An intellectual who recognised political fools

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Prof Alatas’ words of wisdom were ignored because they were the right words coming from the wrong mouth, observes P Ramakrishnan.

Ours is a nation that pays glowing tribute sometimes to certain deserving cases when they die but hardly acknowledges their worth when they are alive. This is very true in the case of Prof Syed Hussein Alatas.

Reading the accolades showered upon Prof Alatas reminded me of another occasion almost 12 years ago when P Patto passed away suddenly at a relatively young age.

Too little, too late

All that was said about Patto was well deserved but it came too late. This was the same feeling I got on reading so many tributes about Prof Alatas. It came too late.

In reflecting on Patto’s death, I then wrote:

“P Patto is dead. Malaysians got to know more of the man after he had died rather than when he was alive.

“What was written and said about him on his death was more than what Malaysians have read about him in our press in the last 23 years that he was in active politics.

“Death revealed the man – only then Malaysians came to know Patto as a person, without distortion, as he was.

“Death  does not confer any privileges for the dead neither does it make any concession on account of death.

“The worth of a person is truly known, it is said, when he or she dies. It is only then one can afford to be truthful by dispensing with false flattery. There is no need to flatter the dead because they are in no position to reward you. And there is no fear of retribution if you don’t flatter them.” (‘Good Only When Dead?’ Aliran Monthly:Vol 15 No 6)

Sadly, this could also be applicable to Prof Syed Alatas. His death revealed how little we knew of him. He was scarcely revered while alive either by the press or the politicians as an intellectual giant nor described as a towering Malaysian. Even when the Prime Minister was urging Malaysians to become towering Malaysians, Prof Alatas was not held out as an outstanding example of a towering Malaysian.   

In the last decade, for instance, how much was written about the man or his work? Was any reference made to his books that are today termed as classics? How many times was he invited to speak so that we could have benefited from this man who is described in death as a great intellectual?

Gathering dust in the closet

Prof Alatas undertook a very comprehensive study on the sociology of corruption and his book was hailed as a great academic achievement at that time. But was his book ever listed as compulsory recommended reading at any level of academic pursuit?

Our Prime Minister has declared war on corruption. But was there any mention of this book? Did anyone ever wonder whether this book could have shed some light on corruption itself and perhaps even provoked some thought as to how to combat it? This would have been  the appropriate time for this book to be brought out of the closet for closer scrutiny.

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The NST of 4 February 2007 played it up as a new revelation when Second Finance Minister Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop and Deputy Auditor-General Anwar Suri narrated and highlighted some of the unbelievable factors that contributed to failed projects: wastage, unethical practices in the building industry, shoddy workmanship, inferior materials, corrupt consultants, incompetent contractors being awarded projects, substandard plans and untrained workers without skills.

The next day, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Mohd Effendi Norwawi assured the people, “We have put in place new initiatives to ensure these things don’t happen again. This will mean significant improvements in the execution of projects.”

Haven’t we heard this crap before?! It is always “Never again!”

But these atrocious shortcomings were highlighted by Prof Alatas more than 30 years ago in his highly acclaimed  book,  Intellectuals in Developing Societies. In this book, Pro Alatas had very dramatically revealed why projects fail, how incompetent officials squander away our wealth, the various shortcomings in the planning and thoughtless implementation resulting in wastage and frustration. But nobody seems to have bothered about this book or what was highlighted in it, simply because  such observations did not come from a minister or someone of authority within government circles.

It is this prevailing apathy, incompetence and corruption that cultivated and perpetuated this terrible culture of  idiosyncrasy resulting in the wastage of public funds.

Bringing teachers together

Interestingly, in all the obituaries what was not  highlighted is the fact that Dr Alatas, as he was known then, together with other concerned prominent educators, played a vital role in bringing together teachers and educators from the university, colleges, primary and secondary schools  to address  common problems, instil professional integrity and dedication to their vocation, and set the direction for a wholesome education.

The First All-Malaysian Congress of The Teaching Profession, with 400 educators participating, met on 28-29 December 1966 at the Technical College, Gurney Road, Kuala Lumpur.

In his opening address, Dr Alatas set the tone and mood and clarified the  objectives of the Congress.

“This congress is indeed a historic one. For the first time in the history of the teaching profession in our country, members of the profession from the university, the secondary and primary schools, of all ages, sex, religions and communities have come from all over the country in response to the call, to create a sense of solidarity in the teaching profession, to discuss the problems facing them in a constructive manner, to defend the dignity of their profession against ill-informed and mischievous attacks, to discuss the role in nation building, to strive for social justice for the profession and to propose a single, united, non-union and non-sectional association embracing the teaching profession as a whole. We are here not to represent anyone but ourselves as individual members of the profession, concerned with what was going on around us, with the education of our citizens and with the task and meaning of our profession in the society we live in…” (The Educator, February 1967).

