Prof Ajit Singh: Great mind, courageous

Cambridge, UK | 13 July 2015 | Asia Samachar |
Prof Ajit Singh, Cambridge University (1940-2015). Background photo of Queen's College, Cambridge.
Prof Ajit Singh, Cambridge University (1940-2015). Background photo of Queen’s College, Cambridge.

Prof Ajit Singh, an economist of high standing from Cambridge University who passed away on 23 June 2015, was described by his former students as a heterodox economist and also a professor of courage. He was 74.

Prof Ajit, an Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Cambridge, had links with Malaysia, as well. He held the Tun Ismail Ali Chair of Finance at University of Malaya in 2011 and was also a senior research fellow at the Malaysian Commonwealth Studies Centre.

Aside from his ground breaking work on economics, he had also authored some articles on Islamic finance, a growing field of interest in Malaysia and a number of Islamic-majority nations.

Prof Ajit was ‘a beacon of heterodox economics’, writes Prof Rajah Rasiah from Universiti Malaya, a one-time student, in an article entitled ‘Passing of a great mind‘ (The Star, 12 July 2015). Heterodox is an act of not conforming with accepted or orthodox standards or beliefs.

“Despite being exposed to neoliberal concepts and taught by some of its key advocates whom he regarded with the highest respect, (which included Manmohan Singh [former Indian prime minister] when he studied for his bachelor’s degree at Punjab University and Dale Jorgenson when he pursued his master’s degree at Harvard University), Ajit Singh’s thinking was shaped by the real world rather than constructs erected through unreal assumptions,” writes Prof Rajah, a Professor of Economics and Technology Management at UM’s Faculty of Economics and Administration.

Courage was another word used to describe Prof Ajit.

In a tribute in Indian newspaper The Hindu entitled ‘Ajit Singh, a Professor of courage‘, another former student Dhiraj Nayyar writes: “The first adjective that comes to mind when one recalls the life of the late Ajit Singh is brave. He was not a soldier like many others from his beloved Punjab, but he sure knew how to fight a battle. Struck by the debilitating and wasting Parkinson’s disease in 1982, when he was just 42, a lesser individual would have chosen self-pity and surrender. But the mild-mannered economist only grew in professional stature. In fact, he saw opportunity in adversity. No longer able to sleep for long hours, he chose instead to think and write and publish with a frequency much higher than before 1982.”

In his field of expertise, Prof Ajit was described as ‘a pioneer in the analysis of takeovers and the structure of the modern business enterprise.’ He also devised the first operational definition of de-industrialisation in advanced economies and was a leading voice in the debate over the dynamics of industrialisation and financial markets in the developing world, according to an obituary in UK’s The Guardian (7 July 2015).

In Malaysia, Prof Rajah wrote that Prof Ajit had taught financial economics at the Asia-Europe Institute in 2004 to 2006, and held the Tun Ismail Ali chair endowed by Bank Negara Malaysia in 2010 to 2011.

“His stellar service to Universiti Malaya not only included new insights on financial stability, but also illuminating publications on Islamic finance,” he added.

On his personal side, his first marriage, to Jo Bradley, ended in divorce in 2012. He is survived by his second wife, Ann Zammit, and by his sisters Parveen and Rani, according to the Guardian report.

As a true liberal, he didn’t deem it necessary to impose his world view on me. From his friends, Ajit inspired great loyalty and was loyal to a fault, observed Nayyar.


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  1. Tribute to revered economists
    THE SUNDAY STAR, Sunday July 19, 2015

    THE late Prof Ajit Singh of Cambridge University and Prof Rajah Rasiah of Universiti Malaya are my two revered mentors in the field of economics.

    They are not ordinary academics; not only have they stood for what is right and reasoned, they are also blessed with gifted minds who understand astoundingly diverse aspects of economics. It’s almost as if they were made for the subject.

    Also, unlike the typical academics who rarely mingled with the ordinary people, their legacy of academic inclusiveness beyond colour, class, creed and age are well known among their colleagues and contemporaries. They mixed at length with everyone.

    Prof Rajah is an epitome of a model scholar who mentored many of us when he was Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Business at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) in 1999 to 2000.

    In fact, beyond guiding us all on how to write scientific papers, he also introduced us to prestigious organisations, including personally recommending a young lecturer to gain doctoral admissions at some of the world’s leading universities.

    Like several others, I have continued to learn from his rich reservoir of tacit and experiential knowledge. The news of the death of Ajit Singh came when Prof Rajah and I were finalising our paper for publication in a leading medical journal.

    An unorthodox economist, Ajit Singh had stood in support of Malaysia’s longest serving Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s introduction of capital controls in 1998.

    In fact, Prof Rajah often told me of the profound respect Ajit Singh had for Dr Mahathir’s courage in fearlessly standing up against the imperial powers.

    Although I never met him, I always longed to see him to compare our insights, and to express my sheer admiration for his works. My fondness for Ajit Singh’s works grew even more when Prof Rajah asked Ajit Singh and me to consider writing a blurb separately for his (authored with Michael Yap and Santha Chenayah) book, Monetary Economics, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.

    As a thoroughbred empiricist, I could see his appreciation of novelty that was grounded in reality as he particularly flagged the parts of the book that dealt with evidence used to challenge mainstream claims that did not make sense.

    I have also observed Ajit Singh’s elucidating works on Islamic finance that he published together with Tan Sri Andrew Sheng.

    Like how I have always thought of Prof Rajah, I stand convinced that Ajit Singh was clearly a universalist who could blend with anyone with the willingness to search for the truth and to help the underprivileged. Indeed, Malaysia has lost an irreplaceable foreign scholar who had devoted his attention not only to help a few of us, but also this blessed land we call home.

    Professor of International Economics
    Universiti Malaysia Sarawak and CEO of the Malaysian Qualifications Agency