UUM is simple, yet impressive

by Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad

Oxford and Cambridge are unique among the university towns of the world. The essence of their system is the college and, within the college, the court or quadrangle.

St John's College, where I studied for two years for my Masters of Letters, has one of the most splendid of college gatehouses in Cambridge and Oxford.

The cloisters of the New Court and the Bridge of Sighs, joining Third Court to New Court are fantastic sights.

On the third Thursday of last month I was at the Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) in Sintok, a small border town in northern Kedah to give a talk on the new international financial architecture and Malaysia's response, at the School of Economics.

I was in Sintok, in terms of time, a good 620 years after Cambridge first took students. UUM is a new centre of higher learning carved out of rubber plantations and tin mines.

When I arrived there, except for the humidity, I was immediately impressed in a manner of speaking, considering the location and recent history of the university

I was amazed by its sprawling campus in an orchard-like environment, green fields, the circular buildings, and a corps of relatively young teaching staff and eager students.

I must admit I was more impressed by what seemed to be disciplined students rather than the exquisite architecture (there was none) or the brilliance of the teachers.

Professor Dr Mohammad Haji Alias, a conscientious Australian-educated don whom I first met at the University of Ohio in Athens three years ago, escorted me around the campus, the old and new Jitra towns and updated me on the local history and that of the UUM.

He also chaired the talk, which went rather well I thought, attended by some 500 students and staff who were interested in the subject.

They listened politely, except for a dozen who at various times quit during my one-and-a-quarter hour speech.

The audience was mainly women, a growing force in the Malaysian academic life.

I also had very interesting discussions with the university's genial vice-chancellor (VC), the Scottish-educated Professor Datuk Dr Mohammad Noor Haji Salleh, whose elder brother Datuk Radzi Salleh is known to me and Fauzah.

Fauzah and Radzi were colleagues in the Ministry of Home Affairs and in the Prime Minister's Department respectively in the Sixties and Seventies. Radzi now serves as a member of the Police Service Commission.

The VC must have been reasonably impressed with the experience to ask me to return for another lecture sometime in November or December.

Many Malaysians barely know where Sintok and UUM are.

The story is that the Ministry of Education told Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad that it takes time to set up a university in an isolated and deprived area.

Mahathir's icy determination however galvanised the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Works and the Kedah state government.

Within less than 300 days from Mahathir's diktat, undergraduates arrived in makeshift buildings to begin studies in economics, accountancy and business administration.

Today, there are 14,000 graduate and undergraduate students with some 100 foreigners, mainly Indonesians, many of whom are pursuing post-graduate courses and not a few of them are retired (and rich) armed forces officers and 'dormant' politicians.

But the kindest thing I can say about UUM, with its sprawling campus, unpretentious buildings and not unintelligent students judging by their questions and the relatively young teaching staff, is that it is friendly and earnest.

The population of Sintok and Jitra rose rather sharply with the opening of the campus.

Students do contribute a lot to the economy of Jitra and Kubang Pasu. But more importantly, UUM has made this hitherto unknown isolated kampung deep in the jungle a centre of higher education accompanied by a wealth of talent, some diversity and secular thoughts.

The students appear more concerned with acquiring knowledge than meddling in politics, at least for now

Knowledge is power and possessing it is an immense prestige which can and must be translated into influence and power.

What led Mahathir to start a university in Sintok?

I believe it was to help improve the quality of future Malaysian managers and administrators and to enhance the national standing in economics, business administration and management.

Has he succeeded? UUM still has a long way to go though it does seem to be coping, providing the best teaching and training with the available resources.

Less than three decades ago Sintok was a remote village made up of subsistence farmers, loggers, tin miners and a security area (read infested with bandits and communists).

Now with Jitra, it has become a thriving little town whose MP is the most powerful man in the nation.

Mahathir, the cool cerebral man, is passionate in everything he undertakes.

Convincing him is very difficult but once persuaded he would pursue it with a steely resolve.

What was once a little kampung is now transformed into a 'gownstown' by the unbending will of the Prime Minister.

Other universities may have various fiction about their origins.

However, UUM's history is, brief. There was not even a secondary school in Sintok until Mahathir became its MP in 1974.

By the time I left UUM I had learned a great deal even though I was there for only a few hours.

The fact remains that Sintok, Jitra and Alor Star were and are centres of emerging mixed political views and commitments.

On the evening flight home, reflecting on what I learned in Alor Star, Sintok and Jitra, one cannot help but feel the Barisan Nasional's superb organisation and overall superiority, demonstrated in all previous elections, will be tested to the limit during the forthcoming election.

The brief stay in Sintok made me think hard about the political situation.