The Legacy Of Professor Syed Hussein Al-Atas

Towards a Decent Social Order for All Malaysians

Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh

Salam Sejahtera

Beta bersyukur ke hadrat ILAHI, kerana dengan izin dan rahmat dari Nya juga, Beta dan Raja Puan Besar dapat berangkat hadir ke majlis penyampaian ceramah untuk kenangan warisan Syed Hussein Alatas pada petang ini.

Before I begin, let us observe a moment of silence in memory of Allahyarham Professor Dato’ Dr Syed Hussein Alatas. I invite Muslims in the audience to offer the Al-Fatihah for his soul and the souls of all those who have passed on before us.

  1. I am delighted to be able to present this lecture on the legacy of Allahyarham Professor Dato’ Dr Syed Hussein Alatas. For more than five decades, Alatas was one of Malaysia’s leading intellectual lights. He was a role model and inspiration to many, and I include myself among them. He was more than a pioneering Southeast Asian social scientist. He was a public intellectual whose ideas and influence touched many fundamental aspects of Malaysian life. He wrote on subjects that resonate deeply within society. He was far from the “useless sociologist” that he claimed to be. In this matter, at least, he was completely wrong. The many glowing tributes that have been published since his departure, both within and outside the country, are clear evidence of this.
  2. The truth is that Syed Hussein Alatas made a great impact during his lifetime. He continues to do so today through his writings and through those whom he influenced. Alatas was not only a brilliant academic. He was also a public figure who believed deeply in this country and did what he thought was right even if it cost him dearly. He never hesitated from speaking the truth.
  3. Alatas’ work has substantial, indeed, profound, implications for a decent social order for all Malaysians. This lecture will focus on three themes that Alatas felt most compelled to write about, and which are as relevant today as they ever were.
    • The first was religion, especially Islam, and how it was a positive force in development.
    • The second was how Asians needed to be mentally liberated from colonial and western patterns of thinking. He was an ardent believer in Asians being able to think independently and creatively for themselves.
    • The third theme was creating the conditions for good governance, particularly the eradication of corruption. He regarded the scourge of corruption to be the most damaging in developing countries.
  4. Alatas wrote on other subjects as well, on history, on Malaysian politics and in his own field of sociology. The scope of his work was very wide and his output remarkable. He published more than 16 books and over 50 articles and papers during his lifetime.
  5. Schooled in the European tradition, Alatas was also equally familiar with the writings of Islamic scholars. This added a dimension to his analysis that was rarely available to most western social scientists. Whether conducting a penetrating analysis, constructing an intricate argument or deconstructing an erroneous one, Alatas was always logical and precise. He was a deft hand with the pen and his mastery of language meant that he was capable of conveying the most nuanced thoughts and arguments.
  6. As with all good scholars, he was fiercely independent of mind. He refused to be subservient to any foreign imposed epistemology or to neglect his intellectual roots. He could take on and take apart western scholars and eastern politicians alike with devastating critiques. At the same time, Alatas was fair-minded. He was not an ideologue. He thought about issues rationally. He was prepared to acknowledge the importance of the contributions of those he disagreed with, provided they had merit.
  7. He was proudly Malay, passionately Muslim and yet persistently multi-racialist. He believed in non-communal politics, an ideal he shared with his illustrious uncle, Dato’ Onn Jaafar. He knew how strong the retrogressive forces at work in society could be. He was a rare breed of man in his day and rarer still in this day and age. I will now turn from the man to the first of his great themes, namely, religion.

