BORN in Punjab, India, the late Prof Ajit Singh (pic) of Cambridge University who passed away on June 23, 2015 was a beacon of heterodox economics.
Despite being exposed to neoliberal concepts and taught by some of its key advocates whom he regarded with the highest respect, (which included Manmohan Singh when he studied for his bachelor’s degree at Punjab University and Dale Jorgenson when he pursued his master’s degree at Harvard University), Ajit Singh’s thinking was shaped by the real world rather than constructs erected through unreal assumptions. While his honesty kept his steering in the direction of evidence, his intelligence ensured that his critics took him seriously and his sense of loyalty guaranteed him friendship among thousands of admirers.
Ajit Singh joined Cambridge University in the 1960s immediately after finishing his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley. However, struck by a debilitating and wasteful Parkinson’s disease in 1982 at the age of 42, Ajit Singh courageously avoided seeking treatments to cure it because the options given to him were too risky for his brain. Like any serious scholar he valued his ability to think and engage in the highest possible intellectual debates. Such was his focus on scholarship that his academic output grew far more after being afflicted with the ailment than before it.
While he began his career in the field of industrial organisation with some of the most illuminating works on mergers and acquisitions and financial markets, Ajit Singh began to engage incisively into research to address the economic problems of the developing economies. His most pioneering work on the developing economies touched on the unfinished industrialisation, selective state interventions as the stimulus for economic catch up and neo-keynesian approaches to insulate economies from financial exposure. His brilliant contributions earned him a full professorship at Cambridge University in 1995.
As a student at Cambridge University, I remember listening to him in his classes and seminars with his frequent interjections, “where is the evidence?” whenever someone made a senseless argument. Denied of the ability to write on his own as the disease continued to weaken him, he somehow succeeded in managing a division of labour to type out his essays with the highest clarity. Anyone who knew him well enough can easily distinguish his views from others from the simplicity and clarity that his command of English provided.
Despite firmly expressing his support for heterodox economic thought, Ajit Singh was not an ideologue. He treated his students and colleagues who showed strong leaning towards neoliberal thought the same. I remember him even recommending his doctoral supervisees with neoliberal leanings without any qualifications to organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He once called me over the phone to say that he is watching cricket on television in Delhi with the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. While he often told me that he did not agree with liberalisation in general he always insisted that Manmohan was a true patriot who would do what he thought will be good for India.
Ajit Singh also contributed considerably to spread his work across the world. In addition to his advisory roles in Mexico and Tanzania, he taught, researched and held prestigious chairs in a number of countries. One such country was Malaysia where he taught financial economics at the Asia-Europe Institute in 2004 to 2006, and held the Tun Ismail Ali chair endowed by Bank Negara Malaysia in 2010 to 2011. His stellar service to Universiti Malaya not only included new insights on financial stability, but also illuminating publications on Islamic finance.
When Ajit Singh retired in 2007, John Eatwell and Philip Arestis organised a festcript at his college, Queens’, to honour his contributions. While several scholars, including myself, celebrated his contributions, he did not show any emotions there as his mind remained focused on his intellectual journey.
Indeed, Ajit Singh had published several other interesting articles, including in the newly emerging field of Islamic finance, since. As with his friends and employers, he remained faithful to his college throughout.
As I received the sad news of his unexpected death, I began to realise that Ajit Singh’s life is a model of courage and confidence.
He never sought pity or spoke about his ailment. He was always bubbling with crisp questions about the state of the world’s economy. The world has lost a rare intellectual. Prof Rajah Rasiah The STAR Home News Education 12 July 2015