Prof Syed Husin Ali – the original scholar-activist extraordinaire!

Social scientists, especially the younger ones, should emulate his example. This would be the greatest honour to his memory

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Owing… to my firm adherence to principles and policies that are considered progressive, I am often considered a socialist…. Many are of the view that I have not wavered from my political position and have never changed.… Actually I have changed a little owing to the changing situation and also because of my age and increasing experiences…. What is important is that I still hold fast to such ideas as social justice, concern for the poor and national unity, besides opposing unlimited concentration of wealth, corruption and bad governance….

If I am considered a socialist for holding such views, then I am a socialist.… [W]hatever I am accused of or branded as being, I still have great faith in the oneness of Allah besides being convinced of the power of human efforts and the strength of the people.

In this connection I believe in the Sovereignty of the People (Ketuanan Rakyat) rather than Sovereignty of the Malays (Ketuanan Melayu), which I consider to have racist overtones. I am ready to accept Malay Sovereignty if it means defending the rights of the Malays in the lower strata of society while at the same time not ignoring the rights of others from the lower classes of other ethnic groups. In this case, it would not be contrary to the spirit of People’s Sovereignty.

Syed Husin Ali, Memoirs of a Political Struggle (2012), pp 259-60

Prof Syed Husin Ali, the scholar-activist extraordinaire of Malaysia, died at 00:25 on Saturday, 29 June at the Selayang Hospital. He was 88.

As the citation above announces, he stood for an inclusive Malaysia, one that does not distinguish people based on their wealth and power – and certainly not one that distinguished the people based on their race and religion.

Syed Husin was a founding member of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and was serving as PKR’s advisory council deputy chairman when he died.

In 2003, Syed Husin had actually played an instrumental role in the formation of PKR. The party was established through a merger between the fledgling Parti Keadilan Negara, which emerged from the Reformasi movement, and the longstanding Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM), which he had led as president from 1990 to 2003.

Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail was elected president of the merged entity, PKR, and Syed Husin emerged as deputy president.

Earlier, as PRM president, Syed Husin had contested in three general elections: for the Batu parliamentary seat in 1990 and for the Petaling Jaya Selatan parliamentary seat in 1995 and 1999. But he failed to defeat candidates from the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

Ironically, when Syed Husin decided not to contest the general elections for a fourth time in 2008, PKR swept to victory in states like Penang, Selangor and Perak. So, he was not among those victorious. Instead, he had run the party’s electoral campaign and helped others to be elected to Parliament and to the state legislative assemblies.

He was later appointed as a senator of the upper house for two terms, from 2009 to 2015.

Many of us who are interested in progressive politics and the struggle to make Malaysia a better place had heard of Syed Husin Ali long before we ever met him face-to-face; his reputation preceded him.

Syed Husin was born in Batu Pahat, Johor, on 23 September 1936. His parents were of royal origin, descendants of the Siak Sultanate in Sumatera.

After his secondary school education, he enrolled at the University of Malaya in Singapore. He obtained a BA (Hons) degree in 1959 and an MA in 1962.

The following year, Syed Husin was appointed a lecturer and joined the Malay Studies Department of the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. In 1973, he earned his PhD in social anthropology from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

As a university student in Singapore, Syed Husin was active in student activities. As a lecturer back in Kuala Lumpur, he was adviser to the students, particularly those in the Socialist Club and the University of Malaya Students Union (UMSU).

In November 1974, farmers in Baling protested over low rubber prices and the high cost of living. As the numbers swelled in subsequent protests, they were teargassed.

This sparked student protests in several universities in early December – at the University of Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Mara Institute in Kuala Lumpur, and at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang.

READ MORE:  Dr Syed Husin Ali - renowned social scientist and resolute people's champion

Syed Husin was among a handful of lecturers and several students – about two dozen in all – detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in late December 1974.

Those were heady days. Students in Malaysia, like others in the region – perhaps because of US imperialism and its wars in Indochina – were struggling for a better tomorrow.

Following the protests, the government amended the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) and fenced up and tightened security on campuses. It also disallowed student unions and imposed tight controls on student activities and finances.

Syed Husin was detained for six long years for his alleged involvement in the farmers’ uprising in Baling and in the student protests in Kuala Lumpur. One of his many books, Two Faces (Detention without Trial) (1996), recounts his experience in police detention and later at the Kamunting Detention Centre. The book tells a harrowing story of psychological torture and strict rules for the detainees’ daily activities. But it also describes the camaraderie that emerged among fellow detainees.

