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  • William R. Roff (1929-2013)
  • Michael Laffan and Badriyah Haji Salleh

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May 3 saw the passing of the noted Southeast Asianist, William R. Roff, known to so many friends at home and abroad as Bill. Born in Scotland in 1929, he was Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University.

While best known for his life-long engagement with the study of Islam, it was Buddhist Burma on the cusp of independence that first awoke Bill to the study of Southeast Asia. After being at sea for six years, of which three were spent with the British & Burmese Steam Navigation Company, Bill took advantage of New Zealand's offer for anyone over the age of 21 to enrol in tertiary education. Having availed himself of a job as a journalist with the national broadcasting service, in 1952 he commenced part-time studies at Victoria College, Wellington, where he would earn his Bachelor's and Master's degrees. It was there, too, that he first became interested in the intersections of history and anthropology, and, through the influence of the Singaporean Emily Sadka, in the Malay Peninsula.

Like Sadka, by March of 1959 he found himself in Canberra, where the Australian National University was still taking shape and the defining Lake Burley Griffin as yet unfilled. The roving Scot was hardly taken with his new environs, it must be said. Still, there was intellectual nourishment to be had, most especially in the history, languages and traditions of Southeast Asian Islam under A.H. Johns and Soepomo, and lasting friendships with South Asia scholars like Jit and Patricia [End Page 83] Uberoi. After what must have seemed like a lightning fast period of preparation, in October 1959 the determined doctoral candidate headed to Kelang, Selangor, for fieldwork and the defining phase of his personal education. This was at the hands of his 'burly' family host, Tuan Haji Abdul Karim. As Bill later recalled, it was in the home of Haji Abdul Karim that he gained real appreciation for the traditional methods of Islamic education that schooled him in the script he would use for his exhaustive primary source research. And it was in Selangor, too, that he had frequent contacts with two Egyptian teachers in residence at the newly founded Muslim College. One was the Azhar-trained Mohammad Zaki Badawi (1922-2006), who had completed a dissertation of his own at the University of London about modern Muslim thought. Naturally this study had included strong attention to the activities of Muhammad Abduh who would prove so influential on Malay Muslims, particularly those engaged with the pioneering journal al-Imam and its inheritors, with which Bill was most engaged.

Given such connections, it is scarcely surprising that Bill's researches spanned the waters he had once sailed himself, with his first major article on Singapore and a major book derived from an already mature thesis submitted in 1965. His Origins of Malay Nationalism, published by Yale in 1967, remains a landmark contribution to the field. In his editorial preface, Bill's mentor and predecessor in New Zealand, Harry J. Benda (1919-71), already declared it to be a 'pioneering work in Malay history' in which, rather than arguing for the merits of Asia-centric history, the author had simply 'gone and written it—and written it well'. Bill marshalled an effective narrative that placed the Malays both in a community that straddled the South China Sea and in an expanding world whose capitals included Cairo, Islamabad and Jakarta. His 1970 article on the first Malay and Indonesian student associations formed in Egypt in the 1920s, published in Cornell's flagship journal Indonesia, demonstrated just how important it was to look for Southeast Asians beyond a region whose very existence as a scholarly field was still being actively debated.

Like others who would be so instrumental in defining the field (such as Tony Reid), by the time of publication Bill had gained a teaching post in the region. Between 1965 and 1969 he was active at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, where he was drawn once more to consider the traditionalist end of the global Islamic spectrum...


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