THE world must have been one small kampung for Lord President Tun Mohamad Suffian Hashim. He once said: "Nothing warms my heart more than to see the humble villagers spontaneously helping one another in times of need.''
Ready to help anyone, the one area he was unstinting in was education. At a very young age, he discovered that one needed connections to get ahead in life. However, he also discovered that a helping hand could go a longer way.
Soon after his Senior Cambridge Certificate, Suffian's headmaster at Clifford School Kuala Kangsar, Capt B. Preedy, taught him an important lesson: "If you sit for the Malay Administrative Service examination, you will top the Malays but you will never succeed without any social connections.''
Suffian's parents were neither royalty nor major or minor chiefs; thus, he was bereft of connections. So, he took Capt Preedy's advice and sat for the Queen's Scholarship examination. He came out first in the FMS Malay List.
For that examination, Suffian had the personal coaching of the acting headmaster D. Roper. Taking off from that helping hand, before he left for England, Suffian tutored other students at the school in Latin, one of them being Penang Yang Di-Pertua Tun Hamdan Ali Sheikh Tahir.
Much later, as a puisne , he followed the example of former expatriate Justice Willie Buhagiar who, when he was a draftsman in the Attorney-General's Chambers, used to give free tuition for anyone sitting for the Bar examination. In Suffian's case, he tutored police officers struggling through their departmental law examination.
Suffian was the epitome of his advice to youths and graduates whenever he was asked to speak to them: "From the people we come and to the people we give our services.''
Former High Court Justice Datuk Visu Sinnadurai said that not many knew of Suffian's contribution to education.
"He would always encourage Malaysian students to do post-graduate studies; follow scholarly pursuits. And because he was from Cambridge, many people would ask him for references for their children and Tun Suffian would oblige,'' said Visu who met Suffian in the early 1970s when he (Visu) was a young lecturer at Universiti Malaya.
"Tun Suffian also always encouraged others to publish. When I first started my own writing, he constantly encouraged me,'' added Visu who is now Senior Judicial Specialist at the World Bank.
Suffian, who was the first chairman of the Higher Education Advisory Council, was very concerned with higher education and indiscipline in schools.
He was also involved in the debate on having an open university system and whether the graduates being churned out met the needs of the country.
"Vast amounts of money are being spent on education. All this money should be spent wisely, to produce not just any kind of graduates, but only graduates of the kind that is relevant to our current needs, if we are to achieve the targets of our Five Year Plans,'' he had said. Suffian also believed it would be a tragedy if universities produced graduates proficient in one language only.
Not having had the benefit of career guidance, he was very keen on career development talks for students. And when he was Pro-Chancellor of UM, he was closely connected to the funding of tertiary institutions and development of new courses of study.
Suffian showed the true meaning of education by remaining humble throughout his life.
"Whenever he visited Institut Teknologi Mara (now Universiti Teknologi Mara), he was a man of extreme humility, humorous and courteous,'' said its law professor Dr Shad Faruqi. "He had walked with kings but he had not lost the common touch. He never humiliated anyone but rather deprecated himself, even in his jokes.''
Suffian is gone but we hope his legacy in higher education lives on.
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- The times they were a-changin (P. Ramlee)
- For the workers (V.T. Sambanthan)
- A leader and a gentleman (Tunku Abdul Rahman)
- My Tok, the Bapa Malaysia (Tunku Abdul Rahman)
- A benchmark for integrity (Tan Siew Sin)
- Plague fighter extraordinaire (Wu Lien-Teh)
- A man well remembered (Tun Mohamed Suffian Hashim)
- Symbol of a new generation (Raja Zainal Raja Sulaiman)
- Tun Tan's legacy (Tan Cheng Lock)
- Modern Malay literature arrives (Munshi Abdullah)