Among those detained in late 1974 for allegedly instigating the farmers to protest was a certain Anwar Ibrahim, then an Islamic youth movement student leader and Syed Husin’s former student.

Upon hearing of Syed Husin’s passing, Anwar, now Prime Minister, expressed gratitude to his “former teacher, mentor and friend” in a Facebook post. He praised the scholar-activist for “putting his life into fighting for the poor, the destitute and the oppressed including the landless farmers like Hamid Tuah in Selangor”.

Anwar also commended his mentor for his support for the farmers in Kedah and the urban pioneers (or squatters) and students in Kuala Lumpur in the early 1970s.

Importantly, the PM remarked that Syed Husin was also an author and thinker who has left behind a “trove of extensive knowledge” about the conditions and plight of the downtrodden.

This is a point that Abdul Rahman Embong, a former professor of sociology in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and former president of the Malaysian Social Science Association (PSSM), has emphasised.

Rahman wrote: “A prolific bilingual writer who pursued his passion in writing until his final days, Syed Husin left a rich legacy for posterity. He wrote and edited about 20 books, prepared over 100 papers for journals and wrote many articles for the local media.”

I wish to elaborate on this trove of knowledge that Syed Husin has left us. For me, this is perhaps his major legacy. He was both a doer and thinker. He was Malaysia’s original ‘scholar-activist’.

He was one of the first Malaysian scholars to earn a PhD degree in social anthropology from LSE. His PhD was subsequently published as Malay Peasant Society and Leadership (1976).

In it, Syed Husin argues that Malay backwardness was not because of peasant cultural institutions and values, like so many other researchers – mainly foreign -were then claiming. Rather, it was based on class relations in rural Malay communities.

Using his fieldwork, he maintained that understanding class relations involves considering kinship, party affiliation, religion and social status. These relations must be investigated.

Syed Husin’s study received rave reviews and impressed many university students looking into the plight of the Malay peasantry. He drew many undergraduates like the young Anwar to his classes. He also attracted a stream of graduate students who wrote their PhD theses under his supervision.

His students had a high regard for this humble and patient scholar-activist. Not only that, he was widely seen as a champion of the downtrodden and the oppressed.

Upon his release from the Kamunting Detention Centre, Syed Husin was appointed to a full professorship. In 1990, his peers elected him as the second president of PSSM – a post he held for the next 10 years. His reputation as a scholar was also related to his leadership of this association.

The social sciences began to be taught in Malaysian universities from the 1970s. So, the PSSM’s efforts to promote the development and study of the social sciences cannot be overemphasised. The group’s leadership resolved to organise regular talks and seminars on current affairs at the various campuses.

Two biennial conferences – one at the international level and the other at the national level – would also be held on alternate years. These conferences would provide a platform for the exchange of ideas and insights, and draw young Malaysians to pursue the study of the social sciences.

READ MORE:  Remembering the late Syed Husin Ali

I had the good fortune of participating in the first international conference with the theme “Modernisation and national-cultural identity”. Held on 10-12 January 1983 at the University of Malaya in Petaling Jaya, it was the first major conference I attended in Malaysia.

Equally important, I met Prof Syed Husin Ali for the first time at this conference. I was surprised that he was small in physique, soft-spoken and dressed simply. His warm demeanour, sense of humour and infectious smile put those around him at ease. He seemed so ordinary, like one’s own colleague. He had warm words of encouragement for this newly minted PhD, which I deeply appreciated. He also expressed keen interest in reading my study of the “new villages” once it was published.

This was the most exciting conference I had attended to date! Speakers and participants engaged in much-informed exchanges. Although at times some might have considered the issues involved to be ethnically ‘sensitive’, these views did not cause conflict and tension. Rather, I felt a sense of camaraderie and an opportunity to debate the issues constructively.

The papers presented were later revised and published in an attractive volume, Ethnicity, Class and Development Malaysia (1984), edited by Syed Husin Ali (Kuala Lumpur: Persatuan Sains Sosial Malaysia). This collection contained 19 essays, all written by local scholars.

The lead article was by Syed Husin himself. Taken as a whole, the essays explored the study of development in Malaysia from both ethnic and class perspectives. It was neither one nor the other, but both. The excitement was in figuring out how ethnic and class factors intersected.

The new social sciences investigations being conducted and then written and disseminated in this volume and during the next two decades – the 1980s and 1990s – differed in orientation from the earlier set of scholarship in two striking ways.

First, whereas foreign social scientists had largely conducted the earlier set of studies, local and younger social scientists were driving the second set.

