Lessons from Syed Hussein Alatas

9 October, 2019

Photo: ‘Prof Koh highlighted four facets of the late Prof Alatas’ legacy’ from NUS News

The late Professor Syed Hussein Alatas, internationally renowned Malaysian social scientist and also the first Head of Department of the NUS Department of Malay Studies, was honoured on 17 September 2019 at the Second Syed Hussein Alatas Memorial Lecture. During the lecture, Professor Tommy Koh (NUS Faculty of Law) highlighted four 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.

Prof Alatas avoided an idealistic view of Raffles as a humanitarian reformer in Singaporean history. While Raffles’ merits included building Singapore up into a vibrant trading port, he also deserved blame for humiliating the Sultan of Yogyakarta and claiming credit for the good work of William Farquhar. Ultimately, Prof Alatas stimulated a rediscovery of Singapore’s precolonial history, which is especially relevant today given the ongoing Singapore Bicentennial commemorations.

Prof Alatas was also seen as one of the founding fathers of post-colonial studies. He published a “path-breaking” book in 1977 titled The Myth of the Lazy Native, where he pointed out Western stereotypical portrayals of Southeast Asians as lazy and uncivilised were deployed in order to justify colonisation.

Unfortunately, Prof Alatas’ successes in the field of post-colonial studies were balanced by his failures to move Malaysia away from race-based politics; the political party he founded, Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, ended up joining an UMNO (United Malays National Organisation)-led coalition, which he left afterwards. Nevertheless, his strong belief in multiculturalism was admired by Prof Koh who remains hopeful that history will vindicate him. Prof Koh also cited Prof Alatas’ intellectual legacy in campaigning against corruption – he had published four books on the subject. Indeed, Prof Alatas touted the importance of clean political leaders and supporters.

Aptly held on what would have been Prof Alatas’ 91st birthday, the lecture was attended by 115 guests, including Member of Parliament Dr Yaacob Ibrahim. The annual series continues to serve as a platform for scholars and thought leaders to continue sharing Prof Alatas’ work and ideas while discussing the challenges of globalisation, change, and social reconstruction.

Read the article here.