart becomes empty where nothing survives.

Our Creator’s wishes we no longer observe
when our nafs and ego is all we serve.
We forget the reality that life is a test
and the path of righteousness is the best.

If the Path we tread is of virtue and merit
then the gardens of paradise we will inherit.
Many hardships and trials we will ultimately face
When the pious and righteous we emulate.

The amount of wealth is a test from above.
Do we love to share or is it hoarding we love?
Are we grateful to Allah for whatever he has sent?
Or do we complain of poverty and show resent?

If Allah has given us power over others
Do we treat them as equals and as brothers?
or do we feel superior and are filled with pride?
Do we practice fairness or are their rights denied?

Allah has blessed us with youth and good health,
both these qualities are our greatest wealth!
Do we pick on others demonstrating our brawn?
Or are we up for Fajr at the crack of dawn?

Are we careful to use our precious time?
Or is it devoted to TV, music and rhyme?
Do we try to create a better place
and improve the conditions that Muslims face?

Do we obey our parents and give them respect?
Are we good role models are our morals correct?
Do we help other people and are we always fair?
Do we earn halal income or don’t we care?

Do we follow the guidance from the Qur’an?
By shunning all evil and following Islam?
Do we read the Qur’an and heed its advice?
Or have we sold Jannah for a meagre price?

For all Allah’s blessings we show gratitude
with generosity, kindness and the right attitude.
So in doing good deeds we should not delay
and our commitment to Islam should start today.

On the last day all souls will be raised
and we will face Allah – the most praised.
Standing before Allah what face will we show?
When the truth of our actions will freely flow.

Zahid bin Ghulam @ Musalla

Posted in Bahasa, Islam, Memoir | Leave a comment