Syed Hussein Alatas

Syed Hussein Alatas (Arabic: سيد حسین العطاس Sayyid Ḥusayn al-ʿAṭṭās; 17 September 1928 – 23 January 2007) was a Malaysian academic, sociologist, politician, and founder of social science organisations. He was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malaya in the 1980s and formed the Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan). Syed Hussein wrote several books on corruption, multi-racialism, imperialism, and intellectual captivity as part of the colonial, and postcolonial, project, the most famous being The Myth of the Lazy Native.

Syed Hussein Alatas
سيد حسين العطاس
4th Vice-Chancellor of University of Malaya
In office
May 1988  January 1991
Preceded byUngku Abdul Aziz
Succeeded byMohd Taib Osman
1st President of the Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia
In office
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byLim Chong Eu
Personal details
Born(1928-09-17)17 September 1928
Buitenzorg, Dutch East Indies (now Bogor, Indonesia)
Died23 January 2007(2007-01-23) (aged 78)
Bukit Damansara, Malaysia
Resting placeBukit Kiara Muslim Cemetery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Political partyGerakan (1968–1972)
PEKEMAS (1973–1978)
Independent (1978–2007)
SpouseZaharah Abdullah
Alma materUniversity of Amsterdam

Early life

Syed was born in Buitenzorg (now Bogor), Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). His grandfather, Sayyid 'Abd Allah bin Muhsin al-Attas (Arabic: سيد عبد الله بن محسن العطاس Sayyid 'Abd Allāh bin Muḥsin al-ʿAṭṭās), was a Hadhrami from Hadhramaut, Yemen and settled in Bogor.[1] Syed Hussein is the older brother of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas[2][3] and the father of Syed Farid Alatas, a professor at the National University of Singapore, Sharifah Munirah Alatas, a professor at Universiti Kebangsaan,[4] and Sharifah Masturah Alatas, author of his first biography .

Political career

Syed Hussein was among several intellectuals who formed Gerakan in 1968 as an offshoot of the defunct Labour Party. Gerakan was successful in the 1969 general election, where it campaigned on a platform of social justice and the reduction or elimination of Bumiputra privileges outlined by Article 153 of the Constitution. Gerakan held a victory rally in the capital of Kuala Lumpur to celebrate. However, it deviated from its planned route into Malay areas of the city, where party members jeered at the Malays. Although an apology was issued the following day, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), a major component of the ruling Alliance coalition government, held a retaliatory rally. This rally degenerated into a riot with at least 180 people killed (other estimates put the death toll substantially higher). As a result, a state of emergency was declared, and Parliament was suspended; it did not reconvene until 1971.[5]

When Gerakan joined the Alliance coalition government in 1972, Syed Hussein left to help form PEKEMAS (Parti Keadilan Masyarakat Malaysia, or Social Justice Party of Malaysia), based on similar principles that Gerakan had been formed on.[6] However, the party collapsed in 1978 due to massive defections to the Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Academic and public career

Syed Hussein's academic career began at the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka publishing house, where he worked as head of the research department from 1958 onwards. He began lecturing part-time in philosophy at the University of Malaya in 1960 and served as the Head of the Cultural Division at the University's Department of Malay Studies from 1963 to 1967. He served as the Head of the Department of Malay Studies in the National University of Singapore from 1967 to 1988. He was appointed as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malaya in 1988, before becoming a professor at the Centre for General Studies in the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in 1995. He later transferred to the Department of Anthropology and Sociology in 1997, before becoming a principal research fellow at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation of the same university in 1999.[7]

Syed Hussein authored a number of books, the most well-known being The Myth of the Lazy Native.[8] In 1966, Syed Hussein began pondering the question of why Western colonialists had, for four centuries, considered the natives of Maritime Southeast Asia to be generally lazy since Europeans had not arrived until the 17th century. His research eventually produced The Myth of the Lazy Native, a book which was published in 1977. In the book, he cited one instance of a "denigrating" view of the natives, when a German scientist suggested that the Filipinos made their oars from bamboo so they could rest more frequently: "If they happen to break, so much the better, for the fatiguing labor of rowing must necessarily be suspended till they are mended again." Syed Hussein criticized such beliefs in the book as ranging "from vulgar fantasy and untruth to refined scholarship", very much an ideological justification of colonial domination. He also asserted that "[t]he image of the indolent, dull, backward and treacherous native has changed into that of a dependent one requiring assistance to climb the ladder of progress",[8] especially with publications like the 1971 Revolusi Mental (Mental Revolution) by UMNO that succumbed to the language of colonial capitalism.

