THINKER, teacher, socialist, politician, Kamunting detainee. In his time, Kassim Ahmad was all these and was certainly no stranger to controversy. Following his own philosophical muse has taken him from the highs of his acclaimed commentary on the Hikayat Hang Tuah (in which he argues that Hang Jebat is the true hero of the Malay epic) to the lows of a five-year spell under the Internal Security Act. What’s more, after serving 18 years as national chairman of the Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia (PSRM), he infuriated many leftists by resigning and later, joining Umno in 1986. Kassim received so many attacks on Hadis – Satu Penilaian Semula that he felt compelled to write another book specifically to answer his critics. – MUSTAFA AHMAD / The Star Then as an Umno member, he began his second career as a “troublemaker” when his interpretation of Islamic teachings earned the ire of religious authorities and conservatives! Now in his twilight years (he turns 75 in September), Kassim has no intention of slipping away quietly. His autobiography, Mencari Jalan Pulang, Daripada Sosialisme Kepada Islam (Finding the Road Back, From Socialism to Islam) which was released in May, has become a best-seller. The first print order of 3,000 copies has sold so quickly that a second print is in the works. He is also a blogger (kassimahmad.blogspot.com), writing on philosophy, politics, religion and literature.
His memoirs Mencari Jalan Pulang, Daripada Sosialisme Kepada Islam sees Kassim reflect with humour and humility upon his life’s struggles. Yet, he is no longer the intellectual Che Guevera of Malaysian politics that he once was. For one, he is no longer an active politician; he’s even given up on Marxism – more on that later.
Kassim who was born in Bukit Pinang, Kedah, started out brilliantly. He earned his degree in Malay Studies at Universiti Malaya’s Singapore campus and a Masters (also in Malay Studies) at UM’s Kuala Lumpur campus. He was still in his 20s when his work on Hikayat Hang Tuah established him as a leading intellectual in the emerging new nation of Malaysia. Indeed, when he returned to Malaysia in 1966 following a four-year spell as a lecturer at the University of London’s School of Oriental & African Studies, Kassim could surely have abandoned leftist politics for a distinguished career in a public sector hungry for highly-qualified Malays. However, his principles did not allow him to do so, and when it became clear that his political activism was affecting his ability to find work as an academic he became a teacher at Sekolah Adullah Munshi in Penang. “I have no regrets about those decisions,” he says. “I went into politics because I wanted the power to change the country for the better. But I loathe Machiavellian politics and that partly contributed to my failure. Another factor was the unpopularity of socialism among the Malays.” Indeed in the late 1960s Kassim took a strict ideological line, identifying the hitherto Sukarno-influenced Malay nationalist party, Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM), with the doctrine of scientific socialism, a dangerous move in the intolerant Cold War environment. “I joined PRM in 1960. I went to the office with Syed Husin (current Parti Keadilan Rakyat deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali) to sign up. But I was not really active until 1967 or so, after my return from the UK. I soon became chairman of the Penang division. “It was a tough time to be a leftist. Then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was still very colonial in mentality and we were against many of his policies. The Malay masses were also averse to socialism because of the issue of national identity and religion.” PRM was then part of Barisan Sosialis which was falling apart because of mass detentions and a few defections. Kassim was at the forefront of the party’s restyling itself to PSRM. However, it missed out on the Opposition’s successes of 1969, which were cancelled out by the racial riots of...