Syed Hussein Alatas' legacy: what it means to be Malaysian


Masturah decided to add to the book rather than simply having it republished, as she had discovered new material and new topics to write about, which she felt had relevance to the contemporary times we live in. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan

It's been 14 years since author Masturah Alatas first published The Life In The Writing, a biography on the late Syed Hussein Alatas (1928-2007), her father and notable Malaysian scholar.

But there’s always something new to discover and consider in his writings, which was why Masturah, who currently lives in Italy and teaches English at the University of Macerata, decided to revisit the book, resulting in an updated edition that was published recently by Gerakbudaya.

“This new edition of The Life In The Writing is different from the first edition (published in 2010 by Marshall Cavendish), in that a whole new section has been added to it,” says Masturah in an interview in Kuala Lumpur.

The Gerakbudaya edition is almost double the book’s original length, with 14 new chapters added to the appendix section. The book is also one of Gerakbudaya's highlight titles at the KL Alternative Bookfest at Central Market in Kuala Lumpur from Feb 22-25.

“These are important additions which concern my father’s contributions to the writing of the Rukun Negara, for example; there are also samples of his poetry and song lyrics, his thoughts on censorship and also his connection to Italy – never before has my father and Italy been written about, and there are a couple of chapters in my book about this.

“I also wanted to include a chapter that shows how others have written about my father’s work, and I found a good example in Amir Muhammad’s piece,” she adds.

Masturah decided to add to the book rather than simply having it republished, as she had discovered new material and new topics to write about, which she felt had relevance to the contemporary times we live in.

The book is also one of Gerakbudaya's highlight titles at the KL Alternative Bookfest at Central Market in Kuala Lumpur from Feb 22-25. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan The book is also one of Gerakbudaya's highlight titles at the KL Alternative Bookfest at Central Market in Kuala Lumpur from Feb 22-25. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan

A lifelong academic, Syed Hussein is best known for his book, The Myth Of The Lazy Native, which was originally published in 1977, just before Edward Said’s Orientalism. Both books are considered seminal works in post-colonial theory.

In his book, Syed Hussein analyses the origins of the myth of the “lazy native” from the 16th to the 20th century in Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, as well as how it functions within colonial capitalism.

In the same way that Syed Hussein challenged the myth of the “lazy native” in his book, Masturah wrote the biography to clear up any misconceptions about her father.

“The main aim was to let people know more about Syed Hussein Alatas, the author of The Myth Of The Lazy Native, and to some extent, it has been achieved.

“Readers have told me that they have learned so many things about my father that they did not know before, but there is still more to be done, as people are still getting their facts about him wrong and they are still confusing him with other people,” says Masturah.

Throughout his life, Syed Hussein wore many hats – he was an academic, a politician, a sociologist and much more. So why the focus on his writing for the biography?

A 1991 file image of former UM vice-chancellor Prof Syed Hussein Alatas with his book on corruption published by S. Abdul Majeed and Co. Photo: Filepic/The StarA 1991 file image of former UM vice-chancellor Prof Syed Hussein Alatas with his book on corruption published by S. Abdul Majeed and Co. Photo: Filepic/The Star

“I chose to focus on him as a writer because he was most famous for his scholarship. And as I say in the book’s preface, when you focus on someone’s writing, all the other elements of their lives – their work, their politics, their family, their friends, their pastimes, their interests – are bound to seep into the narrative,” explains Masturah.

“I think my father’s biggest influence on me was to show me that there is value and pleasure in the intellectual and creative life, not just as a writer, but also as a teacher,” she adds.

In The Life In The Writing, Masturah, a published writer herself, doesn’t shy away from sharing the hardships faced by her father, including one of the darkest periods in Malaysia’s history – the May 13 racial riots.

At the time, Syed Hussein was the National Chairman of Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia.

“One thing that surprised me while writing the book was finding out that my father received a death threat in the aftermath of the 1969 May 13 racial riots,” she reveals.

“When one considers the ethnicity of the sender of this threat – I know the name, but I withheld it in my book; there was no need to reveal it, the person’s ethnic background was obvious – it raises all sorts of questions about what it means to belong in Malaysia, what it means to be Malaysian, who accepts you and who ostracises you, and why. Also the sheer irony of my father being called a traitor when he dedicated his whole life to Malaysia!”

According to Masturah, those who didn’t know her father well would often tell her that they were afraid of him.

“But actually, my father was very approachable and easy to talk to, and the proof of this is that he spent a lot of his time talking to people from all sorts of backgrounds and this is documented in my book,” she says.

Even at the recent book discussion event at Universiti Malaya where Masturah was speaking, several former students of her father spoke up to share fond memories of him.

Filled with eye-opening anecdotes that share different sides of Syed Hussein’s character and personality, The Life In The Writing also tells stories about Malaysia and what it means to be Malaysian as experienced by someone who has influenced its growth and progress.

The new edition of The Life In The Writing is available in all good bookstores. More info here.

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