Religion, Islam and Development

  1. The worldview on Islam in the West has been tainted by past prejudices when little was known about it. Exacerbating the current situation are books on Islam written by non-Muslims. I am reminded of the comment by Schopenhauer, “What Peter says about Paul says more about Peter than it says about Paul”
  2. The tendency to give Islam fictitiously antagonistic and anti-modern qualities is unmerited and unwarranted. It would have been all too easy to become angry at the unfair allegations launched at the Muslim world and to repay hatred with hatred. While an emotional response of some kind could be understandable, it also runs the risk of being counterproductive. One hardly demonstrates the superior nature of one’s religion by taking actions that contradict them. This is something that the radicals of all religious stripes, and not only those who are Muslim, have failed and still fail dismally to comprehend.
  3. Alatas’ response to the unjust views about Islam was to be committed, alongside others in the Muslim world, to inter-civilisational dialogue. At the tender age of 26, he founded and edited a journal entitled ‘Progressive Islam’, which was dedicated to “the promotion of knowledge concerning Islam and Modern thought”. Two years later, in 1956, he published a small booklet entitled ‘The Democracy of Islam’[1]. He demonstrated to Muslims that they have nothing to fear, either doctrinally or intellectually, to anything that the West had to throw at them. They could be as knowledgeable and confident as any in the western world.
  4. His defence of Islam comprised not just in appealing to Quranic authority. He drew on Greek, Roman, liberal and even socialist thought. He was able to soundly cite little-known historical events and well-known historical authorities. And because he was familiar with the world’s major religions, he was able to rationally deconstruct the popular arguments against Islam to show the underlying myths and fallacies. Through dialogue, he was able to engage western intellectuals, inform them, make them reconsider their arguments, and eventually earn their respect.
  5. Today, there are those who think that the interest of the Islamic world is somehow advanced by being insulated and isolated from the west. They think that they can gain appreciation and admiration by mantra-like repetition of religious doctrines. And where Islamic civilisation in the past loved knowledge and produced great scientific and technological breakthroughs, the present appears to be marked by a sad lack of ability and an even sadder lack of interest.
  6. Many Muslims today consider themselves under siege to such an extent that their only option is to escape into “other-worldliness”. When they respond to provocations, it is to lash out with displays of heated emotion rather than cool reasoning minds. Little do they realise that the less rational the discourse and the more coercive the response, the greater is the extent to which Islam’s authority and power is undermined. If Islam has to be defended by force rather than reason, I would submit that there is something fundamentally wrong about our interpretation of it. Such responses are by those who lack the knowledge and self-assurance of Islam’s fine intellectual and discursive tradition.
  7. As a sociologist, Alatas showed that Islam is not opposed to progress but is inherently compatible with capitalism and modernisation. The qualities that were supposedly part of the capitalist spirit such as a strong work ethic, frugality, time management, rational thinking and, most importantly, the concept of a ‘calling’ by the Almighty were all “strongly pronounced in the Islamic ethic”. The application of scientific knowledge to all aspects of human life is also compatible with Islam. These include objectification of nature, rationality, empiricism, critical and inquiring thought, and emphasis on systems and procedures. If some Muslims do not demonstrate their economic proficiency, he argued, it was not due to Islam. Rather, non-religious factors were at work. If Islam were to blame, one would find Muslims everywhere devoid of economic success. This is clearly not the case.

Mental Liberation

  1. The second of Alatas’ themes is that of mental liberation. In his seminal work, ‘The Myth of the Lazy Native’[2], he analysed colonial capitalism and the way the natives of Malaya, the Philippines and Indonesia were portrayed. He then comprehensively deconstructed the accounts which stereotyped their poor racial qualities. He argued that it was the colonial system that produced the observed behaviour. The natives of these countries were no more nor less hard working than any if the surrounding political, economic and social environment were the same.
  2. The visible effects of colonialisation have been studied and are relatively well known. What had been much less examined, however, was the way that colonial ideology was held in place and the invisible yet pernicious effects that it exerted on thinking. Colonial ideology required that the ability of the natives be lowered in order to justify foreign powers taking and holding on to the reins of power. Thus, they were typecast as being unable to fulfil proper economic functions by reason of their nature.
  3. Even more damaging than the typecasting was the insidious effects on thinking. Colonialism created a total schema or what I like to refer to as a ‘thought regime’ which dominated the way people understood and spoke about subjects. Words, concepts and supposed cause-and-effect relationships were all constructed to suit the purposes of the colonialists. What was particularly annoying was that colonialists accused the natives of being exactly what they had made them to be. For example, after introducing opium smoking in their territories so as to be able to tax the commodity, the colonialists then accused the local populace of becoming addicts.
  4. As a result, intellectual thinking became “captive” to the prevailing thought regime. It became bound by colonial language and assumptions, imitative and non-creative. This was something the communists also understood very well. From an early stage, they imposed social order through such means as mass propaganda campaigns, the decimation of intellectuals and so-called “re-education” programmes, all in order to impose the desired worldview. History was rewritten to favour the political order. Facts were omitted or misrepresented to shape collective social consciousness. Language itself was subverted to serve the regime.
  5. The recognition that minds can be held captive to particular worldviews was an important step in the intellectual development of former colonies. Not only did countries have to be de-colonialised politically, they had to be de-colonialised in terms of mindsets. Having achieved freedom, we need to be careful not to fall back into set patterns of thinking which serve narrow interests and stifle the spirit of inquiry, creativity and ultimately, change. Entrenched interests, of course, generally prefer the status quo. They do not appreciate being challenged by new ideas and new ways of doing things. And change is essential if countries are to develop holistically.
  6. The one group Alatas turned to was intellectuals, which he believed would serve as an ‘antidote’ to two widespread ‘poisons’ in developing countries.
    • The first of these poisons were those he called ‘fools’ – persons who were educated but yet unable to provide any creative solutions to the problems of the day or to demonstrate high standards of behaviour and performance. According to him, developing countries lag behind others when a large number of fools determine the interest of the nation. They usually just follow the line of least resistance.
    • The second poison was “bebalisma”[3] – a general attitude of ignorance, indifference and indolence (or dislike of work). It makes society non-anticipatory, non-thinking, non-rational and non-contextual. No priority is given to the things that really matter and no embarrassment is felt for mistakes and shortcomings.
  7. The concept of the fool and bebalisma struck a chord with the Malaysian public. Who, after all, does not have a favourite personal story of clownish bureaucracy or of bebalism? The stakes, however, are much higher. “To lack intellectuals,” Alatas said, “is to lack leadership.” “Our national problems”, he said, “should be tackled with intellectual justice, not with exploitative ignorance.” Intellectuals possess the ability to pose, define and analyse problems and propose solutions.

