Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas is an academic at Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). Her research mainly focuses on geopolitics, foreign policy and alternative approaches to IR theory. This email interview was conducted by Ramze Endut as part of a handout during the discussion session on “Mengenang Syed Hussein Alatas: Peranan Intelektual dalam Politik” that took place on April 2, 2021 at IKMAS, UKM. The session was organised by IKMAS and IKD.
Ingatan Malaysia (IM): Why did Syed Hussein Alatas join politics?
Sharifah Munirah Alatas (SMA): Times were very different in the late 1950s and early 1960s, both globally and in Malaysia. Syed Hussein Alatas studied the decolonising movements around the world. He was attracted to the ideas of the Indian, Indonesian, Latin American and African intellectual developments. These developments were ignited by anti-colonial, people-centred movements in response to the injustices of colonial administration.
Alatas closely studied these popular uprisings and reform agendas in Southeast Asia. He was particularly concerned about the role of intellectuals in conceptualising and exposing the failure of political leadership, and in the process, hope to mobilise political reform through his academic and popular writings, talks and political speeches.
He wanted a similar intellectual awakening for Malaysia, i.e. he hoped that the awakening that was taking place around the rest of the colonised, developing world would find momentum in his own country. His idealism was contained in his deep passion for reading the works of Western and non-Western revolutionary thinkers, something that our current leadership do not care to think about.
In his book Intellectuals in Developing Societies (1977) he refers to thinkers and revolutionaries such as Jose Rizal, Herbert Spencer, Jamaluddin Afghani, Mohd. Natsir, Tagore, Mannheim and Goncharov. Till his death in 2007, Syed Hussein Alatas lamented that an “intellectual awakening” among the political elite and the general leadership, which would otherwise filter down to the rest of society, never happened in Malaysia. He also warned that it may never happen for generations to come, given the neo-colonial feudal mentality among leaders, the penchant for the abuse of power and the excesses of wealth, and the politicisation of basic and tertiary education. His book The Myth of the Lazy Native (1977) addresses these issues.
Syed Hussein Alatas helped to form GERAKAN because of his desire to inject an ideological/intellectual dimension into Malaysian politics. He, and his co-founders (who comprised fellow thinkers) believed that GERAKAN had the potential to be firmly grounded in a form of ideology that will peg/guide the nation’s development throughout its nation-building agenda.
By the beginning of the 1980s, Alatas was convinced that politics in Malaysia was a lost cause because of this lack of “ideology”, a lack of deference to intellectual pursuits and an ignorance about other civilisations. Today’s critics often mention how Malaysians are not educated to be “critical thinkers”. Syed Hussein Alatas wrote about this since the 1950s. The founders of GERAKAN envisioned politics as embracing critical thinkers, intellectuals and statesmen. In his mind, there was nothing strange about a politician who was also an intellectual. Today, the two are kept apart, due to a combination of ignorance and a deliberate agenda to silence progressive thinking. The books Intellectuals in Developing Societies, Islam dan Sosialisme (1976) and Cita Sempurna Warisan Sejarah (2000) are examples of hisworks that discuss these themes.
IM: What objective does Syed Hussein Alatas want to achieve through politics?
SMA: Possibly to confront “EVIL” and the “FOOL” in society. He was intellectually fascinated with the concept of evil in humans, as well as the role given to the “fool” in leadership positions. Syed Hussein Alatas had originally wanted his book Intellectuals in Developing Societies to be titled“The Revolution of the Fool”.
In the early 2000s, he began thinking about writing a book on Evil. This desire was heightened after his horrendous experience in Universiti Malaya, despite his declining health. In fact, he was preoccupied with the concept of evil and criminality throughout his life, hence his life-long scholarly contributions in the field of corruption, extremism (religious and political), colonial capitalism, exploitative and oppressive leadership, domination, sociology of knowledge and social democracy.
Since the 1950s, he was obsessed with how humans had the capacity to be evil, and construct false narratives to justify it. He studied it, i.e. the sociology of evil, how it drove leaders to unmentionable acts of oppression, manipulation of wealth, greed and using religion to suppress the have-nots, to create a society that served vanity and personal ego.
His passion to expose and eradicate the evil in leadership came one full circle after his cancer diagnosis in 2006. He did not survive to write his book on evil, even though he had already begun to pen his thoughts. There are fledgling notes from his readings of books such as In Praise of Meekness by Norberto Bobbio.
Also, his very early publications about these issues can be found in Progressive Islam, a series of publications in the form of a monthly publication dedicated to the promotion of knowledge concerning Islam and modern thought. He started this in 1954, while a student in Amsterdam. These are not in circulation; his three children, Syed Farid Alatas, Sharifah Munirah Alatas and Sharifah Masturah Alatas have preserved the entire collection.
