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In Memoriam: Prof. Syed Hussein Alatas, Myth-breaker Januari 27, 2007

Posted by ummahonline in Islam Bi La Hudud, Kolum.
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By: Farish A. NoorFor an entire generation of younger Malaysian academics and intellectuals who were born during the postcolonial era, Prof. Syed Hussein Alatas was very much a mentor-figure, a model public intellectual and an example of what the academic world could do if and when academics applied their intellectual faculties to the pressing needs of the times.

His name and reputation as an activist-oriented sociologist was not confined to Malaysia alone, but had spread across the world from North America to Europe, the Arab world, Africa and many parts of Asia. Though the pace and tenor of his life was not as hot and racy as his contemporaries elsewhere such as Franz Fanon or Albert Camus, his works and ideas reflected concerns that were common to theirs; namely addressing the historical baggage of the colonial past while also having to face the impending crisis of governance in a post-colonial state rapidly floundering.

I, like many of my generation, came across his works while studying in London in the 1980s. A chance encounter at a book fair landed me with the prize of possessing his work ‘Thomas Stamford Raffles: Schemer or Reformer?’ (1972) where the younger Syed Hussein was taking a few well-aimed jabs at bringing down the colonial construct of Stamford Raffles as the ‘benevolent’ colonial functionary who was busily ‘civilising’ the natives of Asia purely for the sake of altruism. A closer reading offered by Syed Hussein showed that the man revered by many as a forward-thinking ‘benevolent colonialist’ was little better than an operator on the make, working often outside the boundaries of the law of the East India Company, and more often than not motivated purely by personal gain and ambitions. I was hooked to the book, and the Professor who wrote it from that day on.

While preparing my own notes for my first teaching course on the history of the decolonisation process in Asia, Alatas’s works were rudimentary and essential. Among his works that remain on my top shelf are ‘The Sociology of Corruption’ (1968), ‘Modernization and Social Change in Asia’ (1972), ‘Intellectuals in Developing Societies’ (1977) and of course, his magnum opus, ‘The Myth of the Lazy Native: A Study of the Image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th to 20th Century and Its Function in the Ideology of Colonial Capitalism’ (Frank Cass, 1977).

Among all of these, Prof Syed Hussein Alatas will probably be best remembered for his path-breaking ‘Myth of the Lazy Native’, an analysis of the modalities involved in the construction of stereotypes of the ‘native Other’ seen from the point of view of the colonial metropole, that was designed to epistemically arrest the constructed Other while disabling and disempowering the colonised subject at the same time. Never before had any Malaysian scholar attempted a work such a this, which employed a range of analytical tools from sociology to history to discourse analysis and a critique of racialised capital; and never before with such deconstructive effect. Today younger generation of students and scholars are impressed still by the ideas and writings of luminaries such as the late Edward Said, and critical theorists of the school of Subaltern studies, diaspora studies, cultural studies and the myriad of new disciplines that have sprung forth following the gradual collapse of the old schools. But it has to be noted again here that Syed Hussein Alatas’s work then was not only singularly unique in the Malaysian context, it was truly ahead of its time.

In the ‘Myth of the Lazy Native’ Alatas presses home several important points that should never be forgotten by any scholar working on political history: First, that identity politics and the construction of racial categories and racial stereotypes are never accidental but are processes fundamentally wedded to the working of (racialised) power. Second, that the colonial enterprise required a moral pretext that was granted by the construction of convenient ‘instrumental fictions’ (to borrow Edward Said’s phrase) that helped to justify such an enterprise. Third, that the perpetuation and reproduction of such categories of identity and difference were running parallel to the workings of racialised colonial capitalism and that the two sustained each other, thereby helping to create the highly divisive and uneven ‘plural economies’ so common in many colonial settings. And fourth, that the legacy of colonial capitalism, having embedded itself in the racialised politics of difference and sectarianism in many colonies, would be hard to eradicate even after the departure of the colonial power for the local native elites themselves would have, by then, come to learn that the very same tools of divide-and-rule could be used by them to perpetuate such power differentials in the future.

In the same work Alatas proceeds to illustrate the last point clearly when he 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. What is more he lamented the fact that even up to the 1970s the generation of Malay ethno-nationalist leaders in the country could not help but base their appeals for privilege and power based on colonial clichés and stereotypes of the Malays as a ‘backward’ and ‘lazy’ race that had to be protected.

By then Prof Syed was no longer alone in his academic endeavours. Malaysian scholars like Chandra Muzaffar were also taking up his lead, questioning the logic of racialised patronage and the culture of neo-feudalism in Malaysia at the hands of UMNO in his work ‘Protector?’. A younger generation of Malaysian economists like Jomo Kwame Sundaram were also labouring hard to question the working of racialised capitalism that had by then been normalised in the country. But many of us owe a debt of gratitude to Prof Syed himself, who led the way and who maintained an approach that was critical, objective, fundamentally rational, positivist and unencumbered by the accoutrements of false ideology, racialised essentialisms or politically expedient revisionism.

Prof Syed will be remembered by his colleagues and students as one of the pioneers of critical theory in Malaysia, even though the term ‘critical theory’ had not been en vogue during his time. Much of his work and the focus of all of his intellectual energy was towards critically questioning and deconstructing many of the staid comfortable assumptions upon which both the colonial and post-colonial order of knowledge and power were based upon; demonstrating that academic work does not only have social and political relevance, but also that such critical thinking was politically necessary. In the words of Prof. Noraini Othman of the National University of Malaysia:

“His passing marked the end of an era in terms of Malay and Malaysian intellectual culture and scholarly tradition. Prof. Syed Hussein was a globally-known social scientist whose work focused on Malay society, culture and politics. He was a fierce critic of Malay political culture – using the term “bebalism” as a concept to describe the inability of Malay intelligentsia and politicians to cope and engage with the forces and challenges of rapid social transformation, modernization, cultural change, and ‘westernization’. Yet it was he who also fiercely defended Malay society and culture against the prejudices of “colonial perception and view of the lazy native”.

Prof Syed Hussein Alatas was born on 17 September 1928 in Bogor, Indonesia. He passed away at his home in Damansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur, on the evening of 23 January 2007, after suffering a heart attack. He began his academic career in 1958 as the head of the research department of the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in Kuala Lumpur. Between 1963 to 1967 he taught at the University of Malaya (UM) and from 1967 to 1978 he served as the Head of the Malay Studies Department at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Between the late 1960s to the 1970s, he played an active role in Malaysia’s political environment, helping to form the multi-racial Gerakan Party in 1968. In 1972 he helped to form the Parti Keadilan Masyarakat Malaysia (Malaysian Social Justice Party, Pekemas). In 1988 he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malaya. From the mid-1990s he spent the last decade of his academic life at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology of the National University of Malaysia (UKM), before moving on to serve as Professor and Senior Fellow at the Institute for the Study of the Malay World and Civilisation (ATMA) at the same university.

Goodbye and thank you for all that you have taught us, Prof. We have been, and remain, your students.

Note: Dr Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and historian, currently based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin. Visit his website at www.othermalaysia.org.

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