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No ifs & buts; history proves UiTM too vital for Bumiputeras

Zaidi Azmi
Written by Zaidi Azmi

KUALA LUMPUR – December 15, 2017: In his nine years stint as a director at Mara Technology Institute (ITM), Tan Sri Arshad Ayub has a number of achievements that he is proud of.

But the one accolade that he recounted with great gusto in a candid interview with The Mole was how he changed the students’ rice-based diet to that of bread.

“Forcing Malays to eat sandwiches instead of rice was a feat that I am proud of.

“It was not difficult at all and I did it because eating rice takes too much time,” quipped the man who has been dubbed by many as the father of Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) –what ITM is known now.

Throughout the interview, 89-year-old Arshad talked about the mentality of Malay students, the off-putting perception plaguing UiTM students, the current crop of educators and about him slapping a student.

A former ITM student recalled that it was in fact a few pieces of white bread usually taken with beef curry for lunch. Arshad was to reason out then that by sacrificing to have bread instead of rice, the students were actually allowing ITM to offer places to more students due to the lower cost. At times the lunch was beef burger, which the kitchen/dining hall staff who were called adik (younger brother) by the students must have fried to over well-done, not grilled!!

Legendary too are stories about how students with very long hair synonymous with the hippie lifestyle of the 70s and those wearing tattered jeans would run helter-skelter on the mere sight of Arshad walking out of his office.


The interview

Q: What are the differences between the institution now and back when you were its director?

A: First of all, English was the common language in ITM’s classes. Secondly, 90 per cent of our lecturers back then was non-Malays.

We had British, Canadians, Germans, New Zealanders, Australians and even Russians as lecturers. Now, 90 per cent of UiTM lecturers are Malays but whether it is a good thing or not depends on one’s interpretations.

Student-wise, back in my time we only had around 8,000 but today UiTM has 165,000 students and 750,000 graduates.

During my time, ITM fostered close rapport with local industries, international institutes and foreign governments. We even got a million pound from the British government to set up the engineering school.

Keeping a close relationship with the industry was crucial for us because we lacked the facilities needed to facilitate some of the courses, like insurance, plantation industry management, law, hotel and catering.

For example, we didn’t have any palm oil estate so we teamed-up with plantation companies such as Sime Darby, Guthrie and Harrison and Crosfield to allow our students to do their practical training at their estates.

I think it was the industrial exposure that made ITM graduates highly sought-after back then.

Q: Can you tell us how your background helped influence your directorship of ITM?

A: I came from a poor family so I spoke little English at my home village in Muar. My father was a rubber tapper and we seldom had enough food to eat.

Like every underprivileged Malays back then, I too failed some of my examinations but I told myself failing is just like falling. When you fall, you get up. You’ll be damned if you don’t.

I know for certain that when it comes to Malays, poverty and lack of exposure are their biggest hurdles in getting proper education.

So when I became the director, I made sure that my students were exposed to the outside world because when I was studying in Malaya Agricultural College, I learned that even a poor-quality seed can grow bountifully if you give it the proper care.

Honestly, I think the Malays should sacrifice more for education because it is only through education that we can progress… if we don’t, we’ll be left out.

Q: They say you were very ‘garang’ (stern and fierce), is that true?

A: Yes I was. I was garang because I did not want the students to squander their education. It was my duty to help develop the Malays, so I did what I had to do.

They were given a place in ITM, food and accommodation. They were also provided with educators and facilities, which is why I got really angry when I saw them wasting these resources.

Do you know that in the 70s I once slapped a student when they staged a demonstration in front of my office instead of studying?

Q: Throughout your stint with ITM, what would you consider your proudest achievement? Any regrets?

A: There were a lot achievements that I am proud of. One of them would be when my students won gold medals in some overseas examinations like ACCS and ACIS.

But what truly touched my heart was when I was about to leave ITM… the students, they wrote something like “please don’t leave us” on the road.

As for regrets… I think my sole regret was that I failed to elevate the status of our lecturers to be equal of professorial.

Those teaching in ITM at that time were called principal lecturers, so their salaries were not as high as university professors.

Q: The common contention concerning UiTM graduates is that they are sub-par as compared to other graduates; despite reports showing that they were ranked the third most employable in Malaysia. Why do you think such a view persists?

A: I don’t think so. Of course there are bound to be some bad apples but it doesn’t mean that the majority of them are sub-par.

I can’t say if it’s the same now but back in my time, ITM graduates were often hired before they even graduated.

I do know that some Malay students seem to lack confidence but the thing about them is that once you push them, they will go forward and rise to the occasion.

Even if their academic credentials may not be exemplary, it doesn’t mean they are not stupid. They’re just underexposed and underprivileged.

My advice to UiTM graduates is that they are as good as anybody. Do not forget that. Hold your head up high and do your best to prove the critics wrong.

Q: Considering your age, what motivates you to still stand and give academic certificates during convocation ceremonies?

A: First of all, I like to stand.

I also want to prove to others that despite my age I can still stand, although it does hurt when I stand for too long.

The thing about me standing up during convocation ceremonies is that when I do, the lecturers on the stage will have no choice but to stand too (laughs).’

Q: What are the things that the lecturers in UiTM are not doing that you think they should be doing?

A: I think the lecturers need to be more committed to the students. I have heard that some just give lectures and that’s it.

Some who teach in Rembau (Negri Sembilan) live in Seremban or KL and are commuting to and fro on a daily basis.

Then we have this so-called contact hours where students cannot contact them during weekends… so how strong do you think their lecturer-student relationship is?

Sometimes it makes you wonder what kind of students they want to develop.

When it comes to the Malays, you need to bond with them before you can scold them. Because once you do, they won’t take your criticisms to heart.

Whenever I get the chance to talk at UiTM’s convocation ceremonies, I always remind the attendees that the rise and fall of UiTM hinges on three individuals.

The parents who I think you should work harder to provide for their children, the students who need to keep the institution’s flag flying and lastly, they should remember that as lecturers, they bear the biggest responsibility in developing the students.

(Read also our story published yesterday on Arshad’s suggestion for UiTM to admit non-Bumiputeras for its post-graduate courses.)

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About the author

Zaidi Azmi

Zaidi Azmi

If Zaidi Azmi isn’t busy finding his way in the city, this 26-year-old northern kampung boy can be found struggling to make sense of the Malaysian political scene. Zaidi can be reached at zaidiazmi91@gmail.com.