Four decades of a Malay Myth

February 2, 2017

Four decades of a Malay Myth

by Masturah Alatas

Masturah Alatas

Masturah Alatas (pic above) 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.

Image result for The Myth of the Lazy Native

The Myth of the Lazy Native is Syed Hussein Alatas’ widely acknowledged critique of the colonial construction of Malay, Filipino and Javanese natives from the 16th to the 20th century. Drawing on the work of Karl Mannheim and the sociology of knowledge, Alatas analyses the origins and functions of such myths in the creation and reinforcement of colonial ideology and capitalism.

The book constitutes in his own words: ‘an effort to correct a one-sided colonial view of the Asian native and his society’ and will be of interest to students and scholars of colonialism, post-colonialism, sociology and South East Asian Studies.–

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.

Image result for The Myth of the Lazy Native

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.

Image result for The Image of the Native Malay

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.


8 thoughts on “Four decades of a Malay Myth

  1. Natives and rural people work for ‘needs’ which are limited and thus the perception that they are lazy. Their houses are again based on needs as they have to maintain it themselves. They work very hard when the need is there and dependent on source of their needs. A padi farmer works long hours when need and just hangs around for about four months while waiting for the padi to ripen and then works hard when harvesting time comes. The same is true for fishermen, rubber tappers and those involved in small scale agriculture.

    Urbanites on the other hand work for ‘wants’ and thus work for long hours and stressful life styles to earn for their ‘wants’. They work for big houses even when the use is limited space and the same for their vehicles and other symbols of a rich and progress and a developed country.

    Urbanites pollute the air-water-environment resulting in many types of diseases some of which due to lifestyles and thus the need for medical facilities. Thus all the hospitals and specialist medical facilities are in towns as that is where the ‘customers’ are.
    The rural natives do not have any of the urban diseases as they do not create pollutions and thus no need for any sophisticated medical facilities and panadol and vicks and native natural remedies are more than enough.

    Urbanites lack of exercise is covered by expensive gyms but these may be more to feast the eyes with semi naked male/female bodies whereas the rural natives do not need as they get all the exercise in their daily lives.


    When Alexander the Great was out conquering the world he was in India where he saw a person just lying at the river bank and asked why the person was not out working. The person in turn asked Alexander why was he so far away from his own home and family and Alexander replied that he wanted to conquer the world. The person asked him as to what he will do after he had conquered the world and Alexander replied that then he will rest.
    The person said that if the objective was to rest why not do now as he was doing.
    Alexander had no answer and returned to his home but died on the way when he was about 36 years of age.


  2. Perhaps someone should write a book about “The Myth of the Hard-Working Chinese”?
    What myth? The Chinese are hardworking, tough and resilient. That is real, not a myth.–Din Merican

  3. If one is open-minded enough, he can see that any stereotype contains a certain truth. To a frugal person, some called him thrifty and others called him stingy. Thrifty has a positive connotation and stingy is negative. But they both described the same frugal person. The same may be true to describe the Malays as easy going or lazy — one positive and the other negative.

    In general the Chinese people are future-oriented while the Malays are present-oriented. This may be due to the long history of disasters, both natural and man-made, that has made the Chinese very future-oriented. While the Malays living in the tropical climate with plenty of sunshine, plenty of rainfall and a fertile land never experienced any serious famine. They became pretty present-oriented with their view of life.

    Being a future-oriented person allows you to plan ahead. Since planning is a crucial part of every project, focusing on the future clearly helps you in achieving your goals. You can mentally visualize every step of the process, predict possible obstacles and envision your success. But the present is a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice.

    Being present-oriented is definitely an amazing experience because it allows you to fully enjoy the moment. But the downside of being present-oriented is the future might be ‘foggy’ and obscure. The lack of perspective or future plans doesn’t bother them because they’re only interested in one thing – immediate gratification.

    The British colonialist did not create “the myth of the lazy native”. The Malays are easy going if you don’t like the word lazy. That’s only an opinion.

  4. Dato’, that is Chinese in the private sector. Anyway humanity is destined to do at the end what should have been done at the beginning. All is not lost. With greater transparency and lighting up the dark areas we should be able to get thing right at least 75% of the time.

