Archives are the mines of a nation's history. Without
their rich lode of raw materials, the past cannot be investigated with rigor or
reconstructed accurately and History gives way to Myth. Hence, in 1957, the leaders of
newly independent Malaya set up a Public Records Office to salvage and preserve the
decaying stores of documents they had inherited from the British. This later became
Malaysia's National Archives. As a young graduate from the University of Malaya, DATO'
ZAKIAH HANUM binti ABDUL HAMID joined its tiny staff in 1961. Advancing as the Archives
grew, she learned every critical process firsthand and played an important role in the
professionalization of the system. In 1977 she became chief.
As director general, ZAKIAH presides over Malaysia's primary repository of historical
materials in the capital and a network of branches countrywide. In these archives a hoard
of official documents, letters, reports, and private papers in nearly a dozen languages
rests alongside maps, drawings, newspapers, sound recordings, photographs, and films. The
oldest are baptismal registers from the 1640s, the newest, essential current files of
government departments shipped regularly to the Archives' modern, ultrafireproof
facilities for safekeeping. As ZAKIAH adds constantly to the collection, preservation
specialists save older items from insects, mold, and corrosive chemicals and copy the most
fragile items on film. Others on her versatile staff of more than four hundred evaluate,
catalog, and store the materials so that they will be accessible to government and the
public. Some two thousand researchers now use the National Archives every year.
With the farsighted backing of her government, ZAKIAH has made Malaysia's National
Archives the most professional and technically advanced in all Southeast Asia. Through it,
systematic and modern records-management systems are being introduced to Malaysia's
bureaucracy. ZAKIAH has placed Malaysia at the forefront of regional cooperation as well.
Apprentice archivists from throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific come to Malaysia for
"We Malaysians seem to have so little sense of the past," says ZAKIAH. She is
using the Archives to change this. ZAKIAH has expanded its oral history collection, for
example, and sponsors lecture series in which prominent figures relate their experiences
for posterity. Using unique archival materials, she has mounted special exhibitions and
set up permanent memorials to commemorate great events and figures in Malaysian history.
In 1980 she initiated a daily television program called "Today in History," and
later introduced a national "History Quiz."
Outside the office, ZAKIAH writes short stories, television scripts, and plays and has
authored four books on Malay culture and tradition for schoolchildren. Since 1972 she has
been president of the Muslim Women's Action Society, or Pertiwi, which provides
kindergartens, scholarships, and other benefits for needy Malaysian youngsters. And she is
a leader in seeking innovative ways to aid her country's efforts against drug abuse.
Armed with humor and equanimity, fifty-two-year-old ZAKIAH shifts from her private life
as wife and mother of three to her multifarious public one with apparent ease. Moving
confidently from one task to the next, she is happy in her work, conscious of its
contribution to making Malaysia, as she puts it, "a knowledgeable society."
In electing DATO' ZAKIAH HANUM binti ABDUL HAMID to receive the 1989 Ramon Magsaysay
Award for Government Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes her showing Malaysians how
an expertly run archive system can illuminate their country's past and play a vital role
in its present.