Second, Malaysia was no longer automatically framed as a plural or communal society, in the Furnivall-ian sense. Framed in this communal manner, the first set of political scientists like Milne, Ratnam, Means and Vasil were attracted to consociationalism as the means and mechanism to reduce or overcome communalism in the political process. In contrast, some of the second set of political scientists questioned why communalism and not, say, class, should frame the political process. They interrogated the very assumptions used by the first set of investigators.

Much as Syed Husin might be regarded as Malaysia’s foremost scholar-activist of his generation, he was also instrumental in rallying around him a small group of younger like-minded individuals mostly based in the Klang Valley.

Among them were the late Ishak Shari and the late Rustam Sani, KS Jomo and Rahman Embong. All of them are well-known scholar-activists. They were attached to public universities and were close to one another. As individuals, they have published widely – both scholarly works and more popular writings. And like Syed Husin, they have also dabbled in civil society activism.

Thanks to the PSSM conferences, publications and regular meetings that were more inclusive (in the scope of topics covered) and the multi-ethnic support that it draws, social science discourse emerged under its auspices, at least until the turn of the century.

This prevented the discourse on Malaysian affairs from becoming more exclusivist. The exclusivist approach had been propagated by Muslim intellectuals associated with the Islamic resurgence. Some Malay intellectuals who believe in “ketuanan Melayu” (Malay sovereignty) had also promoted this exclusive mindset, associated with the old Umno-led ruling regime for six decades.

Instead, a discourse about ushering in freedom, justice and solidarity in multi-ethnic, multi-religious Malaysia was also put on the discursive agenda.

It was most appropriate that a festschrift was presented in Prof Syed Husin Ali’s honour shortly after he stepped down from the University of Malaya in 1990 and from the position of PSSM president. The book, Malaysia, Critical Perspectives: Essays in Honour of Syed Husin Ali – edited by Ikmal Said and Zahid Emby, Persatuan Sains Sosial Malaysia, (1996) – contains 10 essays including several by Aliran friends.

Unfortunately, Syed Husin’s withdrawal from the helm, coupled with the expansion and corporatisation of the university system since the late 1990s, had negative consequences for the workings of the university. It also stymied the emergence of new scholar-activists.

READ MORE:  Syed Husin Ali - satu penghormatan kepada rakan seperjuangan Malaysia yang hebat (Malay/English)

In one of his last addresses to PSSM, Syed Husin expressed his disappointment:

…that the numbers of students and even the staff with inquiring and perceptive minds, was slowly shrinking. More and more they were influenced not only by the culture of fear of the authorities, but also by materialistic values which ha[d] penetrated deep into all levels of society, including the university. This has driven many an academic staff member into being obsessed with playing safe and manoeuvring for personal success, without displaying much of a conscience or social responsibility. I saw university autonomy being slowly eroded and academic freedom steadily undermined. To me, the university atmosphere was getting more oppressive and stultifying. It was becoming more like a government department.

…’We do not seem to have succeeded in contributing new ideas and providing intellectual leadership even in our own specialized fields. The country’s political leaders are often faster in identifying social issues that should have been first diagnosed by social scientists …Not many social scientists dare to carry out independent studies or present critical ideas. Perhaps this is one reason why we are not recognized by society at large and not taken seriously by government leaders’.

Syed Husin Ali, “The Role of the Malaysian Social Scientists in a Fast-Changing Society” (2001)

In a matter of a two or three decades, the excitement of conducting an inclusive and pro-justice, freedom and solidarity social science seems to have given way to a reversal of that initiative.

What we hear now are laments about academic freedom being undermined, universities losing their autonomy, and critical issues not being seriously investigated. The lack of critical ideas is worrying. Social scientists are in danger of not being taken seriously anymore.

Rahman Embong has suggested that “Prof Syed Husin Ali’s passing brings to a close a historic post-independence era that produced many outstanding scholars, intellectuals, leaders and thinkers who shaped the course of the nation’s history. It is a sad day for Malaysia.” Is this observation correct?

On the occasion of Syed Husin’s passing and in honour of his lifelong efforts in the cause of “Ketuanan Rakyat” (the People’s Sovereignty) and a more inclusive Malaysia, social scientists, especially the younger ones, should emulate Syed Husin Ali’s example. This would be the greatest honour to the memory of our scholar-activist extraordinaire.

Prof Syed Husin Ali leaves behind three children – Ali, Alia and Aini. His wife Sabariah Abdullah from Kelantan passed away in 2013, as had his bosom friends like Usman Awang, Said Zahari and Dr MK Rajakumar. Of course, he also left behind many former students, friends and comrades from all ethnic and religious backgrounds and from all walks of life.

