An anti-colonial short-course for Malaysians in one volume. The Myth of the Lazy Native was an influential book in post-colonial studies, published a year before Edward Said’s Orientalism[1]. Syed Hussein Alatas trawls through centuries of original sources to find the sources of the persistent idea that Malays, and other native peoples, are lazy. Some of the key points that struck me were:

1. At the time of first contact with Europeans, the peoples of the Nusantara were active economically and were engaged in long-distance trade far beyond the archipelago on their own boats with their own capital and with the ability to defend their own interests. Ocean-going vessels, arms and munitions were manufactured locally.

2. European monopoly shut down thriving multi-national trade zones, impoverishing and over centuries eliminating the indigineous trading class, eventually reducing native society to peasants and rulers. Alatas finds clear and detailed discourse from Ibn Khaldun 700 years ago describing the ill effects of mercantile colonialism (specifically the ruler engaging directly in trade) and promoting a role for the ruler that corresponds closely to the way the trade ports of the archipelago were in fact run. Which isn’t to say the sultans of the region had read Ibn Khaldun, but it does make it hard to believe the colonial regimes didn’t know exactly what their policies would do to the locals.

3. Only after the region was thoroughly dominated by European powers do observations about the laziness of the locals begin to emerge.

4. The heart of the matter. Laziness as used by European observers meant, and could only mean: non-cooperation with colonial exploitation. The Malays would rather live on their own terms in their village than work under near-slavery conditions in the plantations and mines. If the labor arrangement wasn’t to their satisfaction, they would simply walk off [2]. This was not an option for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Indians who were brought in as indentured laborers, often from even more dire situations back home, and worked to death under appalling conditions until their debt was repaid. For this, they were labelled as “industrious”.

5. By the 19th century, European observers were also recording instances of decadent, corrupt, and oppressive behavior from the hereditary Malay rulers, the sultans and rajas. Alatas makes an interesting point: under the terms of colonial domination, the local rulers were unable to conduct diplomatic relations, unable to regulate the economy, unable to wage war, unable to perform any of the functions by which their social class had distinguished itself in the past. Hollowed out and on a short leash, stagnation and slide into decadence seems more understandable.

6. Alatas expresses a view I have encountered more than once, that Malaysia is at a disadvantage somehow because it did not fight a war to gain independence. Personally, I think Malaysia came out ahead from having a peaceful transfer of power, and the diplomatic skills that made that happen deserve to be honored in the national historiography. But he does make a compelling argument that there was no real ideological break between the old colonial masters and the local elite that took their place. This brings us to the last point.

7. The image of Malays as lazy has persisted to the present day because it fits the political needs of the current power structure. It works like this:

  • Malays are lazy.
  • Because they are lazy, they are bound to lose in unrestricted competition with Chinese Malaysians.
  • Therefore, the Malays must elect a government that will protect them.

One could argue Malaysia’s reliance on imported labor for all the most wretched jobs in the country is a hold-over from the colonial system too. The Myth of the Lazy Native came out after Tun Dr Mahathir’s “The Malay Dilemma”, which he scathingly critiques, but before Mahathir’s rise to ultimate power. 40 years later, the myth of the lazy native is just as entrenched as ever, to the extent that it rarely needs to be mentioned explicitly.

Monyet Belanda

1. See Farish Noor’s obituary for Syed Hussein Alatas.
2. In, I believe, Tarling’s Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, it is mentioned that a key check to the power of the Sultan was that his people could simply sail away down the river or off to a different island if they were unhappy with his rule.

After all the terrible imagery the colonial powers left behind about the locals, there are at least a few lingering ideas about the colonials that have remained here. The Malays have a saying “Macam Belanda mendapat tanah”, which literally means “Like a Dutchman getting land”. The usage is identical to the American saying “Give an inch, take a mile” describing grasping greediness. And then there is the monyet Belanda, or “Dutch monkey”, better known abroad as the proboscis monkey.

Myth of the Lazy Native GoodReads Page

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Official organ of an American Muslim in Malaysian Borneo, featuring plants, pantuns and pictures from the Malay archipelago. Oversharing since 2002.

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