Masturah Alatas takes a close look at the legacy and impact of her father’s seminal study of ‘Malayness’, The Myth of the Lazy Native, which turns 40 this year.
“Our Production Manager estimates that we would very likely have finished copies of both books in December, and would therefore be able to publish in January, 1977.”
With these long-awaited words that reached Singapore in a letter dated 14 September 1976, Malaysian sociologist Syed Hussein Alatas (1928-2007) received confirmation that his books, The Myth of the Lazy Native and Intellectuals in Developing Societies, would finally be published in London by Frank Cass.
Murray Mindlin was the Cass editor who wrote the letter. He also happened to be the Hebrew translator of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a fitting fact since The Myth of the Lazy Native (henceforth Lazy Native) was caught up in its own, long-drawn-out publishing odyssey. Shunned by publishers in Malaysia and Singapore, Alatas first submitted Intellectuals to Frank Cass in early 1972 at the suggestion of social anthropologist, Ernest Gellner. In corresponding with Cass editors about that book, later the same year Alatas casually mentioned that he was completing the Lazy Native that he had started working on in 1966.
“At the moment I am finishing a manuscript of about 100,000 words on the myth of the lazy native in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, from the 16th to the 20th centuries. It is a study of the function and origin of this myth in the colonial ideology. Dutch, Malay and English sources are used. The discipline applied is the sociology of knowledge. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first work of its kind,” Alatas wrote.
Young editor Jim Muir, who would later become the BBC’s correspondent for the Middle East, immediately asked to see the manuscript. Struck by the title and subject, he felt Lazy Native “would probably fit very well into our Library of Peasant Studies.”
The story of the publishing vicissitudes of Lazy Native is documented in my book, The Life in the Writing (2010), as is the work’s international reception by the likes of Victor Gordon Kiernan, Edward W Said, Ziauddin Sardar and many others.
There are several ways to assess the status of Lazy Native in the 40 years of its existence. We can check databases to see where it has been cited and syllabi to know where it is taught. Social media will give us an idea of who is reading it, talking about it, and going to conferences, seminars and festivals where it is studied.
One could say that a revived interest in the book is due, in part, to the efforts of his son and my brother, Syed Farid Alatas, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore, not just through teaching, public speaking and his own writing but also because he solicited a reprint of a paperback and more affordable edition of Lazy Native from Routledge (2010). Malaysians will remember that the hardback Cass edition of Lazy Native once went for over 400 ringgit (roughly $US90 in today’s money). Syed Farid Alatas was also proactive in getting a second edition of the Malay translation of the book, Mitos Pribumi Malas, reissued with Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (2009).
It is worth mentioning—as translation studies scholar Nazry Bahrawi has noted—that the Malay translation, or rather adaptation of Lazy Native from the 1987 Indonesian translation, contains some omissions, including excluded lines and passages that are present in both the English and Indonesian versions. One omission is the line “The degradation of the Malay character is an attempt by the ruling party to absolve itself from blame for real or expected failures to ensure the progress of the Malay community” (Lazy Native, 1977, p 181). The book contains no note from the translator, Zainab Kassim, as to the reasons for these omissions.
Whatever the case, we can conclude that irrespective of the availability of the book in English and Malay, what the quality of the Malay translation is, or how much or little it is actually read and talked about, Lazy Native seems to have found its place in the sun as a classic, and not just because Bahrawi and other scholars recognise it as a seminal text located within postcolonial theory. Not only has the Lazy Native walked right out of the Library of Peasant Studies into the libraries of Malay studies, cultural studies, sociology, history and literature—not to mention the personal libraries of many Malaysians— the book also seems to be sitting in the collective Malaysian imagination as a disgruntled trope, even though Syed Hussein Alatas himself had doubts about how many people had actually read and understood it.
It is therefore legitimate to ask: after 40 years, is the myth of the lazy native still a myth? Former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad seems not to think so. According to him, the Malays are lazy because they don’t study hard enough, they can’t master English and they prefer to become Mat Rempit (motorcycle gangsters). What is missing from the narrative is if it is laziness or hard work that has to do with how the current Prime Minister, Najib Razak, was able to allegedly channel more than $1 billion into his personal bank accounts.
Historian Zaharah Sulaiman, instead, believes that if “Malays are called lazy and not innovative, it’s because the knowledge, the peoples who have the knowledge have gone extinct,” and that ‘foreign invasions’ that led to the ‘grabbing’ of riches has a lot to do with the extinction of this knowledge.
But in the chapter “The disappearance of the indigenous trading class”, Alatas does not so simplistically attribute the destruction of the trading class to foreign invasion. If anything, he provides sociological analysis showing how local rulers were sometimes complicit with colonial masters in bringing about the disappearance of the native trading class — for example when local chiefs acted as agents for the Dutch East India Company.
Alatas framed his critique of colonial capitalism that exploited the image of the lazy native with economic and sociological analyses. Indeed, he called it “colonial capitalism” and not white capitalism. And nowhere in Lazy Native does he blame the other ethnicities of Malaysia—the Chinese or the Indians—for the condition of the Malays.
It is important to understand this to distance the kind of critique Alatas performs in Lazy Native and the language he uses from, say, rants about “Chinese privilege” in Singapore, in which the term itself makes a direct link of ethnicity—one ethnicity in particular—to majority class and political privilege, and abuse of power. If Alatas has tried to help us see the wrongness in the ideological necessity of giving laziness a Malay face, we are invited to think about the wrongness in the ideological insistence of giving a Chinese face to privilege.
Finally, Lazy Native has inadvertently generated it own myth that needs to be debunked if we are to understand what unique scholarship really means— the claim that the book contributed to Edward W Said’s thesis on Orientalism. This claim has been made by several scholars all over the world.
Orientalism (1978) was already written and sent off to the publisher when Alatas’ book came out the year before Said’s did. At the time, the two men never even knew or corresponded with each other.
I know this because both men told me so.
Masturah Alatas is a writer and teacher who lives in Macerata, Italy. She is the author of The girl who made it snow in Singapore (2008) and The life in the writing (2010), a memoir-biography about her father, Syed Hussein Alatas.
The Myth of the Native Lazy marks 40 years of publication today.