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Reading Syed Husin Ali, remembering Gramsci

By Dr. Azly Rahman

Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” – Jean Jacques Rousseau, ‘The Social Contract’ MCPX 

The social contract is nothing more or less than a vast conspiracy of human beings to lie to and humbug themselves and one another for the general good. Lies are the mortar that bind the savage individual man into the social masonry.” – HG Wells, philosopher and science fiction author

How committed must an intellectual be? How passionate a life must an academician live? How incorruptible must one’s ideals be in face of a country such as Malaysia whose government is at the brink of what Mekkah was at the time of the emergence of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him)?

These are my thoughts upon hearing that Dr Syed Husin Ali is launching the latest edition of his classic work on the analysis of the Malays.

I did not get the chance to become a student of Syed Husin, whom I have never met but have known through his writings. He would be on the top 10 list of those I would like to meet. I would have been a different student had I been guided by this man; one of the most respected public intellectuals Asia has ever known. He is an Antonio Gramsci of our times.

His story of his year of detention under the government-blessed instrument of dehumanisation called the Internal Security Act, is poignant. I was perhaps 11 when the ISA arrests happened. He will go down in history as one of the most conscientious intellectuals whose passion must be emulated. I was fortunate not to be ISA-ed. My passion must now be to write about the abolishment of the dreadful Act. That’s the sacrifice Syed Husin has taken in order to get one’s message of social justice and committed intellectualism across.

Syed Husin’s thesis

In The Malays, their problems and future, Syed Husin developed the thesis that arguably explained the predicament of the contemporary Malays. He looked at the structure of domination that has plagued this race from feudal times immemorial. Reading Syed Husin is like reading Karl Wittfogel, Antonio Gramsci and Fredric Jameson all in one. In his seminal work, Syed Husin presented a genealogical order of the Malays, dissected its historical-materialistic dimension, provided a critique of the nature of elitism vis-a-viz pattern of ownership, and lastly presented a perspective of change that gives hope to this race that has been disgraced by its own political elite.

Like Wittfogel, he looked at society as an evolution of an entity in which the agriculture and maritime power not only gave rise to feudal lords but industrial power gave birth to the total power of the ruling regime; one that controls not only the productive forces of society but also created the religious class that culminate in the present day branded-religio-political ideology of “Islam Hadhari.”

Like Gramsci, Syed Husin wrote about the emergence of the “hegemony of the ruling class” particularly in the Mahathir Administration in which what is projected to the masses is an image of “benevolence albeit authoritarianism” and the perception of “moral and intellectual leadership” foundation upon the power of Fordist industrialism, encultured in the image of production of goods such as national cars, microchip and tallest towers.

For 22 years, Malaysians were fed with this perception of the success of the Malays. Syed Husin meticulously analysed. Mahathir’s “Malay dilemma”, Sanusi Junid’s “Mental revolution” and Malik Munip’s “Ketuanan Melayu/Malay dominance” amongst the leit motif of this new era of Malay industrial bourgeoise-ism that contributed to the near-destruction of this race itself circa 2008.

Like Frederic Jameson’s work on the cultural logic of late capitalism, Syed Husin wrote about a Malay history that marginalised the people and glorified the advancement of capitalist ideology, creating classes with material and cultural capital.

What went wrong with the Malays, as Syed Husin has analysed on a tour de force of Malay cultural analysis? What then must the Malay do, as he proposed as well?

In the tradition of Syed Husin’s analysis, herein I provide my own interpretation of what is still wrong with the psyche of the Malays.

The problem with the Malays

The problem lies not in the here and now but in the past; one that needs to be de-constructed and reconstructed. It lies in the Malay psyche. It lies in the notion of hegemony as it relates to the political-economy of totalitarianism and controlling interests that continue to cement the master- slave narrative/relationship of the ruler and the ruled. That master-slave narrative has become a technology of psycholinguistic control and institutionalised as “culture”.

The Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, and British colonialists succeeded because the fertile ground of the slave mentality is already prepared historical- materialistically. We can see this mentality in the idea that a Malay political leader must not be challenged (such as in case of the presidency of the Umno) and this is a manifestation of this neo- feudalism hypermodern inner construct of the Malay in the Age of Cybernetics. Let us further analyse this psychological contradiction, using current perspectives of hegemony the Malays must learn to use in order to move beyond this non-issue of Malay politics.

