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Malaysia and the LSE: A Brief History

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

Editor's note: This article was written based on prior knowledge of several alumni to try and shed light on the history between Malaysia and LSE


Although the Alumni Society of Malaysia was established in 1985, Malaysia’s links with the School go back a long way to the 1950s. Of all the tertiary institutions of higher education in the United Kingdom, the LSE has had a rather unique link with Malaysia in a number of hitherto little known aspects of our development towards independent status as a sovereign nation.

To begin with, the LSE can be credited with the founding of Malaysia’s first and oldest tertiary education institution, the University of Malaya in Singapore, as its Director, Sir Alexander Carr-Saunders, was Chairman of the Commission on University Education in Malaya in 1947, appointed by the British Government.

The Carr-Saunders Comission laid the grounds for the amalgamation of the King Edward VII College of Medicine and the Raffles College based in Singapore. The British Government had apparently only intended to establish a University College through the merger of these two Colleges. However, Carr-Saunders was reported to have been so impressed by the staff and students whom he personally interviewed that his Commission unhesitatingly recommended that a full-fledged University be set up.

Another notable connection between the two institutions, but in reverse sequence, was the appointment of Sir Sydney Caine, himself an alumnus, as the new Director of the LSE in 1957. Sir Sdyney was at that time Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malaya where he had held the post since 1952. His stewardship of the School, which lasted a decade, was an important phase in the modern evolution of the sixty-year old institution.

Over the years those links between Malaysia and the LSE were to be nurtured and strengthened by the increasing number of students from here enrolling both for their first degrees as well their post-graduate studies at the School. Among the former was the first Malay lady to enter the LSE named, the late Siti Saleha binti Mohamed Ali (later Tan Sri Dato’ Paduka Hajjah).

The late Tan Sri Siti Saleha chatting with the LSE Director Sir Howard Davies at the Society’s 20th Anniversary Dinner in 2005

She was at LSE from 1946 to 1948 studying social policy under the distinguished and notoriously left-wing Professor Harold Laski. Her elder brother, the late Tun Ismail Mohd Ali of Bank Negara and PNB fame, got her enrolled at the LSE as he considered it to be the “happening” place in England then.

Another illustrious Malaysian alumnus is Tun Muhd Ghazali Shafie who had been sent to Oxford University by the Malayan Civil Service in anticipation of his return to the fledging Ministry of External Affairs in 1953. Instead, he transferred to LSE to complete a Post-Graduate Diploma in International Relations and the rest of his career in Wisma Putra and Government after that is, as they say, history.

At the academic level, the Department of Economics and Anthropology began developing strong research links with Malaya during the post-Second World War years. Among the noted teaching staff of the LSE who did their research here was Emeritus Professor of Economics, P.T. Bauer, who published the first scholarly work on the Malaya rubber industry in 1948. After serving at the LSE from 1960 to 1983 he became one of the key economic advisers of the Margaret Thatcher government and was made a life peer in 1982. Taking the title of Lord Bauer of Market Ward in the city of Cambridge, it is indeed quite an extraordinary fact that his official coat of arms was supported on one side by the figure of a Malay rubber tapper and on the other by a West African cocoa farmer! Lord Bauer was bestowed the prestigious Milton Friedman Prize for Economics in 2002 just before he passed away.

In the field of anthropology, the LSE’s connection with Malaysia was primarily built up by the outstanding Professor Sir Raymand Firth who served the School from 1944 to 1969. His pioneering study entitled, Malay Fishermen, Their Peasant Economy, was conducted before the Second World War and focused on the tiny fishing village of Perupak, near Bachok in Kelantan. Firth returned to Kelantan after the War on several occasions and revised his classic work thus beginning a long and prolific association with Malaysia which, among other things, led to a stream of Malaysian anthropologists being educated at the LSE. Indeed, our late President, the distinguished Dato Dr Mokhzani Abdul Rahim, was one of the first from this country to have earned his Ph.D under the supervision of Sir Raymond. Another member of the Department of Anthropology, the late Dr H. Stephen Morris, who served at the LSE from 1965-1980, is renowned to this day for his exemplary ethnographical work on the Melanau people of the Oya River in Sarawak.

