Museum of Asian Art, University of Malaya: Keepers & Curators

William Willets (Curator): 1973-1982; Syed Ahmad Jamal (Keeper): 1975-1979; Khoo Joo Ee (Curator): 1983-1995; and Othman Md Yatim (Keeper): 1996-2003


Curator, Museum of Asian Art: 1973-1982

William Willetts obtained his B.Sc. in Zoology from Bristol University and M.A. in Chinese archaeology from London University. He was the first recipient of the Dulverton Open Scholarship. However he detoured from science and pursued Chinese art and culture for his career path. During the Second World War, he studied Chinese art at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and completed a B.A. in classical Chinese from Oxford University.

In 1963, Willets was invited by the Chancellor of the University of Malaya to become the curator of the University Art Museum in Singapore. He later left Singapore to become the founding curator at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in 1973. Willetts, together with Royal Professor Ungku Abdul Aziz, the Vice Chancellor, was directly involved in the distribution of the museum collection when Malaya and Singapore separated. Most of the bronze and sculptures as well as paintings representing the Southeast Asia world, especially Malaya, were moved over to the University of  Malaya. His handwritten inventory listings with detailed bibliographic description of the collection brought to Kuala Lumpur from Singapore is still available at the Museum of Asian Art.

Royal Professor Ungku Abdul Aziz with Willets

Though Willets closed his chapter in Singapore, his museological methods and art historical pursuits in Kuala Lumpur continued. Over the next decade until 1982, he literally created the Museum of Asian Art. The collection at the Museum now consists of five main categories: Paintings & Drawings, Ceramics, Sculptures, Bronzes and Textiles. Through his connoisseurship, he had initiated important public collections. He also travelled extensively in Asia expanding the Museum’s collection in the categories of textiles from India. He stayed for six years in South India and has written a series of scholarly articles on the Indian temple arts.

New Straits Times Annual 1981

William Willetts also served as a lecturer in art history and during his tenure supervised two postgraduates, Constance Sheares on textiles (undergraduate studies from University of London) and Roxanna Brown on ceramics (from Columbia University) who later became the Director of Bangkok University’s Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum.  His has left behind lasting legacies. The establishment of the South-East Asian Ceramics Society [West Malaysian Chapter] is one of his remarkable contributions.  He was the founding president of the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society in 1971 and launched the inaugural exhibition at the University Art Museum, with a publication of the catalogue Ceramic Art of Southeast Asia. This exhibition was the first presentation of the then little-known ceramic traditions of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. He organized numerous exhibitions and lectured throughout South-East Asia.

One of his early publications was a two-volume works on Chinese art in 1958 with Penguin Books. The book is a detailed book which discusses the eight art-forms, namely jade, bronze, lacquer, silk, sculpture, pottery, painting & calligraphy and architecture and the reasons why they are entitled to a place in the history of Chinese art. Another publication, Foundations of Chinese Art with Thames & Hudson in 1965, incorporated new archaeological discoveries of the history of the Chinese bronze art to the beginning of the Shang dynasty about 1500 B.C. He was also keen on Chinese calligraphy and published Chinese Calligraphy in 1981.

A regular columnist in the local papers
Utusan Malaysiia 18 Julai 1975
Utusan Malaysia 17 Julai 1975


An Illustrated annotated annual bibliography of Mahabalipuram on the Coromandel Coast of India, 1582-1962. University of Malaya, Department of Indian Studies, 1966.

T.K.Sabapathy (2010). Road to nowhere: the quick rise and the long fall of art history in Singapore.

SYED AHMAD JAMAL (1929-2011)

Director, Museum of Asian Art: 1975-1979

Syed Ahmad Jamal

Syed Ahmad Jamal was placed in charge of the Museum of Asian Art from 1975 until 1979 whilst serving as a visiting lecturer. He was appointed as the Director of the Cultural Centre at the University from 1979 to 1983.  During this time, he and his team went around the villages searching for invaluable antiques which are now part of the permanent collection in the Museum.

