Malaysia: An Intellectual Life


Deborah Johnson

On 23 January 2007, leading Malaysian intellectual Professor Syed Hussein Alatas (aged 78) passed away. Though his passing received comment in the local media, it did not receive quite the attention that, for example, was given to the passing of the wife of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi in October 2005, when the whole nation stopped and mourned.

What does the comparison indicate?

As a result of the media coverage she received in support of her husband's role as prime minister, Datin Paduka Seri Endon Mahmood became well known amongst the general populace. Ordinary people could empathise with their leader's personal loss and grief. By contrast, many people on the street today would know little of Syed Hussein. This is despite the acknowledgement given his work by local and international scholars.

The late Edward W Said, for example, whose book Orientalism recast post-colonial scholarship, acknowledged his debt to Syed Hussein whose critique of imperialism in his Myth of the Lazy Native (1977) and of colonial historiography in Thomas Stamford Raffles: Schemer or Reformer (1971) were pioneering efforts in Third-Worldist post-colonial responses to Western social sciences. He has been regarded as one of the founders of sociological investigation in Southeast Asia and as a mentor to many in the Malaysian Social Science and academic community, more generally. In the 1950s, he was already considering the significance of the contribution of Tunisian-born Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) to the philosophy of history and sociology. While undertaking postgraduate studies at the University of Amsterdam, Syed Hussein founded and edited the journal Progressive Islam (1954-55), fostering his links with intellectuals within the Muslim world, including Mohammad Natsir from Indonesia, Taha Husayn and Osman Amin, both from Egypt.

Few among younger Malaysians would know, for example, that he was one of those involved in the drafting of Malaysia's national ideology, the Rukunegara, which parallels Indonesia's Pancasila. Few would remember that he was among the group of intellectuals who founded the Gerakan party in 1968 and later Pekemas in 1972, with a vision to move Malaysian politics to a more non-communal basis. He served as a member of the National Consultative Council of Malaysia (1969-1971) in the aftermath of the 1969 racial riots, and briefly as a Senator in Malaysia's Upper House of parliament (in 1971).

Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir, however, would remember Syed Hussein's robust rebuttal of his controversial book, The Malay Dilemma (1970), rejecting its Social Darwinism as the basis for analysis of the Malay condition. (The Malay Dilemma was banned in Malaysia until after Dr Mahathir became prime minister in 1981.) Syed Hussein also took aim at the ruling party UMNO sponsored text, Revolusi Mental, urging Malays to change their way of thinking. Syed Hussein's text, Siapa yang Salah (1972), was never published in English translation and, thus, did not reach a wider readership.

Furthermore, as many in officialdom have lamented, Malaysians are generally not great readers and few would read more than the average of two books a year that surveys indicate characterises Malaysian readership behaviour - a statistic which has held despite a growing interest among young Malay women for what is known as 'chickerati' or 'chic lit'. In short, many Malaysians would not have read Syed Hussein's writings. Syed Farid Alatas, in reflection on his father's legacy, once commented that his books and articles are generally not on university reading lists.

For a substantial part of his career, he was located offshore in Singapore where he was appointed to the Foundation Chair of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore (1967-1988) - a distance providing some freedom to speak into the Malaysian situation, though also separating him in people's perceptions from its mainstream.

Yet much of what he stood for has ongoing relevance. Despite the pressures, he sought during his term as the University of Malaya's Vice Chancellor (1988-1991) to maintain for staff promotions the principle of meritocracy, irrespective of race. When the storm of controversy that erupted became a threat to the political position of then Education Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, he was forced to resign. The issue of meritocracy within academia and as a basis for selection for university entry continues as a controversial issue to the present. Other aspects of Syed Hussein's work include his critique of Third World 'intellectual captivity' and First World 'intellectual imperialism'; his highlighting of the need for endogenous intellectual creativity which did not exclude the incorporation of external ideas; his lament of the lack of a functioning group of public intellectuals in Malaysia; his unease concerning the project to 'Islamise knowledge'; his highlighting of the ongoing feudalism in Malay culture and politics, and of the ways in which Malays have reproduced in themselves the stereotypes derived from colonial ideas; his sociological analysis of the general phenomenon of corruption criticising its specific manifestation in the Malaysian context. His work challenged the conventional, entrenched and powerful.

As in his experience indicates, Malaysia's relationship with its leading intellectuals has been a rather uneasy one. Sometimes the prophet is not always welcomed or given support in his own country, as would testify people such as Professor Jomo K.S. and Dr Edmund Gomez who are both now serving abroad within the United Nations; Dr Lim Teck Ghee, Professor P. Ramasamy, Kassim Ahmad, Dr Chandra Muzaffar, Rustam A. Sani, among others, whose careers have at times taken some sudden turns.

WATCHPOINT: Perhaps posthumously and in the light of the distance that the passage of time brings, the work of an intellectual such as Syed Hussein Alatas may receive the balanced, critical attention that will affirm his contribution to his nation and scholarship more generally.


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