Syed Hussein Alatas: Ten Years On

by Imad Alatas

This 23rd of January marks the ten-year death anniversary of my grandfather, Syed Hussein Alatas. It’s hard to believe that ten years have passed by so fast.

I was lucky enough to be at the receiving end of his wit, his wisdom, his sarcasm, and most importantly his concern for my intellectual development.

I’d like to indulge in an account of the intellectual and personal impact he left on me, even as I was a lost 15-year-old boy trying to understand the lessons he sought to impart.

Education starts early

From the time I was in primary school, my grandfather was concerned about how I was developing myself intellectually.

Although he did tell me that it was important to study and do my best in exams, he emphasised that my learning outside of the classroom was important too.

He would often ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I don’t remember what I answered each time.

At that time, however, I was interested in history. I enjoyed the lessons in school on the rise of Nazi Germany and the World War II.

Seeing how the territorial ambitions of one man, Adolf Hitler, changed the political landscape of Europe and led to an all-out war was quite incredible.

Apart from that, reading my grandfather’s book on Sir Stamford Raffles [1] did complement the history I was learning in school.

The book sought to question the Eurocentric view of Raffles as a national icon of Singapore by critiquing aspects of his political philosophy and racial ideology towards people he considered of a lower status.

During our secondary school years, we had been taught that he was the founder of Singapore in 1819. He was portrayed as the morally upright colonial administrator who sought to develop Singapore. That was the dominant narrative in school, a one-sided narrative practically romanticized.

Reading my grandfather’s book made me question why he was glorified so much. Not that he was a horrible man, but he involved himself in a lot of chicanery and ruses to achieve his political aims.

Suffice to say, reading this book was a turning point for me in the sense that it trained me to have a critical mind towards any historical narrative.

Prof. Syed Hussein Alatas holding first grandson, Syed Imad, 1992

Intellectual impact in university

I would be required to exercise this mind almost eight years later when I started university.

It had been barely a month since I adjusted to life in university and an image of his book “The Myth of the Lazy Native” [2] appeared on the screen during a Sociology lecture on race.

His book was used as a reference to the idea that race, as a supposedly biological attribute, is really a social construct.

Furthermore, it could be incorporated into a colonial and capitalistic ideological framework, so as to justify coercion over a group of people, primarily due to their perceived inferiority.

This emphasis on race as a social construct, and how it was used by our colonial masters to remain in power, would encourage me to be critical of other social phenomena such as gender relations where gender as a social construct could be used to justify the perceived superiority of men over women.

Syed Hussein Alatas, taken at his home in Kuala Lumpur

Another one of his influential ideas was that of the “captive mind” [3].

The “captive mind” was a concept to explain a kind of thinking that is dominated by Western thought patterns in an uncritical and imitative manner. Such a thinker lacks a creative and original mind.

This concept resonates with me as I attend classes on social theory where all the social thinkers taught to us were of European origin.

It is difficult to understand why only such thinkers were held in high esteem without understanding the notion of Eurocentrism, or the mode of thinking that only adopts European theories and concepts.

The concept of the “captive mind” made me appreciate not only the works of western scholars during university but non-Western scholars too.

As a student, and especially a university student, this was important as a captive mind impedes one’s intellectual development by limiting his analyses of socio-historical phenomena through European lenses.

The humourous grandfather

Beyond books and knowledge, my grandfather had a personal side to him which was humorous and witty at times, serious at others.

As any kid would (and should) agree, the holiday was the best reprieve one could get from the inevitable stress of exams and school in general.

Kuala Lumpur was that reprieve for me. I knew I could look forward to getting pampered in our home in Kuala Lumpur by my grandparents and aunty.

My grandfather was the architect of his grandchildrens’ holiday plans. For example, he would see to it that there were enough eggs for our breakfast, Milo for our supper and so on.

The author with his late grandfather, 2003

Outings to shopping malls were mandatory. I have fond memories of Selayang Mall and IOI mall as that was where he used to take us.

As a little boy, I looked forward to patronising the game arcades to bask in the joy of virtual race-car driving and air hockey.

A day at the arcade was followed by a lunch at Mcdonalds; that was the modus operandi when we went out. More than a decade later, I have fond memories of these shopping malls but going there again would not produce the same excitement as when my grandfather was around.

And then there were the one-hour drives to Negeri Sembilan where we would visit a family friend in Seremban.

I got a glimpse into National Service during those drives as I remember having to sit quietly and not fidget so that my grandfather would not be distracted while driving. I’m sure he was proud of my discipline!

Sadly, it became more difficult to drive to Seremban in the final years of his life, while the trips to the mall became scarce.

Memories live on

At home, I was guaranteed a performance of wit and sarcasm by my grandfather whenever we were there. He was very particular about how I presented myself in the physical sense.

I used to wear slightly long pants such that they would touch the floor when I walked around the house. He would quip “are you sweeping the house for us?” To be honest, it took me a while to process the sarcasm as a young teenager.

At that age, I would often eat in such a way that scraps of food would be scattered all over my plate. He gave a deadpan expression and uttered the six words: “only a dog eats like that”, that amused me but he made take him seriously at the same time.

It has been ten years since his passing but I do still wish he could have seen me through my crucial years – my ‘O’ Levels, ‘A’ Levels, National Service and most importantly, university.

I wonder what advice he would have given me, or what wisdom he would have imparted. He never got to see his grandchildren grow, especially my two younger siblings. If he were still alive, I’m sure he would have been proud to see the way the three of us have grown.

All three of us are pursuing subjects we’re passionate about, which is what he would have wanted for us.

[1] Alatas, H. (1971). Thomas Stamford Raffles, 1781-1826, schemer or reformer?. Angus and Robertson.

[2] Alatas, H. (1977). 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. Psychology Press.

[3] Alatas, S. H. (1972). The Captive Mind In Development Studies. International Social Sciences Journal, 24(1), 9-25.

Editor’s note: This article is also published on Malaysiakini. Photos and edits are inserted with permission.