Dr Syed Husin Ali – renowned social scientist and resolute people’s champion

His passing brings to a close a historic post-independence era that produced many outstanding scholars, intellectuals, leaders and thinkers who shaped the nation's history

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By Rahman Embong

It is with deep sorrow that we received the news of the passing of Dr Syed Husin Ali, renowned social scientist, public intellectual and people’s fighter.

He left an indelible legacy in academia, in progressive politics and in championing the cause of the people of all ethnic groups in the country.

A highly respected and upright scholar and public intellectual with impeccable integrity, humility and quiet defiant courage, he succumbed to cancer at 00:20 on 29 June at Selayang Hospital after battling the disease for several months. He was 87.

We would like to extend our deepest condolence and deep sense of bereavement to his children and close relatives. His passing is a great loss to his family, friends and his many former students, his comrades in arms with whom he had stood through thick and thin in championing the cause of the people, and the nation as a whole.

The nation mourns the passing of this great selfless patriot who devoted his entire life to the cause of a just, democratic, peaceful, united and progressive Malaysia!

Syed Husin (affectionately known as Pak Syed) was a professor in sociology at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Malaya. He retired in 1990 after 28 years of service at the university.

Born in Batu Pahat, Johor, on 23 September 1936, he had six siblings. His parents were of royal origin, descendants of the Siak Sultanate in Sumatera.

Syed Husin was married to Sabariah Abdullah from Kelantan and had three children. Sabariah passed away in 2013.

After his secondary education, he continued his studies at the University of Malaya in Singapore, obtaining a BA honours degree in 1959 and an MA in 1962.

In 1963, Syed Husin became a lecturer at the Malay Studies Department of the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.

READ MORE:  Syed Husin Ali: Living history

He subsequently earned his PhD in social anthropology from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) at the University of London in 1973.

Syed Husin was an eminent scholar with an illustrious academic career. As one of the pioneering sociologists in the country, he was associate professor and head of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology in 1971.

He became full professor in 1980 until his retirement, ten years later, after which he joined full-time politics.

Over the years, Syed Husin taught many students, a number of whom later became well known in various fields, including politics. The most notable among them was Anwar Ibrahim, the 10th prime minister of Malaysia.

Syed Husin was also one of the six founders of the National University of Malaysia (UKM), which was officially set up in May 1970.

Syed Husin had a deep concern for justice, in particular the plight of the poor and the downtrodden. He courageously championed their cause, an example being the struggle of Hamid Tuah and the landless peasants in Selangor in the 1960s.

He also firmly supported the struggle of the homeless urban squatters, the peasants in Baling, Kedah, and the students who rose up to champion the cause of the people. These struggles culminated in a series of huge demonstrations in late 1974 in Kuala Lumpur.

Following a massive crackdown by the government in December that year, leading to the arrest of many student leaders and intellectuals, Syed Husin was arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for six years until he was released in 1980.

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 local media.

READ MORE:  Prof Syed Husin Ali – sarjana-aktivis asli yang luar biasa!

Among his famous books are Social Stratification Kampung Bagan (1964); Malay Peasant Society and Leadership (1975); The Malays: Their Problems and Future (1981; written in prison); Ethnic Relations in Malaysia: Conflict and Harmony (2015); A People’s History of Malaysia (2018); and in 2023, an edited book with two others, Tokoh-tokoh Pejuang Rakyat.

He also published two memoirs: Dua Wajah (Two Faces) about his detention years, and Memoir Politik Syed Husin Ali (Political Memoir of Syed Husin Ali).

Syed Husin was also well known internationally. He was a researcher and consultant with the United Nations University (UNU) and Unesco and completed several evaluation reports on the workers’ and women’s movement for international bodies.

He was a British Academy visiting fellow at Cambridge University in 2005. He was a member of the international mission to investigate genocide in Bangkok. He served on the panel of judges for the People’s Tribunal on Industrial and Environmental Threats in Bhopal, India, and the International Inquiry into Displaced Persons in Sri Lanka.

Syed Husin was a well-known figure in national politics, especially after his university retirement. He was the former president of Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) (1990-2003) and later became one of the founders of Parti Keadilan Rakyat and its deputy president (when PRM merged with the then Parti Keadilan Nasional to become PKR).

He was also deputy chair of the PKR advisory council and member of the party’s political bureau.

He was appointed a senator of the Malaysian upper house between 2009 and 2015.

During his student days between 1956 and 1959, Syed Husin was very active as a student leader. He was secretary and later president of Persekutuan Bahasa Melayu Universiti Malaya (PBMUM) and general secretary and later deputy p-president of Gabungan Pelajar Melayu Semenanjung (GPMS).

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

He was also active in the literary field and became a founder of Persatuan Penulis Nasional or National Writers’ Association (Pena) and its secretary for five years.
In the last more than ten years of life, he was active in leading Pusat Sejarah Rakyat (Centre for People’s History) as chairman of its board of directors. (The centre’s mission is to re-examine history from the people’s perspective). This was when he produced his work, Sejarah Rakyat Malaysia (People’s History of Malaysia).

As a thinker and public intellectual and one of the pioneering scholars in Malaysian social science, Syed Husin had a long and lasting relationship with the Malaysian Social Science Association (PSSM). In fact, soon after his release in 1980, he was elected president of the association, which he led for 10 years until 1990.

A festschrift in his honour was published by PSSM in 1996 entitled Malaysia, Critical Perspectives: Essays in Honour of Syed Husin Ali edited by Ikmal Said and Zahid Emby.

At the 13th International Studies Conference (MSC13) in August 2023, PSSM honoured him with a special award “Mahaguru Ulung Perintis Sains Sosial Malaysia” (Eminent Malaysian Social Science Pioneer Laureate) for his outstanding contribution to social science and his commitment to social justice.

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.

May Allah bless his soul. Alfatihah!

Emeritus Professor Dato’ Dr Abdul Rahman Embong is special adviser and former president of the Malaysian Social Science Association.

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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Paul Lim
Paul Lim
3 Jul 2024 7.49pm

Rest in peace for a great and humble professor.

Benedict Lopez
29 Jun 2024 7.24pm

Rest in Peace Great Malaysian