In memoriam: Professor Emeritus Dato' Dr K.J. Ratnam, distinguished political scientist, educator and scholar

Former Dean and Head of Political Science, Professor Emeritus Dato’ Dr K.J. Ratnam, passed away on 10 March 2024.

A prominent political scientist specialising in Malaysian politics and race relations, Prof Ratnam was the youngest professor in his generation. He served as a key member of the Department of Political Science at the University of Malaya in Singapore when it was first established in 1961 and became Head in 1965.

Prof Ratnam also served as the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Singapore from 1966 to 1969.

NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye expressed his condolences at Prof Ratnam’s passing, acknowledging Prof Ratnam’s impactful work in the fields of political science and academia that have developed generations of leaders.  

“I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of our former colleague, Professor Emeritus Dato' Dr K.J. Ratnam. A highly respected political scientist, educator and scholar, Prof Ratnam was instrumental in nurturing, for many decades, generations of leaders in both the public and private spheres in Singapore, Malaysia and beyond.

He had served as Head of Political Science at NUS’ predecessor institution, University of Singapore, from 1965 to 1970, while concurrently helming its Faculty of Social Sciences as Dean from 1966 to 1969. Prof Ratnam will be dearly missed by generations of social sciences students who fondly remember his passion for scholarship, excellence in teaching and inspiring mentorship.

He was also greatly admired by the academic community for his dedication to rigorous research and how he had deeply enriched academic discourse. He had no doubt shaped the hearts and minds of many individuals in years past and present. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Prof Ratnam's family and loved ones during this time,” said Prof Tan.

Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee, a member of the NUS Board of Trustees and former Head of the Department of Political Science at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in NUS, expressed her profound sadness at Prof Ratnam’s passing as she paid tribute to his mentorship during her time as an undergraduate at the then University of Malaya in Singapore.

“I am profoundly saddened by the passing of Dato Emeritus Prof K J Ratnam in Kuala Lumpur. Prof Ratnam or KJ as I later called him was my early mentor and Head of Department. I belong to the first cohort of students enrolled in the Political Science course in the then University of Malaya in Singapore later renamed University of Singapore. Political Science was the last course to be introduced on the campus after Law, at the tail end of colonialism. In fact my father asked me if I would go to jail if I studied political science. I read Honours in Political Science in a class of three. Two women and one man. We were ahead of our times. KJ Ratnam left a lasting impression on me and I owe much of my intellectual development and open-mindedness to him. KJ possessed a fine mind and he captured one’s attention with his clear articulation of ideas. KJ asked us a lot of questions and in the process taught us how to pose questions, cutting incisively into a topic. KJ encouraged wide reading. His interest in political theory and Southeast Asian politics especially the politics of communalism and his dedication to scholarship were contagious. I remember once I found a couple of articles in a journal in the library which I thought ought to be in the reading list for our seminar on Federalism. He was surprised when I knocked on his door and asked him if he had seen this. He looked at me, his eyes widened and he said thank you. Next day he told the class to include it in the reading list. He did not mind his student bringing up something he had overlooked. He was not offended at all. He was a good person. There was a quiet kindness about him and a great sense of humour. He was a man of dignity and as a teacher he inspired by being the decent honourable person that he was.

Later when I finished my Master’s degree in Cornell University, KJ hired me as a faculty member, the first Singaporean to join the Department of Political Science in late 1967. He encouraged me to complete my Ph.D upon my return, and continued with his mentoring. It is said one learns most from example. For me KJ was the exemplar of the best that academia and education could produce,” Professor Chan said.

NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Dean Professor Lionel Wee expressed his sympathies, honouring Prof Ratnam’s pivotal role in shaping the study of political science in Singapore.

“Prof Ratnam was a key contributor to the foundation of political science in Singapore, having been intricately involved in the setting up of the department in the University of Singapore. During his tenure, he also taught a generation of social science students, one of whom is Ambassador Chan Heng Chee, who holds cherished memories of him,” said Prof Wee.

In 1970, Prof Ratnam joined the Universiti Sains Malaysia as the Foundation Dean of the School of Comparative Sciences. Throughout his career, Prof Ratnam held various roles, including Founder and Director of the Centre for Policy Research (CPR). The CPR led pioneering social scientific research and offered policy recommendations to the Malaysian government on various critical issues, spanning from poverty reduction to ethnic relations.

In recognition of his contributions, he was honoured by Universiti Sains Malaysia with the title of Professor Emeritus in 1993.

In January 2003, he assumed the prestigious Tuanku Chancellor Chair of Science and Technology Policy and Development at the Universiti Sains Malaysia.