Tribute to Prof. Shaharil

We were about to put this issue to bed when we learned of the passing of Prof. Dato’ Shaharil Talib, one of SEASREP’s (Southeast Asian Studies Regional Exchange Program) four founders, who gave it its name, designed an ambitious blueprint for the advancement of Southeast Asian studies in the region, and helped us sort out problems in our early years in his inimitable and special way. Shaharil was committed to the idea of Southeast Asia not as a conglomeration of states brought together by common security and other interests, but as a place bound by seas and rivers, free of boundaries well before globalization came in vogue, and as peoples who were diverse yet similar to each other in countless ways. To him the Bugis epitomized the very idea of this dynamic region, connected rather than divided, and rich in intangible culture that wealth could never buy. Shaharil saw the region visually and in full color, not in drab black-and-white texts. Southeast Asia excited him no end.

Shaharil marched to his idea of Southeast Asia. SEASREP’s mission, to promote the study of the region by Southeast Asians in the region, was Shaharil’s baby. In our very first meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 1994, Shaharil impressed me-the fledgling in the group of four (the other two being Taufik Abdullah, then head of LIPI, and Charnvit Kasetsiri, soon-to-be rector of Thammasat University)-with the range and passion of his ideas. There was no limit to Shaharil’s imagination and brainstorming with him literally meant a deluge of ideas. At first glance some of his proposals appeared out of this world, but if you heard the man out you would see the logic of his thinking. His unconventional approach to things was a constant source of attraction, especially as we were trying to build an organization that had been attempted before but somehow fizzled out.

Our original blueprint for SEASREP consisted of ten programs, ranging from academic exchanges to shared libraries. We secured funding for only four of the ten, not a bad achievement for an organization seeking to navigate uncharted waters. Of these four, most important to us were the language training program and support for MA/PhD study within the region-programs that were clearly geared toward budding scholars, young Southeast Asians desiring to learn beyond their immediate setting and about the broader world of Southeast Asia. As it turned out, these were our most successful programs, creating in the process a network of scholars across the region, mostly in universities and research institutes, who have kept ties alive.

As in any endeavor of academics, we initially grappled with definitions: what do we mean by Southeast Asian studies? Is a Southeast Asian expert on her or his country automatically a ‘Southeast Asianist’? Our vision of Southeast Asian studies by Southeast Asians in and from the region necessarily had a practical consideration. Having been trained abroad (Monash University, Cornell, and SOAS), the four of us were aware of the increasingly prohibitive cost of graduate study outside the region. But this practical consideration was not our principal guide. It was the thought, rather, of a multi-faceted space of vigorous student and academic exchanges that moved us, where students would learn the languages of their neighbors from their neighbors, In between meetings I would seek his advice, which he gave freely and thoughtfully, and over the years our friendship developed. To others but always in my presence, he liked to recount my first meeting with Charnvit in Thammasat’s newly built Rangsit campus, when I was (wrongly) assigned to Charnvit’s room, which Charnvit just happened to occupy in a carefree manner of dress. (It was night time.) That first encounter remains enmeshed in my memory, thanks to Shaharil’s constant retelling. Over cigarettes (we are former smokers) he and I shared many a story, about the past and the present, about others and ourselves. Even after a new Board came in, Shaharil and I kept in touch. He kept himself occupied with the University of Malaya Asia-Europe Institute and, after retirement, continued to work on archives relating to Malaysia’s economic history. We were troubled when Shaharil got cancer. But he fought his way out of the illness as best as he could. In conversations he would write down his thoughts when speaking tired him out. In my last visit in 2016, Shaharil reverted to his longtime interest in Sabah, and in an email exchange that followed, emphasized how the meaning of padjak-repeatedly mentioned in the 1878 Sulu Agreement between Sultan Mohammed Jamalul Alam and Austrian Gustavus Baron de Overbeck and Englishman Alfred Dent (representing a British company)-morphed from ‘lease’ to ‘grant’ in Maxwell and Gibson (1924). I again witnessed the historian at work, as he discussed the original agreement in jawi, followed by the official Romanized version produced by the Colonial Office, and then the official English translation. Shaharil hinted at a fourth version still in the works. In all the 1878 Sulu Agreement was, in his words, like “an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.” Even in illness Shaharil saw history as real-life drama.

