Today's post is by Masturah Alatas. It is in response to a comment in the Kuala Lumpur New Straits Times by James Campbell that begins:
"Any discussion of Malaysian tertiary educational policy needs to take into account the needs of national development in a specific and historical context. Recent debates in regard to the competitive position of Malaysian higher education globally is one area where the pressures of competition and liberalisation must be balanced by the interests of inclusion and social sustainability."
Over the last few years there has been an ongoing debate between those Malaysian academics who accept the challenge of globalisation and those who more concerned with, as Campbell puts it, "ensuring national values, addressing horizontal social inequality, rural disadvantage and looking into the needs of sustainable and inclusive economic and social development".
The comment continued by invoking the name of Syed Hussein Alatas, a Malaysian social and political theorist who had considerable international influence, being cited by, among others, Edward Said.
"The discourse of neo-liberal globalisation is itself still arguably beholden to what Syed Hussein Alatas critiqued as the discourse of “The Lazy Native”. Higher educational institutions’ commitment to inclusion and social justice is central to their merit in society."
The following is a response to this comment by the daughter and biographer of Alatas.
Finding the clarity
by Masturah Alatas
As biographer of late Malaysian sociologist Syed Hussein Alatas (1928 – 2007), I do not consider his life story to end with the end of his life. Any continuing narrative about Alatas also has to take into account how, for example, he is talked about in the media today.
As a case in point, I refer to the article Finding the Balance (Learning Curve, New Straits Times, 20 November 2011) by Dr James Campbell, a lecturer in Education at Deakin University, Australia, and researcher with Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Even though the article carries a moribund photo of Alatas, it contains only one sentence in direct reference to him. And the sentence is difficult to understand. “The discourse of neo-liberal globalization is itself still arguably beholden to what Syed Hussein Alatas critiques as the discourse of The Lazy Native”.
The article does not explain what, if at all, neo-liberal globalization has to do with “the discourse of The Lazy Native”. And nowhere in the article is it clearly stated that many of Malaysia’s current higher education policies are neo-liberal to begin with. So Campbell is vague. He seems to be criticizing neo-liberalism in general, but not what is specifically neo-liberal about Malaysia’s higher education policies.
Campbell argues that comparisons between the National University of Singapore and Universiti Malaya may not always be valid “given important distinctions and differences in national policies and political culture between the two nations.”
But how does this reasoning square with the fact that a Malaysian sociologist like Syed Hussein Alatas taught at the National University of Singapore for over twenty years, and was appointed Head of Department of Malay studies there? What criteria of merit did NUS apply when they tenured Syed Hussein Alatas? Is Campbell suggesting that the same criteria cannot be applied in a Malaysian university? And if so, why not?
Malaysians may still remember Syed Hussein Alatas’ short-lived, controversial term (1988 – 1991) as Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Malaya when he tried to promote academic staff based on merit. For Alatas, one way to establish merit was to look at the publications of academics. The New Straits Times itself carried reports of the controversy, so it is no secret. Some of them contained statements like “five members of the students association have come out in support of Vice-Chancellor Syed Hussein Alatas’s stand on the appointment of non-Malay deans to faculties in the university” (NST, 12 March 1990).
When Campbell writes that any discussion of Malaysia’s higher education policies “needs to be placed in perspective against the needs of national development in a specific historical context”, and that notions of merit must take into account ideas of inclusion and social justice, what exactly does he mean? Inclusion, of course, necessarily entails exclusion. But who is being excluded and on what grounds are they being excluded? And whose sense of social justice are we talking about here?
Syed Hussein Alatas’ works from The Myth of the Lazy Native to his writings on corruption precisely warn against the dangers of relativising notions of social justice. So it is quite odd that Campbell would refer to Alatas in his article.
All written legacies can be appropriated, rightly and wrongly, to support a particular persuasion or agenda, and it depends on critics to call attention to what is right or wrong appropriation. One of the best writers I know, for example, who has creatively applied Syed Hussein Alatas’ ideas on mental captivity and the inability to raise original problems to the role of education and the Arts, is former New Straits Times columnist U-En Ng. “You can use entertainment to pull wool over people’s eyes and divert attention away from whatever it is you don’t want them to see or think about. Or, more positively, you can use artistic expression to build civic participation and the capacity to raise original problems,” he writes in the article Governing through the Arts (NST, 09 January 2011). “Rebellious performance art by university students tells you both what you can expect from the current education system as well as how the public might react to new ideas.”
At the same time, a young Italian poet from Osimo by the name of Andrea Palazzo reminds us that an excess of “the so-called need to express oneself can be the mortal enemy of Beauty and Truth. Overshadowed by popular opinion, great art dies, or rather it disappears, or languishes in museums.” And for Palazzo, the prospects for Philosophy in some Italian universities, which he feels are “conservative rather than selective”, are not much brighter either.
Syed Hussein Alatas believed that any process of change must necessarily be accompanied by a philosophical set of criteria for selection of what to reject, retain and strive for (see Erring Modernization, 1975). Quoting from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Use and Abuse of History, Alatas stressed the importance of having a horizon of thinking, “a line that divides the visible and the clear from the vague and shadowy” in order for an individual, a community and a nation to thrive. “We must know the right time to forget as well as the right time to remember, and instinctively see when it is necessary to feel historically and when unhistorically.”
It is, of course, extremely difficult to know when and what to remember and forget, especially when the spectre of Malaysia’s 1969 May 13 Racial Riots still haunts us, and when Malaysia is making itself dizzy by rushing to become a High Income Nation before eight years are up.
But one way for a line, a horizon of thinking, to become clearer is through good writing. And this may just be what will rescue Alatas’ work from languishing in the shadows.