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al-Fatihah: Syed Hussein al-Attas January 24, 2007

Posted by elizabethwong in Democracy, Heritage, Malaysia, Note2Self, RIP.

I buried my face in my hands when I received the news.

I had planned to meet Professor Syed Hussein before the end of the month. Initially it was meant to be earlier, in October, but I had too much on my plate, preparing for a photo exhibition in Korea. Then Raya came. Then Christmas.

It’s hard to believe that he is not with us any longer.

One of the handful of discussions that I had had with the Professor, once I plucked up enough courage, was the reprinting of Myth of the Lazy Native. He had some trouble with the original publishers and wanted to retrieve his rights. We, in SIRD, wanted to reprint a series of his body of work.

“Do you think anyone would still be interested in it?” he’d asked.

“Absolutely, sir. Why don’t we do an edition in BM?”

“Haha! There is already one in Indonesian.”

Indeed. Mitos Pribumi Malas: Citra Orang Jawa, Melayu Dan Filipina Dalam Kapitalisme Kolonial, published in 1988.

But even before all that, he first vetted through our political affiliations and credentials.

“Who is SIRD?”

“Independent publisher, distributor and research outfit headed by Pak Chong.”

“Who is Pak Chong?”

“ISA detainee for six years. Member of PRM.”

“PRM? Ah… good…good. And who is in Suaram?”

“Sivarasa and Dr. Kua Kia Soong. Sivarasa was also in PRM before it merged with KeADILan.”

“Ah! Good…good.”

So that’s how it began.

To my surprise, he wasn’t all that keen on talking about Myth of the Lazy Native. He would rather refer to Intellectuals of the Developing Societies though I sheepishly confessed that I hadn’t read it. He forgave easily by going through the contents over the phone with me.

The Professor became animated when the topic of corruption came up, and was pleasantly surprised that SIRD had distributed the Indonesian edition of another of his seminal work, Sociology of Corruption. He reserved some rather harsh words for former prime minister Mahathir and what Professor described as, ‘That terrible book!“, and was equally unflinching when it came to the current PM.

But he was keenest when discussing about his unpublished monographs and works. And was extremely meticulous. He had wanted to go through them again before we could even preview them.

To think, even in his late 70s, he continued to work with zeal and passion.

It’s a crying shame that his books are not readily available in our bookshops, or studied more extensively in the universities, or perhaps even made compulsory readings for all Parliamentarians and Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) officials.

Professor Syed Hussein al-Attas remains the country’s foremost social scientist and thinker.


(For a summary of his political activism, see here.)


1. undergrad2 - January 25, 2007

Yes, I remember reading his “Sociology of Corruption” when I was an undergrad. It is couched in a lot of sociological terms for it to become an easy read for the layman.

2. Steven Chow - February 1, 2007

We have created an online memorial tribute to the Syed Hussein Alattas. Please visit and pay your respects to this great man. Thank you.

3. Zainuddin Mohd Ismail - February 25, 2007

The book that should be published is “Democracy of Islam”. It deals with most of the issues confronting Islam today.

4. suhainin suhaibol - February 27, 2007

Always beside us…a society with secret.yes..he is a great thinker and a very brave social scientist.Big secret buried with him.That just between you, me and our society with secret.Alfatihah……

5. Yusuf/Martin - March 14, 2007

Hi just came across your blog.

I am desperately seeking a copy of The Myth of the Lazy Native to buy, any suggestions?

I have looked at Amazon ans a few other American and European booksellers but their prices are my month’s electricity bill!!

I am would like to get a copy here in Malaysia if possible. I have contacted Raman at Silverfish but he doesn’t know where either.
Have left a message with Farish Noor, but I guess he is busy.

6. Hazidi Abdul Hamid - January 29, 2008

I still remember vividly sitting in the lecture hall in UKM and listening to Prof Syed Hussein talk about research philosophy and methodology. There was something in the way he spoke that told us how this man loved the knowledge that he was trying to give to us. In his words he placed seeds of wisdom. I think he was trying to do the hardest thing of all; he was not just trying to teach us mere philosphy or method but he was trying to help us to become better human beings.

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