Khay Jin: An out-of-the-box thinker

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The community of social science scholars and public intellectuals in Malaysia and Malaysianists are once again shocked and grieved, this time to hear of the untimely death of Khoo Khay Jin, a brilliant social scientist, a leading public intellectual and an out-of-the-box thinker.

Khay Jin, a Penangite, was diagnosed with cancer of the gallbladder some time in the middle of 2010, underwent surgery and a course of treatment at the Selayang Hospital, Kuala Lumpur. But, unfortunately, he succumbed to his illness on 22 December 2011 at 9.00pm in Penang.

Khay Jin, who had an MPhil from Columbia University, spent a large part of his career (1975-1995) as a lecturer in Anthropology and Sociology in the School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Penang. In USM, he taught courses in rural sociology and peasant societies, economic anthropology, Southeast Asian ethnography, the sociology of development, ethnic relations, social theory and the philosophy of social science.

One of the best read scholars of his generation and a brilliant statistician, Khay Jin was a multi-talented person. He was a gifted child prodigy in mathematics and music, and played the piano in his younger days under the name of Philip Khoo. He was also one of those rare individuals who could speak with penetrating depth and convincing clarity on a broad range of subjects. When he spoke, one couldn’t help but listen with sheer admiration.

Upon leaving USM in 1995, he became an independent research consultant. Despite his relatively short life and untimely passing, as an academic, Khay Jin contributed numerous scholarly works on Malaysia, including Globalisation and its Discontents Revisited (co-edited), “Using the Census: The Dynamics of Social Change and Ethnicity”, “Meeting Targets…and missing people?”, “The educational attainment of the Orang Ulu”, “Region, Ethnicity and Class in Sarawak” and “Sarawak: A Status Report”, a paper to a workshop on health care in Malaysia.

He also made an important contribution to the recent UNRISD flagship report “Combating Poverty and Inequality” for the Malaysian case study with his penetrating chapter “The Causes, Dimensions and Dynamics of Inequality and Poverty”. At the time when he was diagnosed with cancer, Khay Jin was lead consultant for the EPU-commissioned report on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the United Nations. A professional and perfectionist, Khay Jin, despite his worsening condition, devoted his final days to completing that project.

For two years, from 2000 to 2002, Khay Jin served as Academic Adviser to the Nippon Foundation Fellowships for Asian Public Intellectuals (API), managed by the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. He was also adviser to the Southeast Asian Public Intellectuals Fellowship (SEAF) Programme also under the auspices of IKMAS.

He was a lifetime member of the Malaysian Social Science Association (PSSM), a role he took very seriously, believing that this was one area in which he could nurture and mentor future Malaysian social scientists. It was within PSSM that Khay Jin played a central role in the many Young Scholars’ workshops and seminars organised by PSSM

He was also an Associate of the Socio-Economic and Environmental Research Institute (Seri), established by the Penang state government, served as a member of the Sarawak Development Institute and was a consultant/social assessor for a variety of development programmes, many of them in East Malaysia. This was so typical of him as he had a special compassion for the plight of one of the most marginalised groups in Malaysian society, the Penan, and a deep concern for the environment. He also kept a sharp watch on growing income inequalities not just in Malaysia but elsewhere.

His social commitment was also translated to the behind-the-scenes work he did for Parti Rakyat Malaysia and later Parti Keadilan Rakyat, his critical commentaries and analyses in, among others, Aliran Monthly.

Khoo Khay Jin was a dear friend to many and a socially-committed scholar who would always oblige when invited to contribute to any forum that required his ideas and intellectual synergy – especially critical ones. He would always be there as an out-of-the box thinker, with the latest knowledge, making everyone rethink earlier taken-for-granted assumptions.

He shone in any public discourse and was always able to make his presence felt in his own affable and often humble way without hurting the feelings of others, including those who were at the receiving end of his critical comments. There would always be that trademark smile and impishness that was both heartwarming and personable.

Malaysia in the last decade or so has lost a number of brilliant social scientists and public intellectuals, among them H M Dahlan (1997), Ishak Shari (2001), Syed Hussein Alatas (2007), Rustam A Sani (2008), and Osman-Rani (2011). We believe that Malaysia today is a much poorer place without the insights of these leading intellectual luminaries. Its latest loss is this intellectual giant, Khoo Khay Jin.

Khoo Khay Jin, 63-years-old at the time of his passing, leaves behind his wife, Dr Jane Cardosa, his son, Khoo Wu Chen, an engineer who is a lighting designer in the Minneapolis theatre scene and conducting research in the field of artificial intelligence, and a much wider community here and abroad to mourn his passing. We take this opportunity to extend our deepest condolences to Jane, Wu Chen, and the rest of his family. May his soul rest in peace.

Yours sadly,

Professor Abdul Rahman Embong (PSSM President 2000-2010 and IKMAS Principal Fellow);
Mr Anil Netto (SEAF participant, 2000);
Dr K S Jomo (Assistant Secretary General, United Nations);
Emeritus Professor Clive Kessler (UNSW);
Professor Mohd Hazim Shah (PSSM President 2010- , University Malaya);
Professor Norani Othman (UKM);
Professor Wan Zawawi Ibrahim (PSSM Exco and Life Member, University of Brunei);
Professor Diana Wong (USM);
Associate Prof. Zaharom Nain (University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus).

25 December 2011

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