The “Either-Or” illusion/dimension of the Mahathir-Abdullah problematique is not the issue. This is merely a manifestation of the shadow play of the “winners of history”, and in what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would term as the “habitus” and the ‘disposition’ of the neo-feudal Malay mentality that will require a Lacanian (postmodern psycholinguistics) analysis. The character of the controlling interest, for example, in the issue of the Johor half bridge presents us with a holistic picture of the immense success of the collaboration between the ruler and the local political-economic elite in making sure that hegemony is maintained for material gains.

The common Malay does not need emotional outbursts or a Cold-War-ish ‘amuk’ as a tool of analysis, rather they need an excellent view of their own socio-psychological history to establish an even better foundation of a new society. At present, because of the moral bankruptcy of their own leaders, the poor common Malay is unfairly carrying the image of a ‘silently-reproduced’ people who are betrayed by their own ‘nationalists’ – all in the name of Takkan Melayu Hilang di Dunia. (‘The Malay Shall Never Perish from this Earth’): a leitmotif of thought-control that masks the historical-material-political-economic nature of structural violence.

The non-Malays must understand the predicament from an intellectual perspective and must learn to arrive at a common ground to help each other progress to eradicate poverty and restructure society. We might have misunderstood each other based on selective historicising that have been produced as artifacts and historical facts and disseminated to each generation. The only history we know in short is the history of the ruling class.

At every epoch in history it has been such. The winners write history, the losers write poetry or study anthropology. Even the non-Malays have their own master-slave narrative and their own history of ‘mental enslavement’ that they need to reflect upon, revolt against, de-construct, and reconstruct so that only the signs, symbols, significations that are truly ‘humanising’ will be allowed to flourish.

Divine rights

The Yap Ah Loy symbolism of the ‘founder’ of Kuala Lumpur is a convenient mask of history that hides the structural violence embedded in the war over the control of tin mines. The history of the indentured servitude of the Indians in British Malaya is presented as ‘facts’ and seldom as narratives of human suffering and bondage in the historical march of progress of the American automobile and canning industries.

But how have the Malays been hegemonised and mentally imprisoned by their own rulers? We need to look at what ‘hegemony’ means; a term usually popular in international relations but ought to be extended into the realm of psychological construct in the analysis of cultures. Writings on the idea of hegemony, with its Greek root word ‘hegemon’ meaning ‘lead’, have mainly been popularly attributed to the work of the Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci. For him, ‘hegemony’ represents a moment in history, or a ‘historical bloc’ in which the leader (in this case Mussolini,) gains acceptance based on his ability to lead, morally and intellectually, even in fascistic circumstances, as in the case of Mussolini, a Fascist Italy.

The status of civil society is achieved when the masses or the people accept the ideas of the ruling class (the regime and its doctrine) as common sense. As I have alluded to earlier passages above, the circumstance of the acceptance of this condition, according to Gramsci, is made possible with the dominance of ‘Fordism’ (the ideology of the modern system of production based on the influence of Henry Ford’s automobile industry) as a common-sensical ideology; of which man’s creative instincts are controlled, through a rationalisation process ideologised by Fordism and Americanism.

Common sense allows the Malays to accept politically whatever fate has dictated for them to behave. Historically however, the idea of hegemony is certainly not new. Religion, myth, and the supernatural have played their hegemonic role in maintaining a common-sensical view of how human beings should be cast and ordered on the ladder of existence and how to behave or be controlled socially and politically. The idea of the ‘divine rights of kings’ in the Middle Ages, is illustrated in the classic example of France’s Louis XIV, ‘The Sun King’ who ruled for 72 years from the age of four, or universally, as in the case of the feudal monarchs in China, Japan, and India.

In Karl Marx’s later writings, the analyses centered around the relationship between the development of classes to the maintenance of the ideology produced by the ruling class through hegemonic formations that correspond to the mode of economic production. In a similar vein, the French Enlightenment thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote about hegemony in his idea of the ‘social contract’ in which the ruler and the ruled are bound by a covenant that would facilitate the maintenance of an orderly society. In modern times, the media especially television, plays its role in maintaining the hegemony of the advanced capitalism.