The man just would not allow the cancer to set him back completely. In typical Shaharil fashion, he carved out a new chapter in his life in a farm where he grew durian and other fruits. My one regret is that all I saw of his farm were photographs he shared. I never got to try Shaharil-grown durian, which he boasted about. Part of his Christmas greeting last year included a lament about how “the rains literally deflowered all the trees and we did not have fruits this season.”

Shaharil ended our last exchange with a request that I extend his greetings to “all the other fellow katipunans whose numbers I do not have.” And that is how I want to remember our man in black, an endearment coined by Taufik because of Shaharil’s uni-toned wardrobe-a true Southeast Asian, a Southeast Asianist to the core, a katipunero, a kindred spirit, a fellow historian, a dear, dear friend.

Maria Serena I. Diokno

SEASREP mourns death of Founding Member Prof. Dato Shaharil Talib

With deep sadness, the SEASREP Foundation announces the passing of Prof. Dato Shaharil Talib, a founding member of SEASREP. Prof. Shaharil drafted the original blueprint for SEASREP’s promotion of Southeast Asian studies in the region through language training, postgraduate study, collaborative research and various other forms of regional exchange. He was a leading light of the organization in its early crucial years, and many of his ideas shaped what SEASREP is today. We fondly called him our “man in black,” which was the only color he wore. His sense of humor and innovative perceptions are sorely missed. 


It is very sad news. I convey my deepest condolences. He was such a brilliant person and very helpful in many ways. He was always giving great ideas to develop Southeast Asian studies. Rest in peace Prof Shaharil.
— Yekti Maunati, Indonesia

Sad to hear about Dr Shaharil’s passing. He was unconventional in many ways and he had big ideas that he took pains to realize. I remember his sense of humour and irony, and a presence that made conversations with him really interesting.
Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, Philippines

It is testament to Prof Shaharil’s stature that his passing is felt by so many in the regional academic community, but we in Malaysia mourn the loss of a passionate nationalist historian and inspirational mentor to a generation of younger academics. We shall miss him.
— Diana Wong, Malaysia

Really sad to know about the passing away of Dato Shaharil Talib, who made us always proud and confident to be Southeast Asian scholars.
— Bambang Purwanto, Indonesia
Very sad with the passing of Shaharil, his passion and determination in the approach of Southeast Asian studies greatly inspired my fascination in the region.
— Thanet Aphornsuvan, Thailand

H-Net Southeast Asia (SEA) will also pay tribute to Prof. Shaharil. I am preparing a write-up with his publications. Social Science Diliman (SSD), the flagship journal for the social sciences of UP Diliman, will also have a tribute for him on our homepage.
— Ma. Mercedes Planta, Philippines

Yes, Shaharil was a great character with a lot of ideas and inspiration. Without him we would not have good contributions to Southeast Asian Studies for our Southeast Asians beyond boundaries. My last and pleasant meeting with him was at his wonderful house outside Kuala Lumpur. I will surely miss him: Our Man in Black.
— Charnvit Kasetsiri, Thailand

I can’t say anything–suddenly I feel as if his smiling face is already in front of me. Have simply lost my words. I can tell a number of funny but intelligent stories about him.

Yes, I remember the time I first met him. He–the new Ph.D. in history–had just returned to K.L. and became a member of the Steering Committee of the IAHA Conference. That was the time when we began our friendship. After that we met several times in some international conferences and we were also together for several months at the Kyoto Center for SEA Studies. At one time–two or three years later–just by chance both of us were invited by the Nippon Foundation to attend a series of seminar in Tokyo, Kyoto and in a small town near the Fuji mountain (I forgot the name of the beautiful small town). But there was a day when we had a free time–that was the day when Shahril asked me to go to the office of the Toyota Foundation, and–the rest is history.

I was really very sad when at one time we met in a wedding party in Jakarta. He was still joyful but Shahril had become a different person. May God bless you Shahril. I can never forget our friendship and–certainly not–your great ideas and dreams.
— Taufik Abdullah, Indonesia

I was so very sorry to hear (belatedly, owing to internet problems) of the death of the ‘Man in Black.’ It is hard to imagine: Shaharil was always so vital, full of inventiveness and humor, And an excellent scholar to boot. He can’t be replaced, but his memory can help inspire students to feel that history (and historians) needn’t be boring, and that they can do something to illuminate the world.

With many thoughts of past good times and arguments.
— Ruth McVey, Italy

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