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Syed Hussein Alatas (September 17, 1928 – January 23, 2007) was a Malaysianmarker academician, sociologist, founder of social science organizations, and former politician. He was once Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malayamarker 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 post colonial, project, the most famous being The Myth of the Lazy Native.

Early life

Syed was born in Bogormarker, Indonesiamarker. His grandfather, Sayyid 'Abd Allah bin Muhsin al-Attas, came from Hadhramaut and settled in Bogor. Syed Hussein is the older brother of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas .

Political career

Syed Hussein was among several intellectuals who formed Gerakan in 1968 as an offshoot of the defunct Labour Party. Gerakan was relatively 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 Lumpurmarker 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 soon degenerated into outright rioting with at least 180 people killed during the subsequent riots (although other estimates put it substantially higher). As a result, a state of emergency was declared, and Parliament was suspended; it did not reconvene until 1971.

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. However, the party collapsed in 1978 due to massive defections to the Democratic Action Party (DAP).and series of articles will come up including this one.

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 Malayamarker 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 Singaporemarker from 1967 to 1988, before quitting to form Gerakan. He returned to academia 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 principal research fellow at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation of the same university in 1999.

Syed Hussein has authored a substantial number of books, the most well known, The Myth of the Lazy Native. In 1966, Syed Hussein began pondering the question of why Western colonialists had, for four centuries, considered the natives of the Malay archipelago 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 Germanmarker scientist suggested that the Filipinosmarker made their oars from bamboo so they could rest more frequently: "If they happen to break, so much the better, for the fatiguing labour 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." 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".

According to Bruno Fernandes, a writer of an article on Alatas Syed, 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…." 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 W 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."

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 race made him unpopular in some circles. For this he paid a heavy price.”


Syed Hussein died after a fall in his home on January 23, 2007. The cause of death was later declared to be a heart attack. He was buried at Bukit Kiara Muslim Cemetery, Kuala Lumpurmarker.


  • 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)
  • 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)
  • Cita Sempurna Warisan Sejarah (2000)

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