In the case of the Malay society, the idea of hegemony or ‘political common sense’ can be traced to the myth of the covenant between Sang Sapurba (the mystic/ philosopher-king) and Demang Daun Lebar (the ruler/representative of the people) in which the myth states that as long as the leader is just, the people will not depose him. Hegemony is also achieved through the installation, imposition, and inscription of the British colonial mode of production that put the class of colonial serfs or indentured slaves (paddy farmers, tin miners, and rubber tappers) in an orderly and appealing master-serf relationship.

The Algerian thinker Albert Memmi would term this as a classic coloniser-colonised relationship. Daulat, which connotes ‘the divine rights of the Kings’ is the hegemonic state of political being-ness wrought upon the Malays, especially during the Melaka sultanate spanning to the present day of the reign of the constitutional monarch and the nine hereditary rulers. Hang Tuah was too blind a hero. If in the days of the Sultanate of Melaka, daulat played its role as a hegemonising strategy similar to that of the concept of the ‘divine rights of kings’ in modern Malaysian political context, the modern state or the kerajaan (a synthesis of the concept of kingdom and statehood) operates to maintain that hegemony.

The idea of daulat is cleverly inscribed onto the consciousness of the Malays. A good citizen is defined as one who is law abiding, God-fearing, and one who pays total allegiance to the Malay sultans or raja and the constitutional monarch such that to question the supremacy of the rule of the ceremonial king would be culturally prohibited. In many an analysis of the transformation of the Malay society from the times of the Melaka Sultanate to the emergence of the Malay nationalism we find the conclusion of the idea of a good Malay subject is one who surrenders total obedience to his or her Ruler (the sultan or the Raja).

The king is said to be ‘(Allah’s) representative on this earth’ and is thus bestowed with the Divine Rights. Social status is calibrated based on the sophistication of the signs and symbols of the Malay sultanate. For example, royal awards are presented yearly to those who have demonstrated good service and relationship to the constitutional monarchical system. Upon receiving these awards, some recipients would even be given honorific titles. Many will use their honor to dishonorably gain economic privileges. The notion of the daulat or the ‘divine sanction’ still continues to this day.

The Malay hero

The concept of a hero in Malay society is enshrined in Hang Tuah, the most popular symbol of the warrior-class in Malay history; the good ‘polyglot’, the magical-mystical Malay hero who pledged blind loyalty to the Sultan. The image of the warrior-blind loyalist is well-inscribed into the literature and consciousness of the Malays. Today, enshrined, is the modern-day doctrine of allegiance to the ruler in the form of the Rukunegara or the ‘Principles of the Nationhood’.

The myth of Hang Tuah, arguably, together with his friends Hang Jebat, Hang Lekir, and Hang Lekiu has been inscribed into the consciousness of the Malays and forms the foundation of the master-slave narrative. The ideological state apparatuses are employed to advance the economic development of the nation as well as to maintain social order so that the state can continue to pursue its development projects along the lines of state-sponsored capitalism that is increasingly taking the character of the corporation nation-state coloured by politics of race; a system that continues to prosper via a tight nexus between politics and business.

The Mahathir-Abdullah dilemma is a Malaysian dilemma that signals a breakdown in the political economic system; one that reduces the multiculturally impoverished into statistics of the New Economic Policy and glorifies individual political leaders as ‘captains of industry’ and ‘nationalists’ drowned in the wave of globalisation.

I believe the history of the people of Malaysia, and especially of the Malays, must be rewritten in order for the marginalised, the enslaved, the colonised, and the wretched to be allowed to speak up and tell us what a more progressive historicising means.

A required reading

The perspective above provides an enrichment of the arguments put forth by the author of The Malays: their problems and future. Syed Husin Ali, the most respected committed intellectual has not only provided a critical analysis of what the Malays have gone through but what lies ahead particularly at this “defining” moment in which the Malays have finally realised the mental structures that are shackling them; structures built by the individuals and ideology that grew out of the historical and material conditions that too, must be deconstructed.

I would even advocate for the history of the Malays to be radically rewritten; so that the common person becomes the hero. We must first put Tun Sri Lanang on trial for imprisoning the mind of the Malays and for wrongly inspiring ultra-Malay historians that further inspire race-based politics and oppressive and colonizing cultural institutions.

Syed Husin Ali’s The Malays: their problems and future is a must reading for all Malaysians wishing to understand the predicament this country is in.

– Azly Rahman


June 24, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. S Y E D H U S I N A L I }

    Bapa Sosiologi Melayu!

    Comment by :: lazuardi sepi :: | July 9, 2008 | Reply

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