Let us make his spirit of sociological enquiry, of support for social justice and multi-ethnic cooperation live on.

Rest in peace, dear professor. Alfatihah!

Francis Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
2 July 2024

List of Books by Prof Syed Husin Ali (incomplete)

(1964) Social Stratification in Kampung Bagan, Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Association, Monograph No.

(1975) Malay Peasant Society and Leadership, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

(1978) Kemiskinan dan Kelaparan Tanah di Kelantan, Petaling Jaya: Karangkraf Sdn Bhd

(1981) Malays: Their Problems and their Future, Kuala Lumpur: Heinemann

(ed) (1984) Ethnicity, Class and Development Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur: Persatuan Sains Sosial Malaysia

(1996) Two Faces: Detention without Trial, Petaling Jaya: Insan also published as: Dua Wajah: Tahanan tanpa Bicara, Petaling Jaya: Insan

(2001) ‘The Role of the Malaysian Social Scientists in a Fast-Changing Society’ In KS Jomo (ed) Re-inventing Malaysia: Reflections on its Past and Future, Bangi: Penerbit UKM, pp 108-113

(2004) Merdeka Rakyat dan Keadilan: Kumpulan Artikel mengkritik dasar-dasar UMNO-BN dan Mengemukakan Asas-asas Politik Menuju Malaysia Baru, Petaling Jaya: SIRD

(2012) Memoirs of a Political Struggle (Petaling Jaya: SIRD) also published as Memoir Perjuangan Politik Syed Husin Ali, Petaling Jaya: SIRD

(2015) Ethnic Relations in Malaysia: Conflict and Harmony, Petaling Jaya: SIRD

(2020) A People’s History of Malaysia also published as Sejarah Malaysia Rakyat

Muhammad Ikmal Said and Zahid Emby (eds) (1996) Malaysia Pandangan Kritis Esei Penghargaan untuk Syed Husin Ali, Petaling Jaya: Persatuan Sains Sosial Malaysia

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lim mah hui
lim mah hui
4 Jul 2024 1.38pm

He was an authority on the subject of Malay peasantry, having written a thesis on it. But his engagement was not just academic but one of praxis (putting his theory into practice). Hailing from royal origins, and highly educated he could have joined the elites and reached the pinnacle in society. Instead he dedicated his life to working with the poor, exploited and marginalised irrespective of race to build a more just society. He has lived a full life and fought a good fight. He remains an inspiration for us to carry on his torch. May he rest in peace.

lim mah hui
lim mah hui
4 Jul 2024 1.29pm

Syed Husin Ali is a man for all seasons -a scholar, public intellectual, social-political activist, humanist, a man of integrity (a rarity in political life), and a genuine friend. It is little wonder, he is eulogised by friends and foes, prime ministers and peasants. I had the honour and privilege to be his colleague and fellow traveller in politics since 1973 (including a short stint in political detention in 1974). As head of the Department of Sociology at UM, he inspired staff and students. As Secretary General of the PSRM (Partai Sosialis Rakyat Malaya) where I was a member, he provided steadfast leadership to the party through tumultous time. I remember accompanying him on trips to organise peasants on the ground. (Continue)

Hara Fujio
Hara Fujio
4 Jul 2024 4.50am

Dear Francis sensei

It is sad to receive news that renowned Prof. Syed Husin Ali had passed away and, at the same time, thank you for your heartfelt condolatory article tributed to him.

I had highly respected him ever since 1969 when I met him for the first time. I do not know, however, how and to whom I can send my condolence.

Therefore, I wish to send my sincere condolence to you, and through you, the Aliran, the PSSM and, if possible, his bereaved family.

Could you kindly inform them that I, an old worthless Japanese historian, am also passing into the other world soon. There I wish to learn from him much more deliberately than in this world?

Alberto Gomes
Alberto Gomes
3 Jul 2024 4.53pm

Thank you Dr Francis Loh for this wonderful tribute to Arwah Syed Husin Ali, a truly inspirational organic intellectual. I have had the honour and privilege of being his colleague at UM in the 1980s. He inspired my socialist politics from the time I heard him speak at the 1974 student demonstration in my first year at UM and after his release from detention, through our numerous conversations over teh tarik. I am glad that during one of my recent visits I had the opportunity to express my gratitude to him for playing a significant part in shaping my scholar-activism. In honour of him, I will dedicate my talk on the colonial virus to be held in PJ on the 27th July. Rest in Peace Arwah Syed Husin Ali.