Recognising the life work of Syed Hussein Alatas

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By Edmund Terence Gomez

Masturah Alatas. 2024. The Life in the Writing: Syed Hussein Alatas. Petaling Jaya: Gerakbudaya.

This book, a tribute to Prof Syed Hussein Alatas, is a telling tale of under-appreciated scholarship.

In this updated edition of a book first published in 2010, author Masturah Alatas makes a compelling call for recognition of her father’s scholarship.

In this edition, with 15 new chapters, Masturah’s “biography and memoir” methodically captures Alatas’ central ideas. She revisits his life through his key writings, beginning with his first major book, Intellectuals in Developing Society. In this study, issued in 1977 by the British publishing house Frank Cass, Alatas introduced the term “bebal” which he saw as a “particular type of stupidity that often believes itself to be rational”.

The long process of getting this manuscript published – even finding a reputable international publisher – a problem faced by many academics, is dwelled on at some length by Masturah. So arduous was the process to get this study published that Alatas also managed to complete writing what was to become a classic critique of colonial discourse, The Myth of the Lazy Native, also published by Frank Cass.

Masturah notes how her father wanted this book “to make a significant contribution to Malaysian historiography and post-colonial studies”, which, she correctly concludes, “he did”.

A central aspect of The Myth of the Lazy Native was Alatas’ critique of Revolusi Mental, a book project led by Umno leaders after the 1969 riots, which he saw as “a Malay ruling party sharing a false consciousness of colonial capitalism” and a “desire to avoid the responsibility for the government failure to uplift the Malay community”.

What followed from here was Alatas’ return to his focus on corruption. As Masturah notes, Alatas “spent his whole life writing about corrupt and servile times”. His major publications on this subject were The Sociology of Corruption (1968), the first book on this topic by an academic in Malaysia, and Corruption and the Destiny of Asia (1999).

However, Alatas’ persistent warnings about corruption were ignored. Today, by the government’s own admission, Malaysia is weighed down with systemic corruption.

An interesting question arises when reading Masturah’s account of Alatas’ intellectual life. Why was he preoccupied with seemingly diverse subjects such as forms of corruption, the role of intellectuals in emerging – usually authoritarian – countries, and the ludicrous but widely accepted, myth about “lazy natives”?

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What is also intriguing is Masturah’s disclosure that in the latter part of his life, Alatas was grappling with the concept of “evil”. In fact, in his Corruption and the Destiny of Asia, Alatas voiced his distress at the “evil motive to exploit the unfortunate in the most defenceless and vulnerable position”.

Alatas’ fundamental concern was his intent, through his scholarship, to “free the captive mind”, a theme that runs through his books. A captive mind, as Alatas saw it, is one that cannot think creatively and originally, as it is constrained and limited by colonial or Western paradigms of thinking.

Alatas’ view of a mind that cannot think originally merits thought, as the term “captive mind” can be applied more generally to the masses. A major concern today is how people have uncritically bought into the extremely divisive political discourses on race and religion, a topic that had deeply troubled him.

With the minds of people held captive by such discourses, politicians are capturing control of federal and state governments, consolidating their position and abusing it to accumulate wealth.

For Alatas, by freeing their minds, people would be able to think independently and critically, realising that the role they need to play in society is to give voice to injustices, the vilest of which is unquestionably the “evil” done by governing elites against the poorest in society.

Masturah raises a riveting detail about Alatas, the activist scholar, who was deeply engaged with current events. She reflects – albeit too briefly – on Alatas’ entry into politics through the then newly formed Gerakan to address the social inequities he had researched.

Alatas, as Gerakan’s co-chairman, had led the party in a remarkable battle in the 1969 general election, winning control of the Penang state government. Despite this stupendous electoral victory, Alatas soon left Gerakan and returned to academia.

