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Newly minted Bobcat Malaysian Prime Minister Yang Amat Berhormat Dato' Sri Mohd Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak, second from left, accepts congratulations from Ohio University Trustee David Brightbill.

Photo courtesy of: Habibah Ashari

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Photo courtesy of: Habibah Ashari

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Malaysian prime minister joins Bobcat ranks

Honorary degree symbolizes historic ties between OHIO and Malaysia


Ohio University has a new honorary alumnus: the prime minister of Malaysia.

Yang Amat Berhormat Dato' Sri Mohd Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak received an honorary doctor of humane letters Jan. 15 in a ceremony held in conjunction with the 9th Tun Abdul Razak Lecture. 

Named for the current prime minister’s father, the lecture is a highlight of a unique 32-year partnership between OHIO and the Malaysian government. That partnership also includes the Tun Abdul Razak Chair, an endowed faculty position at Ohio University that works to foster cross-cultural understanding of Malaysia-American perspectives.

Among the 350-plus guests at the event were Paul Jones, U.S. ambassador to Malaysia, and the Malaysian Minister of Higher Education, Dato’ Seri Mohd Khaled Nordin.

Reading Najib’s award citation, Interim Executive Director of the Center for International Studies Ming Li said the doctorate was given in recognition of Najib’s contributions to and leadership and influence in education, as well as his clear and distinctive commitment to the democratization, modernization and transformation of Malaysia.

“Najib fulfills many of the requirements for the award based on his outstanding record of accomplishments as a national and international leader who deals with society’s most pressing problems,” Li said.

The degree was presented by Ohio University Trustee David Brightbill and conferred by Li and Bryan Benchoff, vice president for University Advancement and president and CEO of The Ohio University Foundation.

In accepting the award, Najib said OHIO has been instrumental in educating many Malaysians after the nation gained independence in 1957 and began to develop itself.

“We needed dynamic entrepreneurs, strong institutions and business-friendly civil servants,” Najib said. “It is against this backdrop that Ohio University’s staff worked with the Mara Institute of Technology in business, accounting and communication. Many of the Institute’s staff and students travelled to Ohio to study.”

More than 2,400 Malaysians have graduated from Ohio University since 1968, giving it the largest concentration of alumni outside the state of Ohio.

“Engineers trained in Ohio built the bridges and buildings on which Malaysia’s modernization depended,” Najib said. “Accountants and business graduates helped create a strong and internationally competitive private sector. And teachers and professionals ensured that the skills learned in Ohio were embedded within Malaysia’s institutions.”

He said the link between educational institutions could be seen as an enduring sign of cooperation between the East and the West.

International cooperation also was highlighted in the Razak Lecture, presented by Surin Pitsuwan, who just completed a five-year term as the 12th secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In a lecture titled “ASEAN and its Impact on Global Economy and Politics,” Pitsuwan discussed the organization’s impact on the economy and political landscape not only regionally but worldwide, and described it as a role model for peace and international understanding.

The Harvard-educated Pitsuwan was Thailand’s minister of foreign affairs from 1997 to 2001. Since 1993, eight speakers have presented the biennial Razak Lecture. Pitsuwan is only the second speaker not from the United States.

“It is unprecedented in the history of the Razak Lecture. I am extremely honored to be part of the preparation and execution efforts of these two significant events,” OHIO’s Li said.

Much of the credit for that preparation and execution goes to Habibah Ashari, the current Tun Abdul Razak Chair. It had taken her more than a year and countless e-mail exchanges around the globe to plan the event.

“We had to ensure that Dr Surin was able to present the lecture,” she said. ”More importantly, we also had to ensure that the prime minister would not only agree to accept the honorary degree, but also would agree on the date of the conferral amidst his extremely tight schedule.”

Ashari—former director of the International Education College at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) and a professor of education—was the first Tun Razak Chair from UiTM and the second woman to be granted this distinction. UiTM, Ohio University’s strategic international partner, co-sponsored the event with OHIO.

For Benchoff, the event was an opportunity to see the work of the Ohio University Foundation in action.

"The Razak Chair in Southeast Asian Studies is supported by a multi-million dollar endowment with The Ohio University Foundation, and it was an honor to experience firsthand the impact of private philanthropy on this historic relationship and to meet many of our more than 2,400 alumni while visiting Malaysia," he said.

The Razak Chair and the Malaysian partnership have benefited both the university and the southeast Asian nation, said Ohio University President Roderick McDavis.

“The Ohio University community has benefitted greatly by the contributions of past and current Razak Chair Scholars,” he said. “The research and outreach produced through this partnership have aided understanding of and appreciation for Malaysia across American institutions of higher education.”

(photo at left)

On hand for the degree presentation were, from left, Shaik Sulaiman Ismail, president of the Ohio University Alumni Association's Malaysian chapter; Habibah Ashari, current Tun Razak Chair holder; Wan Zahid Noordin, chairman of the UiTM board of directors; UiTM Pro-Chancellor Arshad Abdul Rahman; Ohio University Trustee David Brightbill; Prime Minister Najib; Khaled Nordin, Malaysian minister of higher education; UiTM Pro-Chancellor Arshad Ayub; Sahol Hamid Abu Bakar, vice-chancellor, UiTM; Bryan Benchoff, OHIO vice president for University Advancement and president and CEO of The Ohio University Foundation; and Ming Li, interim executive director of OHIO's Center for International Studies.