On behalf of the Malaysian Social Science Association (PSSM), I wish to express my deepest condolences on the passing of Professor Datuk Dr Syed Hussein Alatas on the night of 23 January 2007 in Kuala Lumpur. His passing is a great loss to his family, the nation and the community of Malaysian intellectuals, and to the world of social science scholarship internationally. We, members of the community of social science scholars within and beyond the university in Malaysia, are shocked and saddened by the news.
Professor Alatas was an unparalleled public intellectual, scholar, and thinker. He was among those of the older generation who pioneered and founded the development of the social sciences in Malaysia, especially sociology, from before Independence in the middle of the 1950s. He continued his tireless efforts at developing the social sciences right up to the end of his life.
His authority as a respected scholar, public intellectual and thinker was evident and acknowledged from early on. He obtained his Doctorandus degree in 1956 and PhD in 1963, both from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. After working for the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka [the national body dedicated to language and literature] between 1958 to 1960, he took up academic work as Lecturer and Head of the Culture Stream at the Department of Malay Studies of Universiti Malaya from 1964 to 1967. He advanced greatly in his academic career for, soon, he was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore (1967 to 1988).
Professor Alatas was appointed the Vice Chancellor of Universiti Malaya from 1988 to 1991 with the retirement of Royal Professor Ungku Aziz. After a lapse of a few years, in 1995 he joined Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia where he spent some ten years, initially at the Centre of General Studies, followed by the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, and finally as Professor and Principal Fellow at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation (ATMA).
Professor Alatas was a prolific scholar and author of great substance whose thinking and works are of universal significance. He produced many books and articles in international journals as well as the local newspapers. His writings cover many fields, including development and modernisation, politics and corruption, intellectuals in developing societies, the mentality of colonised societies, as well as the question of the Islamic ummah’s engagement with modernity. Among his significant books that are regarded as classics is Modernization and Social Change in Southeast Asia. Published in 1972, this book critically discusses Western theories of modernisation and development and challenges the idea of modernisation as Westernisation. His book The Myth of the Lazy Native (first published in 1977) is another substantial work that shows how European colonialism created the myth of Malays as the lazy natives. Edward Said considered this book to be a “startlingly original” work that inspired him to produce his well known critique of Orientalism.
Professor Alatas’s work on intellectuals in developing societies distinquished between an intelligentsia with formal qualifications and intellectuals who are highly capable thinkers and engage social issues critically. A series of his works on the question of corruption in developing societies is a very important reference in the study of corruption and its elimination. In order to get rid of this social cancer, he used to say in a sharply metaphorical language, we need to elicit the hatred and anger of the people that they may smoke it out of the dark alleys into the open where there is no place to hide.
In studying the mindset of members of society, Professor Alatas advanced the concept of ‘the captive mind’ to describe the mentality of colonial subjects who had been enslaved by the mode of thinking of their one-time colonizer, to the point that it was bereft of originality. It was on this issue of the society’s mindset that he always engaged in a relentless open battle in the mass media and other arenas in order to fight outmoded thinking or what he termed ‘bebalism’ (thickism). On the one hand, he firmly criticised Orientalist perspectives towards colonialised societies, especially Malay society. On the other, he was determined in his struggle to overcome the outmoded mindset of a segment of Malay society who put stock in irrational beliefs as well as those who interpret Islam in a narrow and literal manner. This is a very important contribution on his part towards opening up the minds of people to the ways by which Malay-Muslim society should engage with modernity in the 21st century.
Professor Alatas’s great contribution to the field of knowledge and social thought as well as the arena of public debate was the hallmark of an original and independent-minded intellectual, scholar and thinker, highly regarded nationally and internationally. This fact is clearly evident in the accolades of international figures who were his peers. Professor Hans-Dieter Evers, the well-known sociologist from Germany, observed as follows: “Through his various writings and lectures [for more than half a century], it may be said that Professor Alatas has created a school of sociological thinking of his own in this region.”
As members of the Malaysian Social Science Association, our relationship with Professor Alatas was very close. We regard him as an intellectual beacon whose light continues to shine even though he is gone. The intellectual and academic world in Malaysia has lost a star in the infinite horizon of scholarship. His cogent and critical ideas as well as his exemplary independent-mindedness as an intellectual are immensely valuable and will persist in our hearts and inspire us all.
May Allah shower His blessings upon his spirit! Al Fatihah!