Outstanding Scholastic Achievement

Distinguished Professor Dr Rajah Rasiah

Distinguished Professor Dr Rajah Rasiah is globally recognised as a pioneer in the field of innovation and development. In addition to reconceptualising technology and its measurement to reflect the reality of how innovation and spillovers occur, he pioneered the Systemic Quad model, which has revolutionised the role of strategic clustering in driving employment, wages, and sustainable development across the globe. In addition to be a key contributor in the preparation of industrial development reports of Malaysia, and several Southeast Asian economies, he has also contributed considerably to the preparation of international development reports for the World Bank, UNIDO, UNCTAD, UNDP, UNESCO, World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO). He currently serves as a Distinguished Professor of International Development at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya.  

Professor Dr Rajah lives by a simple philosophy - ‘to never give up on an honest and noble pursuit’. He shares the same virtues as his parents, which is to always put their children first. Coming from a family of 13 siblings and being number 10 meant that his upbringing was not easy. “My parents lived a frugal life without any overabundance. My father worked three jobs a day, all related to driving, while my mother worked as a seamstress at the Hilir Perak District Hospital. Yet the size of the family meant that finances were constrained. That experience drove me to avoid debts, and ensure the current and future needs of my family always took priority.”

His sense of perseverance and hard work was evident at a young age. During his high school years starting From Three till Form Five, Professor Dr Rajah represented his school in the inter-school history, geography and general knowledge quizzes. He was adjudged the best contestant in history and geography at the district level in 1974, and won the Peraduan Syarahan Bahasa Malaysia Kelas Muhibbah (Malay Language Public Speaking Competition) at the district level in 1975. He then studied at the Horley Methodist Primary and Secondary schools in Teluk Intan, before beginning his undergraduate degree at Universiti Sains Malaysia in 1978.

He enrolled at Cambridge University for his doctorate in economics in 1989. It is during his studies there that he began to work seriously on the economics of innovation following the works of Joseph Schumpeter, Albert Hirschman, and Nathan Rosenberg. Upon completion of his PhD In 1992, Professor Dr Rajah served at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). “I enjoyed excellent collegial relationship with several honourable professors including the late Ishak Shari, the late Osman Rani Hassan and Anuwar Ali, who impressed me with their honest approach to scholarship,” he said.

His academic thinking has also benefitted from exposure to prestigious universities as a fellow (and senior fellow), and when giving public lectures at Cambridge University, Oxford University, Harvard University, University of California (Berkeley), Emory, American University, Rutgers University, Columbia University, Zhejiang University, Jawaharlal University, Indian Institute of Management (Bangalore), Monash University, Melbourne University, Nagoya University, Keio University, University of Witswaterand, University of Capetown, Seoul National University, Unicamp, University of Malaya, University of Philippines (Diliman), Chulalongkorn University, and Universitas Padjajaran.

Professor Dr Rajah also took on the advice of visionary Professor Dato Zawawi Ismail to be on secondment to the Faculty of Economics and Business at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) in 1999-2000. “As the Faculty Dean, I personally wrote to the chairmen of top universities to convince them to consider taking my young staff as postgraduate students, so that they would bring back the high standards that they were exposed to at those universities.”

In addition to encouraging collaborative research and critical discourse among his colleagues, Professor Dr Rajah initiated and launched the International Journal of Business and Society, which won the Current Research in Malaysia (CREAM) Award for Excellence in 2017.

Among all his outstanding accomplishments, receiving the Celso Furtado Prize from the World Academy of Sciences in the field of social sciences was the proudest achievement for Professor Dr Rajah thus far. Announced in 2014 and conferred in 2015, the award recognises his work in advancing the frontiers of social science thought in the field of economics, and a vindication of his alternative views on technology, innovation and development. Another remarkable moment in his career was when he delivered the keynote speech at the launch of the Sustainable Development Programme at Cambridge University in 2016.

Professor Dr Rajah has been called a passionate lecturer and supervisor by the students who have appreciated his contribution to their academic development. Many of his former students have since moved on to high places, holding leadership positions in prominent organisations. During his spare time, he enjoys taking a break from his research and publishing work to tend to his family garden. 