IM: How important is membership in a political party to changing society according to Syed Hussein Alatas?
SMA: Syed Hussein Alatas was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in early 2006. He passed away a year later. He still published scholarly articles throughout his illness. His last contribution to scholarship was as late as December 2006, several weeks before passing. While ill, he still met students, young activists, fellow scholars and politicians, and kept in touch with political developments in the country and around the region.
But he ceased to be directly involved in any political party after he left Univeresiti Malaya as Vice-Chancellor. This was after he was unceremoniously-disgraced, by the very politicians who urged him to “put UM back on the right path”. These leaders encouraged him to leave a rewarding career at the National University of Singapore (NUS) to return to Malaysia to revamp the university. Syed Hussein Alatas believed, for one last time, that maybe he could bring about change in the university by being at the helm. He knew that education was the key to reforming a declining society.
However, he rapidly became disillusioned with Malaysian politics, which is neurotically ethno-centric, hypocritical and extremely un-Islamic. He was also against the politicisation of education and the ethnocentric games that infiltrated university administration via political interference. After resigning as VC, he continued his active academic life. He decided it was useless to eradicate corruption and introduce meritocracy in the university system, despite being in a position of authority (i.e. as VC).
IM: Why did Syed Hussein Alatas finally leave politics and return to academia?
SMA: Throughout Syed Hussein Alatas’ life, he never “left academia”. For Alatas, his love for academia, his role as an educator and his intellectual activities were never interrupted. He did not see “academia” as rigidly connected to formal employment as an academic. It was part of his being, as an engaged citizen, a political reformer, a progressive intellectual and a committed scholar. His interlude in politics was never an obstacle to his on-going role as a thinker and an academic. In fact, he saw no other way to be an effective politician.
Bottom line: Syed Hussein Alatas felt that leaders in Malaysia are not interested in the plight of the ordinary people. They are not interested in lifting the poor out of poverty. Since a majority of the poor are the Malays, he felt the leadership consciously kept the masses poor in order to remain in power. And leadership used religion to keep the poor subdued, with a false-consciousness of hope for a better future.
Despite spending a lifetime, right till a month before his death, writing and speaking against corruption, educational depravity and immoral leadership, he decided that it was useless changing society via politics. So, Alatas “left” politics, but never left academia.
Syed Hussein Alatas was convinced leaders of our country are not driven by morals. Unless they dig deep and sincerely study the root of our history, how colonial capitalism under the British exploited our people, and how THAT part of our history is evil and should never be continued, leaders will PERSIST in this exploitation.
His book The Myth of the Lazy Native discusses the abuse of colonial capitalist administrative methods among post-independence Malay leadership in Malaysia. Unless the themes in this book are taken seriously by current leadership, and among those seeking to expose the failure of our leadership, Malaysia will continue to slip further into backwardness.
Syed Hussein Alatas also believed that our leaders are not completely ignorant. Instead he believed most are deliberately capable of exploiting the less advantaged to further their need for excessive material wealth and power. Till his death, he criticised the crude material ambitions of leadership, and how it has ruined the nation. Corruption was the key issue in all his discussions, writings, talks and debates. Till today, corruption is still the problem.
Several times, during his conversations with us (my siblings and I), he advised us NEVER to enter politics and NEVER to “sell your soul” to the politicians and political carrots that they will offer. Our father was a pragmatist and realised that unethical leaders are impossible to influence. We were brought up to be ethical, and he was ethical. Politics in Malaysia is not.
Till today, none of his children have any desire to join politics. All three of us continue to be educators and scholars. Our father was never impressed with rhetoric and superficial political speeches. He was also not enamoured by the media attention political leaders are accorded, or how society worships the political elite. Throughout his life, Alatas was hardly ignored by the media and the political elite. He was in the media a lot, as well as in the scholarly environment. But he remained humble and true to his goals. If you listen to the hansards, there are many instances when Alatas was mocked during parliament discussions about the Rukunegara, for speaking “too intellectually”, especially during debates about the idea of feudalism.
In actuality, those who mocked Syed Hussein Alatas did not understand that what he predicted, i.e. about the Rukunegara becoming a “dead document” would actually become a reality today. And that because of this lack of seriousness, the disunity in the country is growing to dangerous levels.
We, his children, saw what politics and politicking did to our father, and it was cruel. But we will offer our help, by educating, spreading the social democratic ideals of our father, to continue applying his ideas to current politics and society, and to help in transforming the backward mindset that exists in the nation. We are also committed to our respective scholarships because it is counter-productive to separate politics from intellectual pursuits. Most of all, we will persist in exposing the ignorant and unethical attitude towards intellectuals and scholarly pursuits, which is the fundamental reason why our political development can never be holistic and sustainable.