TODAY is the 92nd birthday of Tun Datuk Seri Utama Haji Arshad Ayub – the greatest educational innovator and administrator this country has known. He was the first Director of Institut Teknologi MARA (now UiTM) and led it with courage and vision for one decade from 1965 to 1975.
On any score, Tun Arshad’s life is an inspiration for all Malaysians. He was a rubber tapper’s son who, with determination and discipline, overcame his initial environmental handicap to obtain formal education at Serdang, Aberystwyth (UK) and Lausanne (Switzerland).
He then spent much of his life helping other disadvantaged kids to use education as the ladder for upward mobility.
In 1965, Arshad was appointed the pioneering Director of Maktab MARA (later, Institut Teknologi MARA) which today is the country’s largest institution of higher learning. At ITM, Arshad believed that everyone can be educated; that among the young there are many late bloomers who are largely ignored by the prevailing education system.
He believed that entry points into courses should be flexible but exit points must be well regulated. How a student ends the race is more important than how he/she began it.
Arshad devised many specially tailored, remedial, pre-university programmes to upgrade students who would not otherwise qualify for professional courses.
He established multi-tiered programmes from certificate level to advanced diplomas. Students who successfully navigated one level became eligible for upward mobility into the next tier.
While the other universities boasted of admitting the best students and adding glitter to gold, ITM under Arshad accepted the challenge of fashioning ordinary clay into works of art.
Thousands of students in top managerial positions today owe their success to the faith Arshad reposed in them by urging them to go from the precipice to the peak.
He set up branch campuses in the remotest parts of Perlis, Sabah and Sarawak. Instead of rural students coming to the city, the city was going to go to the rural hinterland to provide a catalyst for growth. In the ’70s Arshad introduced counselling and guidance services for students.
For working adults, Arshad pioneered an Extension Education Programmes. He initiated executive development and entrepreneur courses that are commonplace today but were rare in the early seventies.
Under Arshad there was constant creative ferment at ITM and perpetual educational experimentation. Planning for years ahead, he introduced courses unheard of in the 1960s.
Because the parent law of ITM did not permit ITM to confer degrees, Arshad, in the 70s, designed twinning programmes that are a rage today. He also made ITM the first Malaysian institution to embrace external UK programmes in many fields. He stuck to English as the medium of instruction.
As a leader, he taught us that “it is attitude, not aptitude, that determines altitude”. He constantly emphasized to students and staff that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things because it is not skill, it is our will, that can make the difference.
He asked us to doubt our doubts but not our beliefs. He told us to not let our limits limit us. To him, in every impossible, there was the possible.
He taught us to dream dreams; to think big; to go where no one has gone before; to leave the city of our comfort and go into the wilderness of our intuition. But he also cautioned us not to be a Mat Jenin and to work hard to realise our dreams.
While running an institution devoted to Bumiputera education, his transcendence was remarkable. Many of his Heads of Schools were non-Malays. The academic staff was more than 50 per cent non-Malay. On Sundays, he used ITM buses to ferry Christian Bumiputera students to churches in Klang.
In his post-ITM years, Arshad was the KSU of three Ministries, Deputy Governor of Bank Negara, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the University of Malaya and in stewardship position on several statutory bodies and public companies. Many foreign honours were conferred on him.
His enduring legacies are that the institute he cradled from 1965-75 has grown into the nation’s largest university. Forty-five years after he left, UiTM still is and will remain for a long time to come, an extended shadow of Arshad Ayub’s towering personality.
The nation will always remember him for its most successful experiment in social engineering through education.
Shad Saleem Faruqi