Professor Dr Rajah’s illustrious career includes many notable affiliations with renowned international bodies. He was appointed by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization as a principal author of the 2009 World Industrial Report. He was also entrusted to use his Systemic Quad model to capture the role of strategic clustering in driving employment, wages, and sustainable development in Argentina (automotive), Brazil (paper and pulp), Chile (salmon), Nigeria (computers and components), China (buttons), Cambodia (clothing), India (leather), Indonesia (automotive), Laos (agro-processing) and Malaysia (electronics).

Furthermore, Professor Dr Rajah takes pride in being hired by government departments in Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam to advise or write economic development and industrial plans.

Reflecting on his work and interest in the promotion of sustainable development in economics, Professor Dr Rajah said, “My ambition to become a scholar started with my curiosity over conflicting claims made by different school of thoughts in economics. In the end, I settled to focus on the role of technology and innovation in economic development.” It was this time that he started to study various firms to understand the nuts and bolts of technology of products produced that he began to realise that something was amiss from leading methodologies used to measure technology, technical change, and technical spillover.

He added that his research work gravitated to address issues around sustainability whereby his studies expanded to focus on innovation synergies directed at sustainable development.

“It was really my inquisitive mind that began questioning prevailing accounts of knowledge, technology, measurement, spillover, and their promotional prescriptions,” he said.

“My initial focus was only on how knowledge and technology revolve, and how they spill over from one socioeconomic agent to another, and the systemic implications of it,” he said. He added that his critical mind was very much shaped at Universiti Sains Malaysia by his main mentors, Kamal Salih, Chandra Muzaffar, Johan Saravanamuttu, Khoo Khay Jin and Wan Zawawi Ibrahim.

Explaining he said “My empirical understanding of how the dynamic clusters evolved from scratch to eventually become developed, for example, the Hsinchu Science and Industrial Park, Silicon Valley, Route 128, and Nagoya resulted in me developing the Systemic Quad for governments to focus on four strategic pillars.”

Professor Dr Rajah testifies that it had been a challenge to get the established journals to accept his work on technology, innovation and spillovers, which were dominated by mainstream economists. He overcame this challenge by looking into different avenues and publishing his work in non-mainstream journals led by economists who recognise the real world. Although economics has remained a divided field, he is confident that the evolution of grounded theories would soon become the mainstream to displace the ‘old mainstream’ so that obsolete conjectures are rejected with new knowledge. Meanwhile, Professor Dr Rajah’s work on the conceptualisation of public goods and public utilities was used in the assessment of concentration and competitiveness of the Malaysian economy in 2011 for Malaysia’s Economic Planning Unit and the World Bank.

This has led him to formulate several policy reports for the promotion of technological upgrading and industrial development in Malaysia. Subsequently, he also became part of the advisory team for policy matters for the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MITI) in 2015.

He has also been a major contributor in the preparation of international development reports relating to industrial and science, technology and innovation policies in the developing world for the World Bank, UNIDO, UNCTAD, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UNESCO, World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and International Labour Organisation (ILO). Professor Dr Rajah was appointed as the principal researcher or leader of these projects.

Professor Dr Rajah currently serves as a Distinguished Professor of Economics at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya. He is the author of 23 books and 240 book chapters and international journal articles. He is in the process of editing two books, both of which are expected to be published by the end of 2018. The first book will be published by University of Malaya Press and is titled Driving Development: Revisiting the Role of Razak in Malaysia’s Economic Progress (co-written with Kamal Salih). The second book – co-edited with Kamal Salih and Cheong Kee Cheok – is scheduled to be published in 2019 and is titled Malaysia’s Leap into the Future: The Building Blocks.

Personal Philosophy
“Never give up on an honest and noble pursuit.”

Message to young Malaysians
“Honesty, diligence, and perseverance are the key ingredients to achieve one’s noble goals. It is a good habit to plan ahead when strategising and drawing up the goals, and success in the long term is generally achieved through hard work and honesty.”

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