Dr Muhammad Arif Zakaullah

Last night, the IIUM debate association alumni had dinner with Dr Muhammad Arif Zakaullah. He left the university years ago due to health concerns, and now lives overseas. Work brought him back to Malaysia for a temporary visit, and presented us with an opportunity to meet with him. 30 alumni + spouses and children greeted him last night, and it’ll be a night long remembered.

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As i was listening to him speak (and what a speech it was!), i was reminded of what this man has meant to me. He wasn’t just a debate coach; he was a mentor, an educator and a surrogate father during my time in university. It’s fair to say that his principles helped shape my personality and behavior. He made me a better person. I’ll always be thankful and grateful to him.

Beyond what he did for me, by looking at the others in attendance, i realized he has done the same for everyone. All of us are his “children” in a way — he touched us each in turn, in different ways, and left positive marks on all. We had lawyers, engineers, doctors, bankers, entrepreneurs and more, each of us a contributing member of society, many of us captains in our chosen fields. It’s not a coincidence, not at all, that we were all in the same room last night to pay hommage to the one person we have in common.

I will always remember two things from him: Firstly, to everything, there must be a philosophical foundation. Discuss that foundation, make changes there — that’s where it counts. Secondly, the system is far more important than people. Because good people come and go, sometimes you find them and sometimes you don’t. But if there is a good system in place, then you can be sure of always producing good people and achieving good results. Without it, you leave things to chance, and that will just not do.

In a way, debating as a system doesn’t just produce good people. It produces good societies, and by extension, good nations. The 30 of us last night are creations of the system Dr Arif put in place. Each of us has a direct impact on our families and friends, a network of at least 300-1,000 people. Each of us has an impact for the organization we work for, an extended network of 1,000-10,000 people. And as an extension of that, the organizations we work for – the likes of Maybank, CIMB, HSBC, the AG chambers, PETRONAS – have an impact on the rest of the nation.

No, Dr Arif didn’t just have an effect on our lives. That would not satisfy his need to see the “philosophical foundation”. He has built a system that has helped build nations. That’s a vision worthy of this man, and i’m proud to be a part of it.

May Allah bless you always, sir.

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