Review of Syed Husin Ali’s Memoirs of a Political Struggle.
by M. Bakri Musa
Syed Husin Ali: Memoirs of a Political Struggle. Strategic Information and Research Development Center, Petaling Jaya, 2013. 273 pp.
The deserved universal condemnation and merciless ridicule of the Malaysian authorities’ bungling of the MH370 tragedy did not arise in a vacuum. From leaders’ refusing to entertain questions at their press briefings to radar operators ignoring intruding beeps on their screens, this unconcealed contempt for the public, and the accompanying lackadaisical attitude, is the norm.
Our leaders may have had First World education, alas their mentality remains stubbornly stuck in Third World mode. Their bebalism and tidak apaism make the Jamaican “It’s not my job, mon!” a valid excuse by contrast.
To readers of on-line news portals, I am not stating anything new here; likewise to ordinary citizens who have had to deal with governmental agencies. However, when these general inadequacies and gross incompetence in their infinite manifestations are put in print as in books, there is satisfaction, at least to their authors, that they are being documented for posterity.
So when Malaysia degenerates (as surely it would) into another Nigeria with its endemic corruption, or Pakistan with religious fanaticism, scholars would have ample materials upon which to base their analyses. Until then these accounts serve as a much-needed antidote to the fluff and gloss that typify Malaysian official reports.
We owe these authors, from ordinary citizens to seasoned journalists, and opposition activists to members of the establishment, a huge debt of gratitude when they record their experiences. Syed Hussin Ali’s reflective autobiography, Memoirs of a Political Struggle, is one such valuable addition, tracing the nation’s social and political development, beginning with the decade before independence. Despite the title, the book is an autobiography more than a memoir.
Once pedantic readers get past the pedestrian I-was-born opening, the scholar in Syed Hussin gives us an unsentimental and detached view. As a politician, he details the many hypocritical ways of his peers. He relates an occasion when he was on a panel discussion with one Dr. Mahathir at the University of Malaya campus. Mahathir then was not yet prime minister but headed that way through his rising popularity as head of UMNO Youth.
Mahathir chided those “impure” Malay political activists. “Those of Arab descent,” Syed Hussin quoted Mahathir, “should not have any right to talk about political issues of this country.”
Syed Hussin’s understated nonchalant riposte was, “I do not wish to talk about ancestry for otherwise I will have to talk about the rights of those of Indian descent.”
My purpose with this quote is not to showcase Mahathir’s hypocrisy (readers can readily find their own far more consequential examples) or highlight Syed Hussin’s not-widely recognized wit, rather to point out one significant observation. That is, you will never find such a panel discussion on today’s Malaysian campuses where contrasting positions would be presented. That is one the many destructive legacies of Mahathir.
Syed Hussin is, quoting Anwar Ibrahim, “in a category of his own, unique in terms of moral conviction, and not in the business of saying things to please people.” A sociologist, Syed Hussin gave up his productive academic career to turun padang and get involved in electoral politics. He is less successful in this second endeavor. Nonetheless with the victory of his party’s coalition in the last general election, he was appointed as a Senator from Selangor. A well-deserved appointment!
Syed Hussin Ali had a First World education (London School of Economics PhD), but unlike many in the country similarly blessed, he maintained those First World qualities. As an academic he was not content resting on his sterling academic qualification. His pioneering work on social stratification in traditional Malay society remains widely quoted.
In an enlightened administration, especially one that professes to champion the plight of poor rural folks, a man of Syed Hussin’s insight and talent would be co-opted to play a major role. Alas, UMNO is far from being enlightened, and its commitment to alleviating rural poverty is more an election gimmick, and a scheme to enrich its operatives through the many “development” schemes. Thus funds meant for poor livestock growers are siphoned to buy luxury condos in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Three qualities struck me about Syed Hussin. One, his humility, integrity and piety; two, his early socio-political consciousness, beginning right at primary school; and three, his thoroughly Malaysian experience and outlook. His rural upbringing in Batu Pahat, Johore, has much to do with his humility; his religious parents, his piety; and, being a former King Scout, his integrity.
When Anwar underwent surgery in Germany, Syed Hussin visited him using his own funds. One of Anwar’s operatives tried to reimburse Syed by handing him a bundle of $100 US notes, but he would have none of it. Unable to stop the man, Syed gave the money to his party’s treasurer upon his return. On another occasion, when as a scholar he was given a UNESCO research grant, he returned to his dean the unused portion. That’s integrity! Anyone else would finagle a way to present his paper at the University of Hawaii or Bali with those leftover funds.
Syed Hussin grew up in colonial Malaya. To today’s young accustomed to incompetence, cronyism, and influence peddling, that was an entirely different era. While Syed Hussin did not hide his nationalistic and anti-colonial streaks, nonetheless that did not stop the authorities from selecting him to attend a scouting jamboree in Australia.
The other aspect to Syed Hussin’s path is that his schooling, extracurricular activities and political activism all took place in an environment involving Malaysians of all races. That was why he was so offended by Mahathir’s remarks at that panel discussion. Syed embodies the values and aspirations of a truly modern Malaysian.
Syed leftwing leanings began early. In a society obsessed with labels, and where political sophistication was rudimentary, it was not wise to identify or be labeled as a socialist, especially when memories of the brutal communist insurgency were still fresh. Dispensing with labels, what is clear is that Syed Hussin is committed to social justice, economic equity, and equal opportunities. What he abhors is leaders betraying their followers’ trust. This betrayal comes in many guises – greed and its associated corruption, incompetence and its bebalism or tidak apaism, or just plain stupidity and ignorance.
I wonder what would be his fate had Syed Hussin dispensed with labels and joined UMNO like so many like-minded Malays. The Fabian socialists would surely approve of Tun Razak’s generous redistributionist policies and massive state interventions in the economy. After all there was a time when the term kaum kapitalis (capitalist hordes) was an epithet hurled by the likes of UMNO’s Syed Jaafar Albar and Syed Nasir. Today with the spoils of crony capitalism, socialism is a curse; likewise social justice.
Had Syed Hussin joined UMNO, would he be as corrupt as the rest or would he be like the snake that would not lose its venom despite crawling among vines, as per the Malay proverb? I believe he would the latter, and the nation would have been richer for his contributions.
I detect a tinge of regret as Syed Hussin recollects his struggles over these years. Being a former sociologist, he of course tried hard to conceal his own disappointments. There is however, no settling of old scores, not even with his old jailors. There is a touching picture of a smiling Syed greeting his old tormentor from the Special Branch. That’s class! Contrast that to the vile-filled memoirs of many recently-retired politicians.
Make no mistake. Syed Hussin is capable of penning moving prose and be passionate in his writings. I remember reading his Two Faces. Detention Without Trial, and slamming down the book in anger at the authorities’ brutal and inhumane treatment of this great intellect and patriotic Malaysian.
This was his poignant ending to the short opening paragraph in Two Faces: “One minute I was a professor, the next I was a prisoner.” I suppose his fate could have been worse. Consider that for Egypt’s Morsi it would be, “One minute I was president; the next, a prisoner.”
A generation hence when dysfunctional countries like Egypt would be our peers, we can look back and realize that there were committed and courageous Malaysians like Syed Hussin who tried hard to stem the slime. And our descendents would glow in the reflected glory of his many heroic efforts.