New Straits Times Annual 1979
New Straits Times Annual 1988

Syed Ahmad Jamal had his higher education at the Birmingham School of Architecture in 1950, but later changed his field of study to fine arts at the Chelsea School of Arts in London from 1951 to 1955. He returned to become a teacher at the Batu Pahat High School.  Within a year, he was chosen by the Ministry of Education to teach at the Malay Teacher’s College Kirby in Lancaster from 1958 to 1959.  He furthered his studies at the School of Art Institute in Chicago from 1963 to 1964, where he explored the field of sculpture. Upon his return, he went back to his appointment as the Head of the Art Department at the Special Teachers’ College. He pursued his masters specializing in historical arts at University of Hawaii, Honolulu in 1973 and studied the philosophy of Islamic art at Harvard University in 1974.

Syed Ahmad Jamal was better known as an artist. His work entitled Harapan (1962) which won the first prize in the Federated Art Competition can be considered a historical visual document.  He was the second recipient of the National Arts Award in the country in 1995. To date, he is the only artist who has been awarded the National Laureate title for his contribution in the field of visual art. He has also received international awards from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations 1962, U.S. Department Award 1963-1964, Alliance Francaise Medallion 1970, East-West Centre Award 1973-1974, Australian Council Award 1984 and ASEAN Cultural Award (Visual Art) 1987. In 1972, he took the first prize in Bank Negara’s mural competition for Seri Kijang. His other noteworthy pieces include: The Bait (1959) Conference of the Souls (1970), Gunung Ledang/Tanjung Kupang (1978) and many more.

Khat Kufi Persegi (UM Art Gallery Collection)                                                              

His contributions to the Museum of Asian Art are his exhibitions and art legacies. He had significant number of solo exhibitions at the University of Malaya, amongst them are: Malaysian Art 1935-1971 in 1971,  One Man Show in 1974, Pameran Seni Khat (1975), Rupa dan Jiwa (1979) and Pameran Perdana Persatuan Pelukis Malaysia in 1980.  Rupa and Jiwa held at the Tunku Chancellor Hall, was documented as a book revealing the artists’ interests and research on Malay traditional arts and craft. He stated that his “works have an Islamic soul in a contemporary form”. His experiment with motifs depicting Islamic symbols was revealed in the khat calligraphy. In 1975, he organized an exhibition on Khat calligraphy in UM. He also organized the Calligraphy Competition  at UM in 1981 to educate the public on the intricacies of khat. Syed Ahmad Jamal was also actively involved in theatre production.  In 1978, Datuk Syed Alwi requested Syed Ahmad Jamal to design the set and stage for Desa Ria (Happy Kampung) which was held at the Experimental Theatre UM.

Khat Exhibition in UM                                             
At the UM Museum of Asian Art

Syed Ahmad Jamal went on to become the Director of the National Art Gallery from 1983 to 1990 where he continued his involvement in art in the country. His contributions also include the drawing up of an  art syllabus for schools and teacher training institutes in 1973. 


Contemporary Islamic art in Malaysia (1988). Arts and the Islamic World, Vol.5, no.1 (Spr-Sum 1988) pp.44-51.

Between Generations: 50 years across modern art in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Valentine Willie, 2007.

D’Zul Haimi HJ Md. Zain. Syed Ahmad Jamal: Artist. IN Syed Ahmad Jamal: Pelukis. Kuala Lumpur: Balai Seni Lukis Negara, 2009. pp.88-147.

Rahman Mohammad & Tan Sei Hon. Syed Ahmad Jamal: Artist as designer. IN Syed Ahmad Jamal: Pelukis. Kuala Lumpur: Balai Seni Lukis Negara, 2009. pp.257-281.

By: Dr. S Janaki, former Senior Deputy Chief Librarian, University of Malaya Library

NOTE: This article was written in 2012 to document the beginnings of the University of Malaya Art Gallery.

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