This article presents an interview with Masturah Alatas discussing the updated version of ‘The Life in Writing‘, which now includes new chapters and showcases previously undiscovered poetry and letters by her late father, Syed Hussein Alatas.
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Syed Hussein Alatas’ groundbreaking work, The Myth of the Lazy Native, published 46 years ago, continues to retain its profound influence and relevance today. This seminal piece offers progressive insights, meticulously dissecting colonial and post-colonial biases that fuel damaging stereotypes, particularly targeting the native Malays in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Renowned as a Malaysian sociologist and political figure, Syed Hussein co-founded the multi-ethnic Gerakan party in 1968. However, it was the publication of The Myth of the Lazy Native in 1977 that propelled him to global recognition. Notably, this work had a significant influence on Palestinian-American scholar, Edward Said’s acclaimed Orientalism, published just a year later.
Yet, the arduous journey leading to the publication of The Myth of the Lazy Native is a captivating narrative detailed in The Life in the Writing: Syed Hussein Alatas, authored by his youngest daughter, Masturah Alatas.
Masturah recently launched an expanded edition of her 2010 book to include additional chapters, unveiling previously unseen poetry by her father and captivating anecdotes discovered during her extensive research.
“I found his poetry written on slips of paper hidden among the pages of his books.”
“Few Malaysians are aware of my father’s struggles in publishing the Myth of the Lazy Native. I believe these stories would fascinate anyone in Malaysia. They include years and years of effort, his dealings and his relationship with editors and UK publishers— all these details are now part of new chapters. I think these stories would interest all Malaysians,” said Masturah.
During her book research, Masturah also stumbled upon surprising revelations about her father, notably regarding the 1969 May 13 racial riots and the nation’s general election.
“He had received a death threat in the aftermath of May 13, 1969, while he was the chairman of Gerakan that year. He had also written a song that my mother sang while they campaigned together for the general elections. All of these stories are in my book.”
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Some of the new chapters in Masturah’s The Life in Writing explore her father’s approach to censorship.
“My father was known to speak and write off the cuff, and it is this candour and clear style that has made his books still so compelling even today, reaching a broad spectrum of people and across the generations.
“I remember one incident, in which he had described Hang Tuah as a gangster in a press article, and there was a call to the house. I could hear the angry voice reverberating from the phone’s earpiece, marah sekali (extremely angry), someone was shouting at my father for insulting Hang Tuah.”
“So he always wrote honestly and courageously at the expense of angering some people but also earning the admiration of others,” said Masturah.
When discussing her father’s work’s relevance and impact, she highlighted its extensive citation in current indexes, surpassing even renowned works by novelists from Malaysia and Singapore.
“His themes are timeless. As long as issues like corruption, social inequality, and racism persist in Malaysia, they’ll continue inspiring creative works—from novels to cinema and academic research.
“Many novelists have drawn from his work. You can’t delve into racism, labour politics, or labour exploitation during colonial and post-colonial eras without studying The Myth of the Lazy Native. Understanding Malaysia’s corruption and its unique form of Islam is essential to confront and combat its most extreme and fundamentalist elements.”
Masturah also acknowledged that while she was in a unique position as her father’s daughter in writing his biography, the task had not been attempted by any other Malaysian during his lifetime. Her 2010 book is also one of the first literary biographies about a Malaysian public figure.
She mentioned that while children often inherit their parents’ crafts and write books related to them, each brings their own viewpoint.
Masturah referred to a quote from Julian Barnes’ novel, Flaubert’s Parrot, which suggested writing a friend’s biography could resemble seeking retribution. However, she emphasised a different approach.
“In my case, I’m not defending or taking revenge. I think when writing the biography of a parent, it’s important to safeguard the truth about them.
“There’s also a lot of my family in this book, not only my father but also my mother, sister, and other family members. I think one gets to know a lot about Syed Hussein and his origins by reading my book.”
Masturah’s literary biography stands as an unparalleled exploration of her father’s life, shedding light on his approach to writing, the significant hurdles he faced, and the driving forces behind his influential work challenging colonial and imperial perspectives on Asian communities, particularly the Malays.
The updated edition includes Amir Muhammad’s contribution—a review of Syed Hussein’s book Biarkan Buta (Let The Blind Remain)—centring on the debate about corneal donations in Islam and highlighting the contrast between Syed Hussein’s progressive and less progressive viewpoints.
Cover image sourced from Gerak Budaya.