It would indeed sound rather odd that there has been no mention of Economics in this historical piece especially because some of Malaysia’s leading economists since the 1970s are LSE alumni. One of them, Dr Cheong Kee Cheok, served as Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Administration at the University of Malaya. He was followed by the late Professor Ishak Shaari at the National University of Malaya, the epitome of a young East Coast fishing village boy who rose to be the doyen of the economists of developing societies. Then there is the case of the LSE doctorate in economics, Dato Dr. Thillainathan Ramasamy, another of the University of Malaya staff, who now serves as a non-Executive Director at Genting Bhd, one of our top Malaysian conglomerates.

As Malaysians, we are all justly proud of the fact that the previous Head of the Department of Economics at the School (although not an alumnus) is none other than Professor Danny Quah who was born in Penang. Both our economists and other Alumni can certainly claim to having had a truly varied background.

Professor Danny Quah (2nd from left) at the luncheon for his talk on ‘Rise and Fall of Subsidies’ on 26 May 2008

At the level of fraternal relations between the LSE and its alumni in Malaysia, we should not forget Dr Anne Bohm who was Secretary of the Graduate School from 1942 to 1977. Anyone who had done his or her postgraduate studies there would certainly have had to brave the thorough scrutiny of Dr Bohm’s meticulous concern for the highest academic standards. On her retirement she travelled worldwide in furtherance of the School’s larger interests and its future development and she was particularly involved in the promotion of alumni groups such as ours. She, in fact, first visited Malaysia in August 1982 in her just-established capacity as LSE’s External Relations Consultant and was, in a way, instrumental in getting our Society inaugurated. Sadly, she passed away in London in her 96th year on 16th October 2006.

These ties with Malaysian academia have produced a rich harvest of both prominent scholars as well as leading corporate figures in the Malaysia of today. And each year a steadily growing number of Malaysian students are heading to the LSE for both graduate and undergraduate courses as it is recognized by parents and students as the UK’s leading centre for the social sciences. While many study Economics, Accounting or Law, others do take advantage of the LSE’s strengths in fields such as International Relations, Sociology, Government, and Actuarial Science.

Over 170 Malaysians are offered places at the LSE annually in recent years and there are now over 1,500 LSE alumni living in Malaysia (with more living abroad). LSE alumni in Malaysia are involved in a wide range of roles in academia, business, civil society and government. The LSE alumni in Malaysia have also been supportive of the School, having generously contributed to the flagship New Academic Building in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and more recently 32 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the School’s new home for Economics.

The establishment of the LSE Alumni Society of Malaysia (LSEASM) in 1985 has helped foster the alumni fraternity in Malaysia and paved the way for more alumni activities, also making LSE alumni Malaysia one of the largest and more active alumni groups in Asia.

From left: George Soros, Tan Sri Munir Majid and Dino Patti Djalal at the LSE Dinner Talk by George Soros at Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur on 15 December 2006

Over the years, the Society has organised various alumni gatherings and events such as inter-university pub-quiz, dinner talks, Buka Puasa celebrations etc. On 15 December 2006, the Society hosted a dinner talk in Kuala Lumpur featuring George Soros, the world renowned financier and philanthropist. There were also interactions with the Malaysian Students Society at the LSE with the LSE pre-departure events and the graduates welcome home dinner in recent years.

Our Alumni Society has also actively participated in LSE Asia Forums, since the first one in March 2004 in Bangkok, Thailand. The Society was then represented at this prestigious gathering by a 15 member’s delegation who were simply overawed by the sheer range and quality of the speakers at this inaugural Forum. Since then, LSE Asia Forum has been held in Hong Kong, India, Singapore, Beijing and just last year (April 2014) in Kuala Lumpur, where the Society assisted the LSE to co-host and secure event sponsorship.

Professor Craig Calhoun, LSE Director speaking at the LSE Asia Forum 2014 in Kuala Lumpur

In more recent years, the Society successfully launched the LSE Insights Executive Lecture series, which hosts distinguished academics from LSE and other institutions to give lecture talks on a regular basis. Speakers have included Charles Goodhart - LSE Emeritus Professor of Banking and Finance, Arne Westad - LSE Professor of International History, Michael Cox - LSE Professor of International Relations and Professor Danny Quah - Director of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre and LSE Professor of Economics and International Development.

LSEASM is a non-profit organisation that strives to serve the interest of the alumni network in Malaysia. If you are not already a member, come join us and be part of your local alumni network. Keep up to date on the latest happenings from the School as well as the latest networking events brought to you by the Society. Take this opportunity to connect with your fellow alumni from around Malaysia and with current students of LSE. LSEASM maintains close ties with the LSE Alumni Relations in London as well as the regional network of LSE Alumni Associations.


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