Malaysian scholar Habibah Ashari speaks to students during a welcome reception last Monday.
Photographer: Karla Guinigundo
Tun Abdul Razak Chair Habibah Ashari (far right) and her husband Kieran Johnston (far left) had opportunities to meet with faculty and administrators across the University at Monday's welcome reception.
Photographer: Karla Guinigundo
Sep 23, 2011
By Heather Farr
Just one year ago, Habibah Ashari was living and working in her home country of Malaysia – a destination she describes as "a tropical paradise." Today, she resides in Athens, Ohio, where she hopes to inspire others to understand and appreciate Malaysia as she does.
On Monday, the campus and community celebrated the arrival of Ashari, the 14th scholar and second woman to represent Malaysia in the United States as the Tun Abdul Razak Chair.
"(This chair) is not only a great honor for me, my family and my country, but also for women and for my university," Ashari said.
Every two years, a professor from a Malaysian university is chosen and funded to come to Ohio University to teach, conduct research and perform outreach for Malaysia and Southeast Asia. Since its inception in 1980, the chair helped numerous Americans obtain expertise on Southeast Asia and developed many important partnerships.
"The Tun Abdul Razak Chair is the first of its kind in the United States because it’s the first chair sponsored by a foreign government," Dan Weiner, executive director for the Center for International Studies said. "It’s a very prestigious chair – the individual chosen is not just an international and cultural ambassador and scholar to Ohio, but also to the United States."
Ashari is the first Tun Abdul Razak Chair chosen from Universiti Teknologi MARA, where she has worked for the past 32 years and served as the director of international education for eight years. Ashari has used her extensive network to help internationalize the school, signing memorandums of understanding in Germany and Australia, among other places.
"Annually, we send about 1,500 Malaysian students with government scholarships to obtain degrees abroad," Ashari said. "International experience is extremely important because of globalization."
Ashari also started the university’s Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) program.
Associate Director of the Center for International Studies Karla Guinigundo participated in the chair selection process in Malaysia. According to Guinigundo, Ashari was chosen because she is dynamic and an innovative thinker who brings many creative ideas and enthusiasm to Ohio University for the various programs she will be teaching during her two-year tenure.
"We’ve been trying to revitalize the chair, and she had new ideas about reaching out to students, highlighting the Malaysian section of our library and strengthening web presence," Guinigundo said. "Having this Chair builds on our strength in Southeast Asian studies, which is something that makes Ohio University unique, and people should know that."
Ohio University is one of the few schools in the United States with a Southeast Asian graduate program. In addition, the University’s library collection on Malaysia is world class. Among Ashari's goals, she seeks to promote the existence of these resources and the Tun Abdul Razak Chair.
"Not many people know about [the chair’s] existence even though it has been around for more than 30 years," Ashari said.
In addition, Ashari wants to promote Southeast Asia to a wider population through events such as seminars and conferences and develop a certificate program in Malaysian studies, which would include a study abroad component.
"We would like to attract more American students and other international students to consider Malaysia as a study destination," she said. "We would also like to increase the number of Malaysian students on campus, similar to the number in the 80s and 90s."
Ohio University currently has more than 2,000 alumni in Malaysia -- more than any country outside the United States. This is largely the result of a pioneering program established in the 1970s that offered business degrees at Malaysia's Institut Teknologi MARA, Ashari's home University.
Throughout the next two years, Ashari also plans to create youth outreach programs, plan a Malaysian festival similar to OHIO’s International Week and create a coffee table book highlighting the history of the Tun Abdul Razak Chair.
"In Malaysia, I chaired and oversaw the creation and building of a library at our university. When it was completed in 2008, I created a coffee table book documenting its history," Ashari said. "I’d like to compile a similar book highlighting past chairs, conferences and seminars, so anyone can find all of the information in one place."
With high ambitions, Ashari hopes her tenure as Razak Chair will reinforce the strong ties already in place between Ohio University and Malaysia.