Lessons from Syed Hussein Alatas

Prof Koh highlighted four facets of the late Prof Alatas’ legacy

The late Professor Syed Hussein Alatas, internationally renowned Malaysian social scientist and public intellectual, was honoured on 17 September at the Second Syed Hussein Alatas Memorial Lecture. His legacy lives on through this annual series organised by NUS Malay Studies where eminent scholars and thought leaders are invited to discuss issues contributing to the deepening of awareness of the challenges of globalisation, change and social reconstruction.

The series aims to continue the vibrant discourse and vigorous scholarship on society and systems grounded by Prof Alatas. “Prof Alatas’ personality, his speech and his writings continue, in the present tense, to set the tone for the study of the Malay world, its people and its interconnections with the Global,” said Associate Professor Maznah Mohamad, Head of Department of NUS Malay Studies, in her opening remarks. Prof Alatas was appointed to the Foundation Chair of Malay Studies at the then University of Singapore in 1967 and served as Head of the Department until 1987.

Aptly held on what would have been Prof Alatas’ 91st birthday, the lecture featured Professor Tommy Koh, Professor of Law at NUS and Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He highlighted four specific facets of Prof Alatas’ legacy — his thoughts on Sir Stamford Raffles, the Western stereotypes surrounding Southeast Asians, his belief in multiculturalism, and his lifelong campaign against corruption.

Syed Hussein passed away on the 23rd of January 2007. Although 12 years have passed, his intellectual legacy will never be forgotten. Post-colonial study, multiculturalism and anti-corruption were the three causes closest to his heart. They remain relevant as they were during his lifetime.

Prof Alatas was against the “canonisation of Raffles” and in 1971 published a book, which made the argument that Raffles was not a humanitarian reformer but a schemer. “A discussion of Raffles this year is particularly relevant, because we are commemorating the 200th anniversary of the founding of Singapore by Raffles and Farquhar,” explained Prof Koh.Prof Koh himself holds a more balanced opinion on Raffles. While he acknowledges Raffles’ contributions in the establishment of Singapore as a trading post and a free port, he also recognises the other side, which included claiming credit for the good work of Farquhar and humiliation of the Sultan of Yogyakarta. Thus, Prof Koh expressed his happiness that over the years Singapore has rediscovered its precolonial history, identified Singaporeans of varying races who were pivotal in the nation’s early years— and at long last, acknowledged Farquhar’s contributions.

Prof Alatas was also the author of a “path-breaking” book titled The Myth of the Lazy Native, which focused on the stereotyped portrayal of Southeast Asians as lazy in Western literature, said Prof Koh. “Syed Hussein was correct when he pointed out that the West had invented the stereotype to justify the colonisation of our region,” he added.

Another myth touched on was the idea that Southeast Asians were uncivilised and needed the civilisation of the Western European powers. “Syed Hussein’s 1977 book had a profound impact on many scholars around the world,” Prof Koh explained. This would include Professor Edward Said from New York’s Columbia University, who went on to publish the book Orientalism — a critique of the cultural representations of Southeast Asians in Western literature. “It would not be wrong for me to say that Syed Hussein and Edward Said are the two founding fathers of post-colonial studies,” declared Prof Koh.

A strong believer in multiculturalism, Prof Alatas put this belief into practice when he rejected the race-based politics rampant in Malaysia and formed his own party. Through a series of unfortunate events however, the party later ended up joining an UMNO-led coalition, which resulted in Prof Alatas leaving the party and forming another party which eventually dissolved.

Musing on this, Prof Koh said, “When you look at this episode, one has to conclude that Syed Hussein’s attempt to move Malaysia away from race-based politics did not succeed. However, he never stopped believing in the superiority of multiculturalism and I want to think that history will vindicate him.”

Prof Alatas was most devoted to the cause of campaigning against corruption, said Prof Koh. In his lifetime, he had published four books on corruption. Using four quotes taken from these books, Prof Koh talked about Prof Alatas’ belief in the importance of clean political leaders, of the leaders having incorrupt supporters, and that corruption exists in all kinds of political systems and in different economic conditions.


Prof Alatas’ son, NUS Sociology Professor Syed Farid Alatas (far right), also took the opportunity to share some of his thoughts

“Syed Hussein passed away on the 23rd of January 2007. Although 12 years have passed, his intellectual legacy will never be forgotten. Post-colonial study, multiculturalism and anti-corruption were the three causes closest to his heart. They remain relevant as they were during his lifetime,” declared Prof Koh. He urged the audience to continue to share Prof Alatas’ work and ideas.

A total of 115 guests attended the lecture, including Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Member of Parliament for Jalan Besar; Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed, Ambassador (non-resident) for Kuwait; Mr Yatiman Yusof, High Commissioner (Non-resident) for Kenya and the family of the late Prof Alatas.