Good governance

  1. The third great theme in Alatas’ work is known in today’s parlance as ‘governance’. He fought tirelessly to elevate integrity and justice in society and to correct social ills. The battle against corruption received top priority. His books on the topic were published from as early as 1968. Four of his publications were exclusively devoted to the discussion of this social illness. He drew attention to the debilitating effects of corruption on the human condition.
  2. Corruption is mankind’s most deadly social disease. It is a disease that can undermine good governance, weaken institutional foundations, distort public policy, compromise the rule of law and constrain the economy. If not nipped in the bud, it is like a cancer whose deadly cells multiply rapidly and pervade the body politic. Once corruption becomes widespread, there is the danger that corrupt acts will no longer seem immoral and unlawful – just business as usual. In Alatas’ terminology, it can even become ‘an industry’ in itself.
  3. A society where corruption is rife is one where the actions of an unprincipled minority have detrimental consequences on the welfare of the majority. The interests of a minority override the interests of the majority. It curbs competitiveness to the detriment of economic and social development. It leads to tremendous misallocation of resources. The cost of doing business becomes unacceptably high. Investors shy away. Incomes fall. Jobs are lost. People suffer.
  4. Corruption exists because of man’s enduring desire for personal gain. The monotheistic religions believe that even the first humans, Adam and Eve, were bribed – by a serpent. As the story teaches, the consequences for humanity were colossal. History has shown how a culture of corruption can lead to the fall of empires and the destruction of civilisations. Unfortunately, societies have not always learned from their own sufferings. Greed can be so rife that lessons from history often go unnoticed.
  5. This is why values and principles based on integrity and social justice, as enunciated by Alatas, are crucial. Mental attitudes and values are what shape a nation’s development. Strengthening processes, systems and institutions can only be effective if a strong value system exists as the foundation.
  6. In addition, the environment in which corruption takes place has to be conditioned to keep it in check. The starting point is with the nation’s leaders. Figures in authority must be chosen for their integrity first and qualifications second. They must take personal ownership in bringing about a decent social order, and they must be held accountable if they do not achieve it. Those with a chequered past or clear evidence of questionable morality should be prevented from taking office. There should be zero tolerance for corrupt practices.
  7. There must also be concrete anti-corruption measures and management practices based on efficiency, transparency and accountability. This is the second leg. Unnecessary and complex regulations and licensing requirements should be pared back or else simplified in order to discourage under-the-table deals. The award of contracts should be fairly and transparently administered. Oversight agencies and appeal processes should be in place to ensure that discretionary power is not abused. It goes without saying that an anti-corruption system must be functioning and effective. Alatas was right when he observed that there was no leader of any developing country who had not adopted an anti-corruption platform. Those who could be taken seriously, however, were very few.
  8. The third leg of good governance is the mobilisation of public opinion. Alatas placed great store on the power of public outrage. He believed that if you awakened society’s consciousness to the ills of corruption and gave cases of corruption widespread publicity, it would generate such an adverse reaction that the government would be forced to take action. Complaints and protests may be irksome, but they should be treated as welcome and constructive feedback.