According to Bruno Fernandes, Alatas was a "sociologist, philosopher, academic and policy analyst" who "worked out a critical and reflexive work from the point of view of the ex-colonized countries", and while Alatas was and is today well "known in the Malayan intellectual world (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines) – and (by) a "broad Malayan intellectual (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines) community", he is "broadly ignored elsewhere…."[9] The respect for Syed Alatas and his influence is also discussed in "An Intellectual Life" in Asian Analysis by Asean Focus Group and Faculty of Asian Studies at The Australian National University: "The late Edward Wadie 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."[10]

Citing Syed Alatas as an opponent of corruption another writer wrote, "Syed Hussein's pet domains had been Malay studies, progressive Islam and fighting corruption. Read his books if you have the time: The Democracy of Islam, Mental Revolution, Sociology of Corruption, and The Myth of the Lazy Native, among many more."; as a supporter for multiracism, "To the young, you should be reminded that Syed Hussein laid the foundation for multi-racial politics, obviously ahead of his time....."; as an academic, Syed Hussein is remembered as a man with a sense of fairness and integrity. However, Dr. Lim Teck Ghee, who was a lecturer at Universiti Malaya when the Prof was VC, said: "His insistence on the principles of excellence, justice and fair play irrespective of a race made him unpopular in some circles. For this, he paid a heavy price.”[11]


Syed Hussein died from a pulmonary embolism at 9.30 p.m. of 23 January 2007.[12]


  • Reflections on the Theories of Religion (1963)
  • The Sociology of Corruption (1968)
  • Thomas Stamford Raffles: Schemer or Reformer? (1972)
  • Modernization and Social Change in Southeast Asia (1972)
  • Intellectuals in Developing Societies (1977)
  • The Myth of the Lazy Native (1977)[13]
  • The Problem of Corruption (1986)
  • Corruption: Its Nature, Causes and Functions (1990)
  • "Corruption" in Oxford Companion to World Politics OUP New York (1993)
  • "Social Sciences" in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World Vol 4 OUP New York (1995)
  • Corruption and the Destiny of Asia (1999)[8]
  • Cita Sempurna Warisan Sejarah (2000)[14]

Notes and references

  1. Syed Hussein Alatas dies, Malaysia Today, 24 January 2007 Archived 10 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  2. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas (Genealogical Information) Archived 14 January 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  3. An Intellectual life by Asian Analysis is brought to you by Asean Focus Group in cooperation with the Faculty of Asian Studies at The Australian National University
  4. UKM Centre for Policy and Global Governance, [Sharifah Munirah Binti Syed Hussein Alatas]
  5. Means, Gordon P. (1991). Malaysian Politics: The Second Generation, pp. 7 – 9. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-588988-6.
  6. George, K. (2005). "Champion of the downtrodden", Aliran, (Go to search engine and enter "alatas" and various articles mentioning will come up) Archived 16 February 2006 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 14 February 2006.
  7. Ismail, Faezah. "Intellectual captivity of freedom" Archived 10 November 2005 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 20 February 2006.
  8. Faezah, Ismail. "Revisiting The Myth of the Lazy Native" Archived 3 April 2013 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 19 February 2006.
  9. Fernandes, Bruno "Compte-rendu analytique et extraits de l'ouvrage" Review in French and Malaysian in the Anales de desclasificación Archived 8 October 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  10. Asian Analysis by Asean Focus group in cooperation with the Faculty of Asian Studies at The Australian National University
  11. Screenspots: Fighting a losing battle against corruption and "Farewell, Prof. Syed Hussein Alatas and 'In Memoriam: Prof. Syed Hussein Alatas, Myth-breaker. Malaysia Has Lost One Of Her Greatest Intellectuals by Farish A Noor" Archived 20 November 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  12. "Prof Syed Hussein Alatas meninggal dunia". Malaysiakini (in Malay). 24 January 2007. Retrieved 25 March 2016.
  13. Syed Hussein Alatas (13 May 2013). 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. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-136-27648-4.
  14. Fernandes, Bruno "Compte-rendu analytique et extraits de l'ouvrage" Review in French and Malaysian in the Anales de desclasificación

Further reading

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