There is a certain nobility that comes with being a teacher – the drive to educate young minds in spite of the endless stream of paperwork and classes that doesn’t seem to match the paycheck, the constant pressures from parents, ministry, and school authorities; and the lack of respect from students nowadays.
And as a teacher, you never know what each student would become – a doctor, an engineer, a bank robber, or even Ibrahim Ali.
We all know Ibrahim Ali now as the head of PERKASA, a right-wing Malay rights NGO known for calls to burn bibles, disrupting vigils for a Cambodian worker who starved to death, and impressive feats of logic such as statements on how PERKASA is moderate compared to extremist groups such as the 25 Malay VIPs that issued a memorandum to PM Najib asking for moderation.
Ever since our article on Ibrahim Ali’s status as a national hero, we have always wondered what Ibrahim Ali was like in school since the only account we had was from Ibrahim Ali himself. And as luck would have it, we happened to meet his ex-Professor from Institut Teknologi Mara (now known as Universiti Teknologi Mara or UiTM) at a book launch event last week. It wasn’t just any ol’ teacher too… this was a man who had seen Ibrahim Ali through the last legs of his education, and the beginning of his foray into politics.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Prof. Sankaran Ramanathan.
Prof. Sankaran is an educator from the old school of thought, less about the politics and more about the discipline and education. Although retired, he’s been using his years of experience in Media and Communications to create and design courses for local colleges and universities as well as writing books on the subject. Oh, and did we mention he taught Ibrahim Ali?
In order to understand Ibrahim Ali’s student life, we first have to understand the mindset and climate of the school he was in. So in this sense, we will be touching on the early days of UiTM and educational philosophies as much as we will him.
A brief background of MARA and Institut Teknologi Mara
“The original mission and vision of ITM was to elevate the rural and poor Bumis.” – Prof. Sankaran
MARA, or Majlis Amanah Rakyat, was formed to aid, train, and guide Bumiputras in the areas of business and industry. It was with this in mind that a system of schools were started, including Institut Teknologi Mara (ITM), under the initial leadership of Tan Sri Arshad Ayub.
Prof. Sankaran recalls that most of the students were very weak in English, so many lecturers (including himself) gave extra English courses in their own time. Students were also fined (with Tan Sri Arshad’s support) for speaking in Bahasa Malaysia, in order to prepare them for the English-speaking private sector.
Addressing the elephant in the room, Prof. Sankaran says that as a non-Malay teaching in a Malay college, he genuinely believed in Mara’s mission; that Malays needed to be uplifted – at that time. As the chairman of the interview board for admissions, he tells us that they used to have a point system that scored not just academic ability and personality, but also income. Students who came from low-income families were given additional points while those from higher income backgrounds had points deducted. In fact, they went as far as to actively look for low income students even if their academic results may not be as good as those from families with higher income.
And it was during one of these interviews in 1972 that a very special student hopped in, hoping to be one of the pioneer batch of Mass Communication students at ITM –
Obviously his academic prospects were longer than his shorts, since he was accepted into the programme.
1. Ibrahim Ali was charismatic enough to win student elections hands-down
“I knew he was a leader of the people. He had that character.”
While Prof. Sankaran didn’t point Ibrahim Ali out as a particularly good or bad student, he remembers him for his eagerness to learn and for his charisma. Prof. Sankaran tells us that Ibrahim Ali particularly liked history, having taken the class twice from him (and no, it’s not because he failed) where they discussed at length about democracy, freedom, and the French and American Revolutions.
“The Ibrahim Ali I knew was a liberal who wanted to fight for human rights, freedom, and democracy. He wanted students to have freedom of expression – to participate in the political process. That was the Ibrahim Ali I knew.“
When we asked what Ibrahim Ali’s student life was like, Prof. Sankaran says that as with many of ITM’s students in those days, he was from a poor family from the rural areas with only the money from the MARA scholarship to sustain himself. He also noted that Ibrahim Ali wasn’t the partying type, preferring to discuss politics in his spare time.
