HIGHLIGHTS

  • As director general, ZAKIAH presides over Malaysia’s primary repository of historical materials in the capital and a network of branches countrywide.
  • With the farsighted backing of her government, ZAKIAH has made Malaysia’s National Archives the most professional and technically advanced in all Southeast Asia.
  • Armed with humor and equanimity, fifty-two-year-old ZAKIAH shifts from her private life as wife and mother of three to her multifarious public one with apparent ease.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “her showing Malaysians how an expertly run archive system can illuminate their country’s past and play a vital role in its present.”

 CITATION

Archives are the mines of a nation’s history. Without their rich lode of raw materials, the past cannot be investigated with rigor or reconstructed accurately and History gives way to Myth. Hence, in 1957, the leaders of newly independent Malaya set up a Public Records Office to salvage and preserve the decaying stores of documents they had inherited from the British. This later became Malaysia’s National Archives. As a young graduate from the University of Malaya, DATO’ ZAKIAH HANUM binti ABDUL HAMID joined its tiny staff in 1961. Advancing as the Archives grew, she learned every critical process firsthand and played an important role in the professionalization of the system. In 1977 she became chief.

As director general, ZAKIAH presides over Malaysia’s primary repository of historical materials in the capital and a network of branches countrywide. In these archives a hoard of official documents, letters, reports, and private papers in nearly a dozen languages rests alongside maps, drawings, newspapers, sound recordings, photographs, and films. The oldest are baptismal registers from the 1640s, the newest, essential current files of government departments shipped regularly to the Archives’ modern, ultrafireproof facilities for safekeeping. As ZAKIAH adds constantly to the collection, preservation specialists save older items from insects, mold, and corrosive chemicals and copy the most fragile items on film. Others on her versatile staff of more than four hundred evaluate, catalog, and store the materials so that they will be accessible to government and the public. Some two thousand researchers now use the National Archives every year.

With the farsighted backing of her government, ZAKIAH has made Malaysia’s National Archives the most professional and technically advanced in all Southeast Asia. Through it, systematic and modern records-management systems are being introduced to Malaysia’s bureaucracy. ZAKIAH has placed Malaysia at the forefront of regional cooperation as well. Apprentice archivists from throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific come to Malaysia for training.

“We Malaysians seem to have so little sense of the past,” says ZAKIAH. She is using the Archives to change this. ZAKIAH has expanded its oral history collection, for example, and sponsors lecture series in which prominent figures relate their experiences for posterity. Using unique archival materials, she has mounted special exhibitions and set up permanent memorials to commemorate great events and figures in Malaysian history. In 1980 she initiated a daily television program called “Today in History,” and later introduced a national “History Quiz.”

Outside the office, ZAKIAH writes short stories, television scripts, and plays and has authored four books on Malay culture and tradition for schoolchildren. Since 1972 she has been president of the Muslim Women’s Action Society, or Pertiwi, which provides kindergartens, scholarships, and other benefits for needy Malaysian youngsters. And she is a leader in seeking innovative ways to aid her country’s efforts against drug abuse.

Armed with humor and equanimity, fifty-two-year-old ZAKIAH shifts from her private life as wife and mother of three to her multifarious public one with apparent ease. Moving confidently from one task to the next, she is happy in her work, conscious of its contribution to making Malaysia, as she puts it, “a knowledgeable society.”

In electing DATO’ ZAKIAH HANUM binti ABDUL HAMID to receive the 1989 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes her showing Malaysians how an expertly run archive system can illuminate their country’s past and play a vital role in its present.

 RESPONSE

I bring greetings to you from the people of my nation. I thank you for the privilege accorded me to visit your wonderful country, and for all the hospitalities you have extended to me. I am deeply moved with a sense of gratitude to the Board of Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for the great honor conferred upon me, and I am honored as you honor my country today on its Day of Independence.

In accepting the award, my thoughts are of my country, my family, my friends, and those with whom I share the responsibilities of government service. This honor is not only for me but for all the people of Malaysia. For this recognition I am thankful to God and to all who have helped me and made this honor possible.

I am happy that the award links me, however remotely, with the name of a great soul, known to the world for his ideals, integrity, and devotion to service. Thus I am proud to receive the award in the name of Ramon Magsaysay—the illustrious son of the Philippines whom the world pauses to remember on his eighty-second birth anniversary today. For me, it is a moment of humility, a moment of awareness that it is the service that counts and not the individual who is its instrument. Therefore the award will always remind me of how much still remains to be done. It will inspire me to strive for excellence in my calling and to serve the best interests of my fellow citizens.

The award is also an honor that I shall not forget to share with the women of my country, since I am the first Malaysian woman to receive it. Also, I can honestly imagine no greater recognition for the archival institution that I represent. It will be a source of continuing inspiration to my colleagues at the National Archives of Malaysia, as well as to my counterparts in archival institutions elsewhere in Asia. All will be gratified to note that the unglamorous and unobtrusive work of the archivist does not go unacknowledged.

There were days when archives called to mind the image of a dusty storehouse of unused papers and faded documents. This impression, fortunately, is fast changing as the world moves from industrial to informational societies and as the archivist steps into society to become involved with the forces of change and community development. It is my earnest hope that archivists will continue to move in this direction without the slightest thought of reward or recognition. It is a moral responsibility, and one that also adds meaning to one’s role as a public servant.

 BIOGRAPHY

The family of DATO’ ZAKIAH HANUM had its roots in the Malay state of Kedah. Like many others in the state, including members of the royal house, ZAKIAH and her kin have both Malay and Thai ancestry and, she notes, “maybe some Indian and Arab blood too.” This reflects the fact that, unlike the majority of Malays, her ancestors were urban folk. For generations they dwelt in or near the royal capital of Alor Setar. Many made their careers in the sultan’s service as minor officials in his vast palace complex. ZAKIAH’s maternal greatgrandmother, for example, was, in effect, a lady-in-waiting at court. Evidently she was often present when the young people of the household were regaled with stories and legends of the Malay past. Some of these she recorded, and among the family heirlooms prized especially by ZAKIAH is a manuscript of a tale written partly in her great-grandmother’s hand.

In the early twentieth century Kedah was incorporated within the British Empire, along with several other more or less autonomous kingdoms on the Malay peninsula. As one of the Unfederated Malay States, Kedah hosted a rather light British administration. Many responsible positions continued to be filled by Malays. ZAKIAH’s maternal grandfather, Ismail, was a senior customs official. An exceptional man alert to the economic changes rapidly overtaking the Malay states and connecting them to the world outside, he shrewdly invested in both land and foreign stocks and bonds.

Abdul Hamid, ZAKIAH’s father, also held a respectable position in the state government as a clerk in the land office. He married Ismail’s only child, Che Yah. Zakiah, who was born on 15 September 1937, was the fifth of their nine children.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)