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1 December 2023 (Friday)

Condolence Statement on the Passing of Professor Dr Wan Zawawi Ibrahim, A Leading Anthropologist and Renowned Cultural Activist from the Academia (1947-2022)


It is with great sorrow that we learnt of the passing of a dear friend, a respected scholar with a fine creative mind, a leading anthropologist and renowned cultural activist from the academia, who succumbed to a heart attack at dawn and passed away peacefully at 6.47 am today at his home in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. Despite his failing health which he had to face for some years, the late Wan Zawawi, 75, kept up the fighting spirit to pursue his passion and vocation as best as he could.  His unexpected demise is a big blow to his wife and family, and a big shock to his friends in the academia, former students and fellow cultural activists in the arts community. The Malaysian social science community has lost a fine leading anthropologist, a meticulous researcher, a prolific author and a teacher, while the creative arts community has lost a great talent with a creative mind who hailed from academia. On behalf of the Malaysian Social Science Association (PSSM) of which the late Wan Zawawi has been a strong intellectual pillar for many decades, we would like to extend our deepest condolence and our sense of deep loss to his wife and family and pray that that they remain strong and steadfast during these moments of grief.     

Born on November 7th, 1947 in Terengganu in a family of educationists, Wan Zawawi completed his secondary education at the Sultan Ismail College, Kota Bharu, before proceeding on a Colombo Plan scholarship for graduate and postgraduate studies in the field of anthropology at Monash University, Australia. He obtained his BA in 1972 and his PhD in 1978.

Wan Zawawi was in the academic world for about five decades from 1973 till his passing on May 18th, 2022. Though having firm roots in academia and in the world of anthropology and ethnomusicology, he was not rooted in any one institution for too long.  He first joined academia fairly early, first as a Tutor between 1973-1979 at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Monash, before proceeding to be a Lecturer and Chairman of the Development Studies Programme at the School of Social Science, Universiti Sains Malaysia in 1980-1984. He then spent the next 14 years as an Associate Professor at the Rural Development Division, Faculty of Economics and Public Administration, University of Malaya between 1984 and 1998. He served as Head of that Division for a few years before proceeding to be a professor at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) for about six years between 1998 and 2003. In UNIMAS, he served first as Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, and later as Deputy Dean (Postgraduate and Research) at the Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts, UNIMAS.  After serving for about six years in Sarawak, he came back to Semenanjung to become Professor and Principal Fellow at ATMA (Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation) UKM between 2003 and 2008, serving as ATMA’s Deputy Director during his last few years there. Then he moved back to the University of Malaya, to be a Professor at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences for two years between 2008 and 2009, before moving again, this time to be Professor at the Faculty of Artistic and Creative Technology, Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), Shah Alam, Selangor. His moves to other institutions was like a journey. His next move was to the University of Brunei Darussalam (UBD) where he spent about nine years between 2011 and 2019, and after returning home to Malaysia, he was appointed as a Visiting Professor at Taylor’s University Malaysia for two years. In UBD, he undertook a lot of research and writings and published a number of significant works which became part of his intellectual legacy.        

Wan Zawawi was a fine scholar and a renowned anthropologist who consistently worked at the higher end of knowledge. This is evident in his masterpiece, his PhD dissertation upgraded into a book, The Malay Labourer: By the Window of Capitalism, first published by ISEAS Singapore in 1998, and reprinted by SIRD in 2022; his foray in pushing the analysis of class exploitation beyond the classical economic to that of culture, of status exploitation, of maruah, is novel and superb. When anthropologist Arjun Appadurai proposed the five scapes or flows of globalization (ethnoscape, technoscape, ideoscape, financescape, and mediascape), he made an important contribution by suggesting a sixth scape, the knowledge-scape to show the importance of knowledge flows across borders as part of the scapes of globalisation. Towards the end of the 1990s and the early 21st century when American empiricism held sway in the social sciences, with many scholars becoming obsessed with being empiricist at the expense of theory, he stood firm on the side of theory, ensured his works were theoretically informed and guided others especially younger scholars to be conceptual and not to deviate from the theoretical discourse and orientation. His keen sense of scholarship is also clearly demonstrated in his important and well-attended professorial inaugural lecture, The Anthropology of the Malay Peasantry: Reflecting on Colonial and Indigenous Scholarship delivered on 6th October 2009 at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, UM, in which he enunciated his ideas of the anthropology of the Malay peasantry, which took stock of the colonial and indigenous scholarship on the subject.

While working at the higher end of knowledge, he never lost sight of the subaltern groups and subaltern studies. In fact, in a number of works, he wrote beautiful soul-searching lyrics for songs sung by himself or by noted icons in the music industry. He also gave voice to the voiceless — such marginalised groups like the AIDS victims, the Orang Asli, the Penans, and others on the margins of society and empowered them in the process. And this humanist spirit flows into his works in ethnomusicology – his songs and music were beautifully woven to reflect the inner soul of the downtrodden. We just have to listen to his musical score for Monuments of the Rainforest, The Sounds of the Crocker Range, and Dayung, a CD album consisting of poetic songs of the Orang Asli and of Mak Yong.   

Wan Zawawi was one of the intellectual pillars of the Malaysian Social Science Association (PSSM) who has been a life member for decades, partaking actively in the flagship programmes of PSSM such as the biennial International Malaysian Studies Conference (MSC) and in the series of capacity building workshops for young scholars as part of grooming successors. We in PSSM are deeply saddened by his loss and are deprived of his thoughtful insights and contribution.

Wan Zawawi was married to Noorshah M. Salleh, a former lecturer at UiTM, and had been blessed with three children, two boys – Rendra and Hameer, and a girl, Kaisha. May Allah shower his soul with His blessings. Al-Fatihah!

Profesor Emeritus Dato’ Dr Abdul Rahman Embong
Penasihat Khas PSSM
Bagi pihak Presiden Profesor Dr Sity Daud dan
Timbalan Presiden Profesor Dato’ Dr Rashila Ramli,
serta seluruh Ahli Jawatankuasa Kerja PSSM

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