Implications for a decent social order

  1. Syed Hussein’s work has many implications for a decent social order for all Malaysians. Before going into some of them, let me do what the good Professor would have done, and that is to define exactly what the term ‘social order’ means. While there are many competing and complementary definitions, the one I choose to use is simply this: A social order is one where formal and informal social institutions, customs and practices determine and reinforce what are acceptable and unacceptable social norms and behaviour in society. The former include class, ethnic, religious, kinship and intellectual influences.
  2. A decent social order would be one where the social factors mentioned above produce social norms and behaviour that are fundamentally efficient, productive and just. Not only that. I would add that the idea of decency implies standards that are more than minimally adequate but which correspond to the highest international levels. What does all this mean in concrete terms? What characteristics or traits would a decent social order in Malaysia have? Let me quickly summarise five of them.
  3. First, if Malaysia is to have a decent social order, it cannot be characterised by social fragmentation and polarisation. The social order must be one that leads to cohesion within and among communities. There must be horizontal equity whereby all Malaysians in equal circumstances are treated in exactly the same way.
  4. Second, the social norms that a decent social order produce would lead Malaysians of all races and religions to engage one another with absolute civility and respect. Coercion and overt and covert threats of violence as a means of attaining political, economic and social ends would never be sanctioned. The only legitimate way to take into account differences and resolve problems is through dialogue and negotiations.
  5. Third, Malaysians would feel a deep-seated sense of ownership over the problems of the country. They would be motivated to take decisive action and to make whatever sacrifices that are necessary for the good of the country. There would not be the high degree of indifference and apathy that there is at present. There would not be the tendency to escape from the challenges confronting the country or to apportion blame.
  6. Fourth, only Malaysians who are capable, hard working, bold and scrupulously honest would be allowed to serve in positions of responsibility. Those who are inefficient, incompetent and, most importantly, corrupt would be held in absolute and utter contempt by society. In this regard, the fight against corruption would be the first priority in the Malaysian development agenda. It would be recognised that corruption ensures that no decent social order is possible. Actions to ensure a corruption-free society would be unrelenting.
  7. Fifth, the public would have a high degree of trust in the pillars of state, the executive, judiciary and legislature, as well as the civil service and police. Those appointed t o these institutions would be the best the country has to offer. They would never allow respect for their office to be compromised in any way, preferring to resign rather than let it fall into disrepute. At all times, the rule the law would prevail.
  8. In short, a decent Malaysian social order would be one that is based on inclusiveness and accommodation as opposed to marginalisation and discrimination. Problems that are of racial or religious origin would be resolved in ways that demonstrate the best aspects of race and religion rather than driving Malaysians away from each other. Indeed, if Malaysia professes to be an advanced country, it had better be prepared to meet a higher standard of behaviour and morality. Anything less and it runs the risk of being declared a shameless sham.
  9. Perhaps Alatas’ most important and enduring legacy for a decent social order for all Malaysians – one that underscores all five points I have mentioned – is his insistence on values and morality as a basis for public discourse and action. Without these, development will not lead to the social uplifting of all Malaysians. Instead, it will result in rampant corruption, extreme elitism and perilous social inequality.


  1. In her tribute to Alatas, Dr Deborah Johnson concluded as follows: “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 the nation and scholarship more generally.”[4] It may be true that had he been less vociferous in his critique of ‘fools’, Alatas would possibly have been even given more public honour. Far more accolades have been heaped on those who have done far less. This presumes, however, that wealth, prestige and position were what he wanted. His life and his work show otherwise.
  2. Syed Hussein Alatas’ allegiance was to, and his driving motivation was from, the Almighty. With his passing on 27 January 2007, the country was deprived of a world class scholar, a devout Muslim, a committed multi-racialist and a true and loyal Malaysian.

Wabillahi Taufik Walhidayah

Wassalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh.

  1. Hussein Alatas, The Democracy of Islam (W. Van Hoeve: The Hague & Bandung: 1956)
  2. Syed Hussein Alatas, The Myth of the Lazy Native: A Study of the Image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th to the 20th Century and its Function in the Ideology of Colonial Capitalism (Frank Cass: London, 1977)
  3. Bebalisma implies narrow-mindedness, mindlessness and stubbornness.  It is not stupidity of the natural kind, but wilful stupidity that is cultivated, rewarded and socially reproduced.
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