Istac and the closing of the Malay mind

Opinion  |  Phar Kim Beng
Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | Any specialist on think tanks will tell you that 80 percent of the think tanks in the world were formed right after 1950. This was a period marked by the ascendance of the Cold War.

When Cold War ended in 1989, think tanks remained. Some tried to reinvent themselves by holding marquee events like the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.

In Japan, the Nikkei Asia Review does not have a think tank but is nevertheless made more pronounced by the annual Nikkei Asia Conference which Dr Mahathir Mohamad never seems to miss.

In China, the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan Island was formed with the goal to supplant and replace WEF while the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore seeks to gather all the defence ministers in one spot over a period of three days or less.

At last week’s Bumiputera Empowerment Congress, which in 1962 and 1964 spawned the creation of Mara and Bank Bumiputera, there were a series of resolutions that read like a laundry list of motherhood statements.

This is usually the first sign that things are about to fail. When driven to the extreme, where ideas are sparse, just pull any proverbial rabbits out of the hats.

Among others, it affirmed the centrality of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (Istac) as the prime vehicle to transmit the right values to help Malays and bumiputeras become competitive again.

Yet, Istac has had a checkered history.

When it was first created in 1987, its location was just a stone's throw away from the old International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) campus in Petaling Jaya.

Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas was the leading founder of Istac. His goal was to revive the salience of the philosophy of Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. Anyone who failed to abide by this dictate was not considered his ‘murid’ (student).

Subsequently, it was moved to its own campus in Damansara Heights, adorned with its own Spanish Muslim or Andalusian motifs to give it a sense of crowning intellectual glory.

Before Istac could establish itself as a world-class institution, the politics of 1998 had thrown a curve ball at it.

Istac found itself embedded into IIUM’s new Gombak campus once more, and towards the end of the tenure of Najib Razak tenure as prime minister, most of the professors in Istac were either retired, or impelled to leave; some sadly were teaching three credit hours a year...

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