What could have been delved into more was why Alatas left Gerakan after this epochal election when Umno was taught a vital lesson about accountable rule. Although one of the new chapters discusses at length the socioeconomic debates after the 1969 riots, the reasons for Alatas’ short stint as a politician are not disclosed.

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What is clear is that some members and, subsequently, Gerakan itself joined the ruling coalition, an act Alatas would have seen as a betrayal of the trust of the electorate.

At the heart of these crossovers was a struggle for power, with those elected by the people pandering to political elites who had nearly been ousted from government.

Despite his disappointment with how things turned out in Gerakan, Alatas went on to play an advisory role in government to help forge policies to unify a nation torn asunder by the post-election riots.

The core reform debates centred on the wealth of the nation and how it was to be distributed. From these debates emerged the Rukun Negara and the New Economic Policy (NEP), a national transformation plan which aimed to eradicate poverty and restructure society.

It was, however, the NEP’s focus on creating privately owned Malay businesses that drew Alatas’ ire. In 1972, Alatas published Modernization and Social Change: Studies in Modernization, Religion, Social Change and Development in South-East Asia in which he lamented: “It is the first time in the history of the world that a capitalist government officially plans to create capitalists. The Plan intends to incubate entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs in the history of capitalism, both ancient and modern, have never been the product of official incubation.” 

Alatas was well aware that a government attempt to create Malay-owned enterprises could lead to corruption in the form of cronyism and bribery. After all, these issues had been raised in The Sociology of Corruption, published a year before the 1969 riots.

By not heeding Alatas’ concerns, Malaysia has now reached the point where long-running policies to create ethnic-based enterprises have contributed appreciably to corruption and unaccountable wealth accumulation by governing elites.

Masturah’s other crucial insight into Alatas’ life was his concern with the growing politicisation of the university, an attempt by politicians to “capture” the minds of university students and academics.

She raises the question of Alatas’ untimely termination as vice-chancellor of the University of Malaya, a post he held for only one three-year term. Although Masturah herself does not imply this, his resistance to political intrusion on campus was probably why Alatas’ contract at the university was not renewed.

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In his last address as vice-chancellor, while presiding over the university’s 1990 convocation ceremony, Alatas made a plea to “keep the politicians out”, lest the university be ruined. The repercussions of not heeding Alatas’ warning are, three decades later, patently blatant.

Alatas also spoke of the rise of the “kangkung professor” – yes, it was he who coined the term – a reference to “an academic who is promoted to the rank of professorship too easily and too quickly, without having publications of calibre”. The phenomenon of kangkung professors, a scourge now of the universities, is an outcome of the capture of these institutions by governing elites.

For Alatas, university capture by politicians had led to the notion of (self) “censorship”, a matter he was researching in retirement, and to the extreme subservience of academics to power elites.

When asked about this “culture of fear” being a barrier to intellectual work, Alatas’ response was telling: “It exists but who creates it? Is it your own self or really an outside force creating fear in you”.

As Masturah notes, for Alatas, writing was “an act of courage”. The price Alatas paid for his courage was that his scholarship was not recognised by the government, with only a few academics encouraging their students to read his publications.

University capture has silenced much of academia. Indeed, what Masturah implicitly points to is the demeaning of scholarship and academia by political elites.

Masturah’s revealing portrait of a thoughtful academic provokes many questions. What were the forces that conspired to push both Alatas and his groundbreaking scholarship to the margins? Why was his voice ignored when he warned Malaysia of bebalism, corruption, political capture of the universities, and the growing problem of minds captive to divisive discourses of race and religion?

A long-standing hegemonic political system was a key contributing factor.

Major reforms are imperative. With Malaysia’s social landscape besieged by unsound policies, conflict-ridden political narratives, and an education system that churns out imitative and uncritical minds, this book serves as a timely reminder that we would do well to stop ignoring Alatas’ legacy in our search for solutions.

Edmund Terence Gomez, an Aliran member, is a former professor of political economy at the University of Malaya.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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