  5. Din,

    Quote:- Perhaps someone should write a book about “The Myth of the Hard-Working Chinese”?
    What myth? The Chinese are hardworking, tough and resilient. That is real, not a myth.–Din Merican

    It was meant to be a “double entendre”

    ….meaning if the “lazy native / Malay” is a myth, then the “hardworking Chinese” is also a myth?

    In any case gross generalizations are never helpful because it is a no-brainer that not every native / Malay is lazy and conversely the same for the “Chinese” which is actually not a homogenous racial entity to start with just as there isn’t a definitively identifiable Malay race, socio-biologically speaking.

    There are still many pockets of rural / coastal China where the “natives” are no better off economically than the fisher folks of Kelantan & Trengganu. Just using the prosperous overseas Chinese in their Chinatowns as a defining yardstick is not seeing the trees for the forest.

    Perhaps Tun Mahathir was at least partially right in his “The Malay Dilemma”?

    That the colonial British pejorative perception of the lazy native / Malay was itself a “lazy” mis-perception owing to an uneven off-the-cuff comparison of the tough selected indentured Chinese labor which had to work hard anyway to survive in a strange harsh land and the native / Malays who, as Gursharan Singh puts it, worked for ‘needs’ which are already being met while the newly arriving Chinese had still to work for theirs?

    Perhaps all the above is downright wrong. Perhaps the Chinese, originating from mainland China as a bundle of collective ethnic group, is simply a heaven-created hardworking group of people, and the Malays, as a loose collection of brown-skinned natives with diverse origins, are by nature simply lazy and no amount of nurture will help?

    BTW, even among the “Chinese”, at least among the oversea ones, there is a commonly held perception that different dialect groups of Chinese have different innate socio-behavioral characteristics.

    For example, the Hokkiens are noisily loud and very stingy; the Cantonese are ultra cunning and snooty; the Techews are very reserved and secretive, (though they have the prettiest women); the Hakkas are socially, culturally rough, (especially their women); the Shanghainese are socially, culturally refined even in the dog-eat-dog business world.

  6. Calling an entire race lazy is unacceptable in my own conscience. As someone born as a Malaysian, I cherish and am proud of Prof Alatas’ work to debunk the myth, although I have yet to get to read his seminal work. Yet, in Tun M’s defense, I could imagine a term such as ‘laziness’ could be relative. In the eyes of colonizers, like what Dato Din affirmed, Chinese, as a group, in general could likely to be more hard-working than the Melayu, especially when observing the pendatang Chinese who are willing to work as Kuli diligently as they took risk to travel beyond their own comfort (or misery). For a more recent history, without the influence of colonizers, Singapore has achieved so much more as a city, as compared to KL, and Penang. For mainland China, we simply could not ignore the fact that how China could do in one generation transformed itself to become the factory of the world, in spite of much challenges. I would not know if I, as a Chinese, could attribute the Chinese industrious attitude to something innate in our culture, or if the recent generations of Chinese would only know of one way to survive, given how badly I know we have ruined our own life three or four generations ago.

    But, something I could not deny myself is that today’s Tanah Melayu is indeed dead on the path of layu-layu. My generation of Gen-X Melayu is indeed lazy in figuring out a mean to get out from the hole of layu-layu. Prof Atlatas, Tun M wrote what they observed 40/50 years ago. Lazy or not, stop depending on NEP or blaming something innate within one’s culture. Wake up and figure out a mean to unite all Malaysians to work for each other. Culture could change. It changed half a century ago when the Constitution accepted more than a simple definition of race for the Melayu. Ms Atlatas appears more Italian than a Melayu bertudung, yet she is still very much a confident Melayu, Malaysian.

    To this generation of Melayu, I, as a pendatang Cina Kristian, could only say this in my utmost sincerity, “stop being lazy”. Debunk me.

  7. I feel religion has much to do with the way the Malays think and perform. It’s never a plus point but one that has too many negative overtures and undertones. The belief that fate (takdir) decides one destiny has to do with religion.

    Malays normally resign themselves to “takdir” (fate) and assume anything ill befalling them as something that is predestined and of late, karma. So the urge to correct the imbalance is being abrogated or negated, for want of a better word.

    This characteristic is endemic to the people living within the Malay archipelago.

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