Obituary: Professor William Roff, Emeritus Professor of Islamic and South–east Asian History at Columbia University

Professor William Roff
Professor William Roff
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Born: 13 May, 1929, in Bearsden, near Glasgow. Died: 3 May, 2013, in Cellardyke, Fife, aged 84

PROFESSOR William Roff was Emeritus Professor of Islamic and South-east Asian History at Columbia University in New York, but retired to the East Neuk of Fife 22 years ago.

He was an honorary professorial fellow at Edinburgh University’s Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies throughout his “retirement” and supervised 20 successful doctorate theses in 20 years.

As at Columbia, many of his students came to work especially with him, because of the influence his own PhD thesis had on the field of Malaysian studies in particular. His The Origins of Malay Nationalism has been widely influential in independent Malaysia and much of what he identified 50 years ago is apparent in the recent election results in that country.

It also became a model for researchers in many other countries, and he was very active in sponsoring cross-cultural research seminars that enriched many fields during his time at Columbia.

Even as his health declined in recent years, there was a steady stream of admirers making their way to the East Neuk to visit him. Some brought their parents to meet him. Many of his students are now in prominent academic posts in several countries.

Bill became a well-kent figure in local community affairs until his hearing made it too hard to participate. He was secretary of the Kilrenny Anstruther and District Community Council for several years, with a particular interest in the reconfiguration of health services. He worried about the move to out-of-hours services but in the event they and the fine folk at Anstruther’s Skeith Health Centre provided superb help in his last years.

He spent his last month in St Andrews Community Hospital trying to recuperate from pneumonia and a fall, and was deeply impressed by the care he received in the building he helped bring into being.

Born in Bearsden, he spent much of the Second World War years in Dundee, where he attended the Harris Academy. He joined the Merchant Navy in the late 1940s, serving on the Asia run and fell in love with the region.

In New Zealand, he discovered that he could study for a degree at Victoria University as a mature student. He produced radio documentaries and read the news for the New Zealand Broadcasting Commission during happy years living with poets and artists and writers in Wellington.

He went to the Australian National University for his PhD, much of which was researched when living with a family he came to love in Kampung Jawa near Kuala Lumpur.

Three years ago, the family – grown to more than 50 grand- and great-grandchildren – invited Bill to a celebration of their 50 years with “Pak Long” as he was known there. Bill lives on for the scores of people who cared for him and particularly for his beloved daughters Sarah and Emily, son-in-law Jan, and his wife of nearly 40 years, Sue. He gifted his body to medical research.