By Professor Tommy Koh: Remembering Syed Hussein and Honouring his Legacy

September 17, 2019

Remembering Syed Hussein

Professor Syed Hussein was the Head of the Malay Studies Department, at NUS, from 1977 to 1988.  I had met Syed Hussein on several occasions.  I had also heard him speak at some university functions.  I remember him as a brilliant scholar, an eloquent speaker, and someone who was charismatic and charming.  I also formed the impression that he was an original thinker, a man of principle and of courage.  I am therefore glad to be able to honour his memory today, his 91st birthday.

Honouring His Legacy

I will now proceed to identify and discuss four important components of his intellectual legacy.

Thomas Stamford Raffles:  Schemer or Reformer?

In 1971, Syed Hussein published a book on Raffles, entitled, Thomas Stamford Raffles: Schemer or Reformer?  A discussion of Raffles in 2019, is particularly relevant because we are commemorating the 200th anniversary of the founding of Singapore by Raffles and Farquhar.  Syed Hussein was against the canonization of Raffles.  He made the argument that Raffles was not the humanitarian reformer, which his admirers had made him out to be.  Instead, he was a schemer and an opportunist.

In 2019, we have a more accurate and balanced view of Raffles.   We acknowledge that if Raffles and Farquhar had not chosen to establish a trading post, for the East India Company, in 1819, in Singapore, we would probably not be here today.  We also acknowledge the wisdom of Raffles in making Singapore a free port, open to ships of all nations and in upholding free trade.

However, we also know that Raffles was a schemer and a self-promoter. He claimed credit for the good work done by his number two, William Farquhar.  He sacked Farquhar and falsely accused him of various wrongdoings.  Raffles had also behaved disgracefully as the Lieutenant-Governor of Java.  He humiliated the Sultan of Jogjakarta and looted his Palace.

Every nation has its founding myths.  Singapore is no exception.  We have put Raffles on the pedestal and he will remain there.  However, we have discovered our pre-colonial history.  We have also identified several Singaporean pioneers, of different races, who had contributed to the success of the British colony.  And, at long last, William Farquhar’s contributions have been acknowledged and a new garden, on Fort Canning, has been built in his name.

The Myth of the Lazy Native

In 1977, Syed Hussein published a very important book, entitled, The Myth of the Lazy Native.  This book was path-breaking.  In his book, Syed Hussein pointed out that, for centuries, western literature had portrayed the native peoples of maritime Southeast Asia as lazy.  Syed Hussein was correct to point out that the West had invented this stereotype of the lazy natives in order to justify their colonisation of Southeast Asia.  Another myth invented by the West was that the natives were uncivilised and therefore in need of being civilized by the West.

Syed Hussein’s book had a profound impact on many scholars around the world.  One of them was Professor Edward Wadie Said of Columbia University, in New York.  Professor Said was born in Palestine.  He had followed his father to the United States.  In 1978, a year after Syed Hussein’s book was published, Professor Said published his great book, Orientalism.  The book is a critique of the cultural representations of the orient, in Western literature.  The book argues that there is a subtle but persistent eurocentric prejudice against Arabs and Muslims.    It would not be wrong to say that Syed Hussein Alatas and Edward Said were the two founding fathers of post-colonial studies.


Professor Syed Hussein was a strong believer in multiculturalism.  He rejected race-based politics in Malaysia.  In 1968, he and Dr Tan Chee Koon, the leader of the Labour Party, founded a new political party called Gerakan based on the principle of multiculturalism.   It participated in the 1969 general elections and won several seats.  To celebrate its electoral victories, the party held a political rally and procession in Kuala Lumpur.  When the procession entered the Malay areas of the city, some Gerakan members made the mistake of jeering at the Malay residents.  Although the party apologised, UMNO held a retaliatory rally on the next day.  The rally got out of hand and turned into an anti-Chinese riot.  More than 180 people were killed and a state of emergency was declared.  Parliament was suspended and did not reconvene until 1971. 

In 1972, Gerakan, under the leadership of Dr Lim Chong Eu, decided to join the UMNO-led alliance.  Both Syed Hussein and Tan Chee Koon resigned from the party.  They formed a new party called PEKEMAS, based on their belief in multiculturalism.  The party was dissolved in 1978.

Although Syed Hussein’s attempt to move Malaysia away from race-based politics, was unsuccessful, he never stopped to believe in the superiority of multiculturalism.  I think history will vindicate him.


The cause which Syed Hussein was most devoted to was his life-long campaign against corruption.  In 1968, he published a book, The Sociology of Corruption.  In 1986, he published a second book on the subject, The Problem of Corruption.  In 1990, he published a third book entitled, Corruption:  It’s Nature, Causes and Functions.  In 1993, he contributed the entry on corruption, to the Oxford Companion on World Politics.  In 1999, he published his fourth book, Corruption and the Destiny of Asia.

Professor Syed Hussein was right to campaign against corruption in the world, especially in Asia.  Corruption is unfortunately rampant in Asia.  It undermines good governance, the rule of law and justice.  It breeds a culture of impunity.

I want to share with you the following quotations from Syed Hussein on corruption:

Syed Hussein was, of course, right when he said that corruption exists in all kinds of political systems and in different economic conditions.  We find corruption in democracies and in communist countries.  We find corruption in developed and in developing countries.  We find corruption in the East and in the West.  Syed Hussein was also right when he said that the answer is clean political leaders.



Syed Hussein passed away on the 23rd of January 2007 at the  age of 82.  Twelve years have passed since he left us.  His intellectual legacy will never be forgotten. Post-colonial studies, multiculturalism and anti-corruption were the three causes closest to his heart.  They remain as relevant today as they were during his life time.


The Tembusu (Fagraea fragrans) is a large evergreen tree in the family Gentianaceae. It is native to Southeast Asia. Its trunk is dark brown, with deeply fissured bark, looking somewhat like a bittergourd. It grows in an irregular shape from 10 to 25m high. Its leaves are light green and oval in shape. Its yellowish flowers have a distinct fragrance and the fruits of the tree are bitter tasting red berries, which are eaten by birds and fruit bats.