Born towards the end of the Japanese occupation of Malaya in the Perak border town of Tanjung Malim, Rustam grew up in the shadow of his famous father, Abdullah Sani @ Ahmad Boestaman. Boestaman was a Malay nationalist and the founder of political parties Angkatan Pemuda Insaf and Parti Rakyat.
Rustam served as an associate professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Malaya and ISIS and was a prolific writer in Malay and English. His anthology of poems, Riak-Riak Kecil, composed in 1977, was published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. Rustam won the National Literature Award for 1988/89.
Rustam joined the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia economics faculty in early 1977, then still at its temporary campus in Lembah Pantai, Kuala Lumpur. It was here he befriended with many personalities such as Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Sanusi Osman, Ting Chew Peh and Shamsul Amri.
He then opted to do a Masters at the University of Kent in Canterbury where he indulged and mentored a variety of undergraduates including PAS secretary-general Kamaruddin Jaffar, economist Ghazali Atan and publisher Lim Siang Jin.
There, he deepened his preoccupation with the challenges of Malaysian nationhood, an enduring theme in his writings since the 1970s, and the subject of one of his two latest books, which was launched posthumously by his old friend from the 1960s, Anwar Ibrahim.
Later he embarked for Yale University, but after passing the tough comprehensive exams there, he lost interest, preferring instead to write a statistics textbook for those afraid of such quantitative methods.
Back at UKM, he switched to the Politics Department as his old Canterbury friend, then Abim secretary-general Kamaruddin, had left to join Anwar in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Government.
With Syed Husin at the helm of the Malaysian Social Science Association (PSSM), Rustam started a bilingual quarterly journal, Ilmu Masyarakat, to try to open new Malaysian debates under the dispensation of the then new Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, to which the former UKM academic as well as PNB and Guthrie chief executive Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim (later Selangor Mentri Besar) was an early and insightful contributor.
At the end of the 1980s, Rustam accepted Nordin Sopiee’s invitation to join ISIS. There, he helped to craft Mahathir’s historic February 1991 speech promising a “Bangsa Malaysia” as part of his Vision 2020 (thankfully translated by Rustam as Wawasan 2020, instead of the earlier Visi 2020), changing the terms of national discourse in one fell swoop.
Frustrated by its lack of serious commitment, he left ISIS in the mid-1990s to become a writer, translator and reluctant businessman.
Soon after, he agreed to become deputy president of PSSM, later inaugurating the biennial series of international Malaysian Studies Conferences in which we tried to reposition Malaysian studies as a national – and nationalist – discourse, rather than as post-colonial studies.
However, the events of 1997-99 with the sacking of the then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim disrupted Rustam's plans and he rose to the popular national call for Reformasi following Anwar’s incarceration and persecution, becoming its most thoughtful “participant observer”.
As deputy president of the Parti Rakyat Malaysia, a party his father had founded almost half a century before, he negotiated its principled unification with the political movement which had emerged around Anwar despite several high-profile defections. After the merger with Parti Keadilan Nasional to become the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), he became PKR information chief.
Rustam died at his home in Gombak, Selangor on 23 April 2008 at the age of 64 due to respiratory difficulties. His body was sent to a mosque near his house at Bukit Lela and he was later buried at the Taman Danau Kota Muslim cemetery after Zohor prayers.
- Farewell to a true Malaysian, The Star, 26 April 2008.