- Obituary:Amin Sweeney
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The first message I received when I switched on my handphone upon leaving the plane in the Netherlands last November read 'Amin is dead'. Prof. Muhammad Amin Sweeney passed away quite unexpectedly on 13 November 13, 2010, while finishing a renovation job at his much beloved cottage in Cisarua, where he enjoyed his two favourite hobbies: gardening and bird watching. An inveterate teller of hilarious stories and outrageous jokes, Amin was a man of many virtues and vices, talents and skills, and you always knew when he was around. To say that Amin was unconventional would be a silly understatement: he was a man who combined a Catholic past with a Muslim present, who tried to integrate his Malaysian citizenship with his Irish-anti-British background and his life in Jakarta while claiming Kelantanese as his primary language. He came to Malaya at the end of the 1950s, after dropping out of secondary school, when he was drafted to counter the Communist insurgency in this British domain. But, he would state that the only action he carried out was having a cup of tea with a few captured insurgents. He was a rabble-rouser who was always looking for boundaries so that he could cross them, setting a possible precedent for others to follow.
After his bloodless encounter with the friendly communists, he taught English to Malay soldiers and spent time with local people all over the Peninsula, always eager to communicate with them and study their cultures. He was firmly hooked and wanted to know more, so he went back to London to study at the [End Page 103] School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. Soon he decided that the scholars there could not teach him much as they were epigones of the colonial system who communicated only with servants, the royal elite and subordinate officers in the military. Amin despised these people and would always make fun of their accents when uttering some Malay words. 'Boy, kasi tea banyak tebal', was one of his stock phrases to refer to them. As he surpassed them in his command and knowledge of the Malay language, Amin was asked to set his own exams, which he passed with flying colours, earning a first-class honours degree in 1967. For his subsequent PhD research he met with a Dutch scholar whom he very much respected for his knowledge and dedication to his field of study: Professor C. Hooykaas. Amin had fond memories of his sessions at Hooykaas' house outside London and the letters they exchanged while Amin was doing his fieldwork research in Kelantan on wayang kulit. Amin received his PhD in 1970 and in the same year was appointed lecturer at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, where he would stay for seven years. Eventually he moved to California to take up a position in the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, where he retired as professor emeritus in 1999.
By no means did his retirement mean he would sit still watching birds in the garden. In Jakarta, where he moved after leaving California, there was hardly a garden or any birds, so he bought the house in Cisarua. But Amin also was not planning on retiring just yet from the field so dear to him. To many he will be remembered primarily for his work on oral traditions in the Malay world, represented in his books on the wayang kulit of Kelantan (both 1972), Tok Selampit (1995), his Authors and Audiences (1980) and A Full Hearing (1987). But Amin did not like to put easy labels on his works. He did not agree with a simple boundary between written and oral traditions or a separation between traditional and modern literature. One of the threads that can be discerned in all his writing is an awareness of the imposition of one's foreign values and notions about cultural practices upon the tradition one is studying. While acknowledging R. O. Winstedt's scholarship and contributions, with great erudition and verve he dissected Winstedt's studies on...