Ibrahim Ali was also quite vocal and wouldn’t hesitate to speak his views, particularly on lecturers that he thought weren’t up to par. He also used his oratory skills to stand for the student union elections – which (according to Prof. Sankaran) he won hands down. The testament of his enthusiasm, speaking abilities, and leadership, says Prof. Sankaran, was when he convinced 200-300 students – (both male and female) – to march with him from the ITM campus in Shah Alam to Parliament in the 1974 student protests which also involved students from Institut Kemahiran Mara and Universiti Malaya.
It was due to his involvement in these protests that he, along with Anwar Ibrahim, was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA); just a few papers short of his graduation.
2. He spent his time in ISA studying with Anwar Ibrahim as his BFF
“They formed a study group. The prison warden encouraged them.”
As head of Journalism Studies, Prof. Sankaran was called in by his boss one day. Apparently, Ibrahim Ali had written to them from Kamunting Detention Centre. He wanted to complete the two papers he had yet to take. The lecturers had to take a vote: should they allow it, or reject it?
Based on the view that he wasn’t detained for a criminal offense but rather a political one (sound familiar?), and heavily supported by two American teachers (“It was a very different time back in those days”), the vote was passed – Ibrahim Ali would be allowed to complete his education in Kamunting.
So Prof. Sankaran and a few teachers would volunteered to prepare materials and grade his work, and every fortnight (that’s 14 days, in case you were wondering), they would get a parcel, hand-sealed by the Kamunting warden himself along with a statement that he personally kept watch while Ibrahim Ali worked to complete his studies. Prof. Sankaran noted that the warden at the time was extremely supportive, allowing the student detainees which included future PKR big shots Anwar Ibrahim and Syed Husin Ali to form study groups.
While we can’t verify the study groups, it seems to be quite possible as Ibrahim Ali had, in another interview, mentioned that Anwar was his idol back in his uni days and that the two of them were close. They were initially arrested together during the student rally and also escaped together – but of course they got caught again in the end. In fact, it was because of Anwar that he remained Kamunting for two years as he refused to sign the confession form unless Anwar signed it as well.
On the quality of Ali’s schoolwork from prison, Prof. Sankaran says:
“It was…. good enough to pass, even the final exam. But you might say he was penalized in the sense he couldn’t graduate with his classmates.”
Dr. Mahathir, who was education minister at the time, had apparently questioned Mara officials about this decision but no action was taken in the end. The efforts of his teachers was something Ibrahim Ali hasn’t forgotten.
3. Ibrahim Ali came out of the ISA a changed man
“When he came out, he was quite bitter towards Dr. M.”
If you looked back at his family and his past, Ibrahim Ali always seemed poised to be in opposition to the government.
His father was the village head and a strong PAS supporter who declined Tunku Abdul Rahman’s offer of a position in UMNO Youth; and was even arrested under the Public Order (Preservation) Act for his political beliefs. He was also noted by Prof. Sankaran to have been quite bitter towards then-Education minister Dr. Mahathir after he got out of Kamunting, a feeling which we think might have been amplified when he was again detained under the ISA during Ops Lalang, when Dr. Mahathir was Prime Minister.
While you think these experiences may have led him to lean towards opposition parties, he actually started his political career in UMNO, before hopping to other parties such as Semangat 46 and (unofficially) PAS, as well as running as an independent candidate – which gave him his famous amphibian-based nickname. Even more surprising, he joined forces with Dr. Mahathir years later when PERKASA was formed, with Dr. M being a “spiritual advisor” of sorts although they have since re-parted ways.
Call us naive, but we think there was perhaps a time when Ibrahim Ali genuinely wanted and tried to make changes according to the beliefs of liberalism and freedom that he held as a student, and maybe this (as well as his outspokenness) is why he was unable to stay in any party for too long – even to the point of burning bridges as he has since criticized his idol Anwar and gotten himself sacked from UMNO for life. So perhaps it wasn’t his intentions that changed over the years – it was his beliefs.
