The passing of Kassim Ahmad


By P Ramasamy

As mortals we accept the inevitability of death.

However, it is difficult to accept the deaths of those who have made immerse contributions to society.

The death of Kassim Ahmad, one of Malaysia’s foremost intellectuals, at the Kulim Hospital is something tragic.

Kassim was 84 years old when he died, apparently of lung infection. The last few years were one of the difficult periods for Kassim.

The Islamic religious authorities persecuted him for allegedly insulting Islam. Even though the Shariah High court had cleared him, he was tormented by the difficulties caused.

I hope action can be taken against those religious personnel concerned for making Kassim’s life extremely miserable in the last few years.

I am not sure what they had against him and why they went after him without any mercy or compassion.

Kassim was no ordinary person.

He had a sound education in Malay studies in the University Malaya (in Singapore), and later at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), University of Oxford.

He became a lecturer at SOAS for four years before he returned to Malaysia.

He could have accepted a permanent post in the UK, but knowing Kassim, he wanted to be in Malaysia, to do what he thought was right.

Kassim spent some time as the head of the Malaysian socialist party before resigning.

He joined Umno to bring about changes from within. However, Umno proved too impervious to change from within or without.

Disgusted, he left Umno to pursue other scholarly and intellectual activities, to counter conservative religious and political trends in the country.

In the 80s, he wrote a book on the Hadith, intending to engage the Muslim conservative class for a debate on why there was a need for Muslims to return to The Quran.

But unfortunately, he was not well received by the conservative forces. He was accused of using Islam to advance his socialist ideas.

His past association with socialist thinking proved to be troublesome for Kassim for a greater part of his intellectual career.

Kassim was a prolific writer and debater. He wrote many articles and books on topics ranging from Islam to politics.

Unlike the pro-establishment religious scholars who preferred to enforce religious laws, Kassim preferred healthy debate and engagement with the public.

He was a voracious reader. He was influenced by ideas and thoughts of various religious and political thinkers.

He is also well known for his iconoclastic views on Malay leadership. He was the first to debunk the notion that Hang Tuah was an ideal Malay leader.

He felt that Hang Jebat, known for his radical stand, was more suited to be considered for such a position.

Such a notion of what constituted good Malay leadership came at a time when there was hardly any debate or research as to whether Hang Tuah was indeed a Malay leader.

The death of Kassim comes at a time when conservative religious forces are rearing their ugly heads.

Malaysia definitely needs scholars like Kassim to fearlessly defend the democratic rights of Malaysians, irrespective of their racial or religious origins.

While Kassim may be a controversial figure, no one can deny, not even his enemies, that he had the guts to take on those who sought to deny democratic space for intellectuals to engage in healthy and vibrant debates.

Yes, Kassim might not be around anymore. However, such an absence will not render his ideas on Islam, politics and democracy redundant. In fact, more Malaysians will be interested to know what he really thought of the nature of politics and religion in the country.

I had the great opportunity to meet Kassim on a few occasions during my days in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. I found him to be pleasant and brimming with ideas, but also willing to share them.

He was prepared to debate with his political enemies, but none dared to take on Kassim.

Malaysia will miss its famous son!

P Ramasamy is Penang deputy chief minister and DAP deputy secretary-general

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.