Home 2007: 1 Myth-breaking teacher

Myth-breaking teacher

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Prof Syed Hussein Alatas (1928-2007) rubbishedthe colonial perception of "the lazy native" (Malays, Filipinos, Javanese, etc) as a convenient way to justify the project of colonialism and opened up the idea that there was more than one history and more than one way to write it,observes Wong Kok Keong.

The passing of Prof. Syed Hussein Alatas on 23 January was, indeed, a sad occasion. He was truly a towering Malaysian, a public intellectual par excellence whose work has been admired and respected by many, even beyond the shores of Malaysia.

He did it not as a politician (even though politics was never outside his concern), not as a captain of industry, not as a popular artiste, not as an athlete, and not as a scientific inventor.  Instead, he did it as a teacher, literally, motivated to enlighten with his ideas by his sense of fairness and doing the right thing.  

I had never met Syed Hussein.  Neither had I taken a class from him.  The first time I heard of him was in the early 1980s.  I was a first-semester MA student in mass communication at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, and I had signed up for a course called Subaltern History. It was taught by a Prof Peter Gran, who was then known for some myth-breaking of his own with his book, Islamic Roots of Capitalis.  He had a lengthy reading list for the course.  


Among the readings were Edward Said’s Orientalism,  Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks.  But there was also Syed Hussein’s The Myth of the Lazy Native (1977).  Gran even singled it out, saying it had contributed to Said’s thesis on Orientalism that, by  the early 1980s, was studied in many courses in History, English Literature, and the emerging Cultural Studies.  

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Gran also noted Syed Hussein’s background as a Malaysian. I remember a tinge of pride came over me upon hearing it. I was the only Malaysian in that class of about 20 students, most of whom were white Americans. with two or three others from the Middle East.  As there were many books on the reading list, we were to decide for ourselves which to buy.  The first one I bought was Syed Hussein’s book.

I remember reading it right away, and I was inspired.  For one, his rubbishing of the colonial perception of the lazy native (Malays, Filipinos, Javanese, etc) as a convenient way to justify the project of colonialism opened up for me the idea that there was more than one history and more than one way to write it.  And all of us should be open to the many histories as opposed to that  written by or from the perspective of the conqueror, ruler or dominant group.  Especially scholars, whose role it is to contribute to knowledge, as opposed to just doing research from the perspective of the powers-that-be or their paymasters.  These other histories included the oppressed, subaltern class and the voiceless.

Many may be blasé about this view of history today, but back in the early 1980s, it was still a contested one, with some reluctant to accept it as a legitimate or productive academic pursuit.  In that sense, Syed Hussein was ahead of his time.

Ahead of his time

He was ahead of his time in another way.  Before his book came out, Mahathir Mohamad’s Malay Dilemma was already making waves of all sorts.  But because it was banned in Malaysia, I, like many Malaysians, did not get to read it until much later.  But the general idea of the book was already floating in the public domain when I read Syed Hussein’s book.  It was difficult not to think of what Syed Hussein was saying against Mahathir’s idea, however vague or rough it might be.

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Years later, when I finally had the chance to read Malay Dilemma, I still found Syed Hussein’s work to offer so much more, even though Mahathir made some persuasive points.  I think Farish Noor’s recent tribute says it well:

“In the same work (The Myth of the Lazy Native), Alatas… critically debunks the racialised stereotypes that were found in Malaysian works such as Mahathir Mohamad’s The Malay Dilemma (1970) and Revolusi Mental, a compilation of essays edited by the then Secretary-General of Umno.  Syed Hussein exposes how in these works, written so late in the post colonial era by a new generation of post-colonial leaders, the colonial mindset that saw Malaysian society as being fundamentally divided along racial lines was still sadly prevalent.”

Sobering words as Malaysia will be celebrating its 50th year of independence and nationhood in a few months time – and there is still noisy disagreement on just what constitutes a Malaysian.

But Syed Hussein, scholar cum public intellectual that he was, also researched and wrote on other issues, especially corruption.  His book The Sociology of Corruption pre-dated Myth almost by a decade but in more recent years it was republished with an update.  He was trying to make the study of corruption an urgent intellectual endeavour because of his concern over how corruption is truly the bane of all kinds of human growth and development, especially in many developing countries, including Malaysia.  There he was again, trying to educate and change the mindset of newer generations.

And so, while we are saddened by his passing, we should find solace in what he has given us and continue to make his concerns and ideas alive.  

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Peace be with you, Prof. Syed Hussein Alatas.

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