A new association is born

Dr Alatas added, “ As you would have noticed from our programme, we shall discuss today the proposal to establish a new association for the teaching profession as a whole. We do not have  yet such an association. The creation of such an association would enrich our professional life. It will not duplicate the existing trade unions or specialised professional association. It will cut across existing boundaries. It will act like a church, a temple or a mosque where people from different classes, political parties, or status groups can come together in a fellowship based on the ultimate spiritual foundation…”

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Four papers (listed below) were presented and after each presentation there was a panel discussion:
•    ‘The Teaching Profession and Politics’;
•    ‘The Teaching Profession and Nation Building’ by Dr Lim Chong Yah;
•    ‘The Teaching Profession and The Intellectual Revolution’ by Dr Syed Hussein Alatas;
•    ‘The Teaching Profession and Its Problems’ by Mr S. M. Ponniah

The inspiring thing about this Congress was that a very serious approach was attempted to empower education to serve society as it should in an enlightened and meaningful way. The following objectives, which were spelled out in clear terms, were adopted:

•    To unite the teachers at all levels and indirectly to prepare the nucleus of a common Malaysian consciousness without being confronted with disagreement or union policies which may in their specific contexts be legitimate;
•    To focus attention on the problems of  education with the view of making the results useful either to the government, the public or the profession;
•    To inspire the spirit and pride of the teaching profession as a bearer of social idealism and the advancement of learning;
•    To inspire the pupils and students with the spirit of social idealism, one which is in harmony with and which gives content to our Malaysian democracy;
•    To broaden the outlook of the teaching profession, nationally as well as internationally;
•    To encourage the striving for social justice in general and the teaching profession in particular.

Finally, the idea of forming a new association for the teaching profession bore fruit in 1968. On the second day of the Second All-Malaysian Congress of the Teaching Profession held on 4-5 January 1968 at the University of Malaya, the Malaysian Association of Education (MAE) was born.

The MAE (Persatuan Pelajaran Malaysia), a non-sectarian and non-trade union body, has the following objectives:

•    To create a sense of solidarity and fraternity amongst the members of the teaching profession at all levels – primary, secondary, college and university;
•    To discuss the role of the teaching profession;
•    To strive for social justice for and in the teaching profession;
•    To review the present education system and to suggest changes in accordance with modern trends to suit the national needs;
•    To provide a forum for teachers to discuss their mutual professional problems and to suggest solutions;
•    To evaluate the existing curricular as well as extra-curricular studies and to suggest useful changes in line with the development of the country; To explore ways and means and to suggest production of new teaching materials as a basis for improving the effectiveness of imparting education in accordance with local needs and the social conditions of our pupils both of rural and urban backgrounds;
•    To collect and improve course materials for class use.

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Dr Alatas was elected as the first President of the Malaysian Association of Education.

Right words, wrong mouth


It was after this formation of the MAE  that Prof Alatas was invited  by the National Union of Teachers (NUT), Penang Branch, on two occasions. On the first occasion he spoke on national unity and debunked the theories of those who insisted on one language, one religion and one  culture as a basis for unity. He pointed out it wasn’t true that one language could promote unity and pointed to Vietnam and Korea each of which then existed as two countries in spite of a common language. He pointed to the lack of unity in Pakistan in spite of a common religion. And he referred to Europe, where in spite of a common culture, unity was not evident.

On the second occasion, he was invited to speak on higher education in Malaysia. He came with a stack of newspaper cuttings and quoted Tun Hussein Onn, who was then the Education Minister. And what he quoted seemed to make sense. Prof Alatas then revealed that he (Alatas) had said the same thing a few years ago but it did not make an impact. He was not quoted or reported. And he asked why that was so. And his reply to his own question was startling: “Because it was the wrong mouth saying the right thing! Sometimes the right mouth must say the right thing!!”

It is this absurd and foolish attitude that has killed or delayed other ideas and suggestions because they came from outside the official circle. Asinine politicians are totally incapable of appreciating anything that is worthwhile and in the interest of the nation because it comes from dissenting groups. They are not honest enough to recognise that we are all Malaysians and we can together contribute to the welfare of the people. There is this ridiculous thinking that the credit for ideas and suggestions by others,  if adopted, would go to those outside the circle of power. This is something these politicians cannot tolerate.  Shallow-minded politicians retard the growth of our country because they are narrow-minded.

These observations are lucidly noted by Prof Syed Alatas. His chapter on The Fools in Developing Societies found in his book  Intellectuals in Developing Societies makes for fascinating reading – but it can also be  embarrassing for some in government!

May his soul rest in peace.

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