Originally published in 1977, ‘The Myth of the Lazy Native’ is an early example of a systematic critique of colonial knowledge. Syed Hussein Alatas analyses the origins of the myth of the ‘lazy native’ from the 16th to the 20th century in Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, and how it functions within colonial capitalism, a type of transformed feudal order with racial undertones. The ‘indolence’ that the native population was accused of was not just linked to labour; the entire concept of their humanity was derived from the interests of colonial capitalism—in service of which they had to be degraded and made to feel subservient, lest they cast off the foreign yoke. Alatas’ seminal work also shows that these ideas still have a considerable influence, even after the independence of the colonies.
SYED HUSSEIN ALATAS was born in Bogor, West Java, in 1928. He received his primary education in Johor Bahru. Due to the interruption caused by World War II, he returned to be with his parents in Sukabumi, West Java, but later returned to Malaya to resume his studies. His ties with Indonesia led to the option of pursuing higher degrees at the University of Amsterdam, where he became exposed to works in the social sciences and humanities outside of the Anglo-Saxon world. Alatas received his PhD from the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences in 1963, and returned to Malaysia as a lecturer at the Department of Malay Studies at the University of Malaya. He then founded and served as professor and head of the Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore from 1967, before taking up the position of vice-chancellor of UM from 1988 to 1991. Alatas’ major works deal with the critique of colonial knowledge, the sociology of corruption, the study of modernisation and development, historiography of the Malay world, and the study of Muslim reformist thought. Underlying all his works was the concern with the problem of intellectual imperialism, mental captivity, and the lack of a functioning group of intellectuals in the Third World. He was committed to the idea of an autonomous social science tradition. He also promoted the idea that certain forms of socialism were in line with the worldview of Islam. Syed Hussein Alatas’ last position was professor and principal research fellow at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation, National University of Malaysia. Alatas passed away on January 23, 2007, at his home in Kuala Lumpur.