While we might never know for certain what the reason might be, Dr. Sankaran has given us what he thinks might have happened, which we will cover later on in this article.
4. He wasn’t (isn’t?) a completely disrespectful man
“He would put his arms around me and tell everyone “This is my cikgu.””
If there’s one thing you can’t fault Ibrahim Ali for, it’s his gratitude towards his educators and his school. While we’ve mentioned this in our other article, we didn’t see the same significance as we do now – Ibrahim Ali is currently a committee member in his alma mater, UiTM.
Prof. Sankaran says that he’s bumped into Ibrahim Ali three times since graduation, and each time the former student would make his way to his former professor, put his arm around him and tell everyone in the vicinity “This is my cikgu!”.
With a slight smile on his face, Prof. Sankaran recalls one of these incidences where he had taken a group of his students to Parliament on a school trip. Out of nowhere, Ibrahim Ali (who was a Member of Parliament) comes running up to greet him. He calls for two parliament officials and tells them “Look after my cikgu”. The group was then given good seats as they listened to the pre-debates.
How can Ibrahim Ali be a liberal??!
Yep. You might’ve missed it in the first point, but the Prof did mention “Ibrahim Ali” and “liberal” in the same sentence earlier on in our interview. This was the approximate expression on our face.
Because, really, how in the world is anything Ibrahim Ali is saying considered “liberal”? It’s like having your arm chopped off and calling it a “flesh wound”!
That’s not all he said.
“The Ibrahim Ali I knew was genuine.” – Prof. Sankaran
So the question that needs to be asked is…. How is he who he is today? Earlier we mentioned that Prof. Sankaran shared some thoughts on what may have happened to his former student. This is what he has to say:
“Now, I don’t know whether he has “gone wrong” or not, since [many who spoke up against the government] have gone to the government side. Ibrahim Ali was in the middle and became an ultra.
I don’t know what happened to him. Maybe he lost the steam – the fire burnt out and he became trapped in materialistic goals. Maybe he wasn’t the type to hold on to those ideals he had. It’s a pity. I heard him speak. The Ibrahim Ali I knew was genuine.”
On our side, when we wrote the article about Ibrahim Ali being a superhero, we admit that we were a little biased when we started. After all, what we knew about Ibrahim Ali at the time was whatever he’s been saying in the papers behind PERKASA’s banner. However, when we went into his life story, we did wonder how he, for want of a better way of putting it, “came to be”. Much like Bung Mokhtar, Ibrahim Ali’s motivations have always been a point of interest for us since he’s equally liable to be for the ruling government as much as he can be against it.
And perhaps that’s why we chose to write this article, in order get a bigger picture of the person behind the inflammatory statements. Do we agree with him? No. Are we close to understanding him? Maybe we never will. But what we can say is for certain is that we believe in seeing the picture from all sides – then any conclusion is the right conclusion.
And no, he didn’t pay us to write this article.
“Do you regret teaching him?” – question by CILISOS (and probably everyone else)
This is apparently a very common question as Prof. Sankaran (with a laugh) says:
“The first reaction whenever I mention he was my student is “How can he be your student? What went wrong?” or “You should have made him fail”.“
But then, with a look that made this writer, a product of sekolah kebangsaan, want to stand up and say “Selamat pagi cikgu,” he says that he did it based on the principle that every student has the right to learn, and if he wishes to complete his studies a teacher should be there to help him do so.
“As a teacher, we don’t know how our students will turn out. But my duty is to give them a fair go, so that’s what I did.
I would have done it again. I would do the same thing now.“
At the end of our interview, we asked (as a matter of procedure) if we could quote him on some of his views on Ibrahim Ali and Prof. Sankaran quipped:
“Yes of course. Maybe I’ll even send him the article myself.“
Once a teacher, always a teacher. 😀