Myth of the Lazy Native – Review

Myth of the Lazy Native

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.


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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.

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The Souls of Black Folk – Review

The souls of black folk

By W.E.B. Dubois

An old book, over a hundred years old already. Some of the essays have passed from contemporary relevance into historical record, but it is history rarely discussed, from an intimate perspective and the prose hasn’t lost any of its power. Nobody writes like that anymore! The Greeks, the Bible, Shakespeare. The Veil, the valley of the shadow of death, truth with a capital T: his symbols and allusions seem so much more direct and persuasive than the currently popular terms – privilege, identity and so on – of modern academic writing on race.

Perhaps the most illuminating chapter for me was the opening essay on the Reconstruction.   I was certainly aware that slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule during the war and this promise was immediately broken.  And yet in the haze of what little I was taught about that period, the Reconstruction was a generally positive time when there was significant improvement and upliftment of the formerly enslaved.  So what exactly was done for the newly emancipated?  It was shocking how familiar it sounded.  Level-headed and decent experts close to the issues assessed the problems, forecast the consequences and identified the programs needed.  The problems were minimized, what little was accepted was half-funded, what was half-funded was discontinued before it ran its course, and Black people were told to get over it and move forward on their own.  And that has been the unchanging script for 150 years.  Germany had the Nuremberg trials, South Africa has the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but America never did – never has! – called itself to account for the legacy of slavery.  It sounds blindingly obvious to put it that way and yet 107 years ago when Dubois was writing white America was blind to the obvious and here we still are talking about let’s just move on.

The Case for Reparations

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Commander of the Faithful: Review

Commander of the Faithful

By John W Kiser
An enjoyable and easy introduction to an amazing life. The book is strongest in the first third, showing his upbringing and describing Algerian society in that period, and in the last third, when his exile and travels involved him in many important and unexpected events. Meeting Imam Shamil the Chechen Mujahid at the opening of the Suez Canal! The middle third is awful, for obvious reasons. Anti-colonial resistance in the 19th century only went one way. I’m not spoiling anything to tell you that the Emir didn’t defeat the French.

The author is thoughtful and sympathetic toward the Emir but clearly sees his work as a sort of interfaith or intercultural rapprochement. This leads him to make much of a lone righteous Catholic priest’s involvement for example, or to downplay the brutality of the French occupation. In one instance, the reader is first informed of the intentional massacre – live burial – of thousands of unarmed women and children by the French in a footnote! It is admirable that the author doesn’t assign blame or seek a villain and yet “mistakes were made” is an awfully bloodless way to approach a colonial occupation that eventually took the lives of one Algerian in ten. If the goal of the book is to allow a Western, non-muslim audience to overcome their preconceptions and appreciate the Emir as the noble and righteous mujahid he was, it succeeds. But it stops short of giving a full reckoning of the times.

Review: The Moor’s Account

The Moor's Account

By Laila Lalami.

A conquistador leads a party of 600 into present-day Florida.  A decade later, four men from the expedition emerge in Mexico: three Spainards and a black Muslim.  This is The Moor’s Account.  If it is fiction, it is fiction truer than any American history I got in high school. It’s a story we need so much and nearly had, making the book seem more like the recovery of history than the inventing of it.


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Review: Getting Filthy Rich

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is Mohsin Hamid’s 3rd book. Like The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it is short, well-paced and innovative. At 200 pages, you could read it in a day. In the second chapter, Hamid promises not to waste your time like the pompous gasbags of “foreign” literature such as Salman Rushdie. OK, he doesn’t mention Rushdie by name, but I know that’s who he meant. HTGFRIRA is addressed to the second person: you are receiving directions from the self-help book you hold in your hand. The device works flawlessly, allowing Hamid to zoom way out to discuss the generic you, then narrow in to your most intimate details. At his best, he does both at the same time.

[dropcap background=”no”]I[/dropcap]t’s an instruction manual, so it instructs you, for example, to survive childhood, move to the big city and get schooled. The self-help is for anybody, so you aren’t told which city or which school to head for, which country you’re in, or even what your name is. And it works: there is so much about the book that you can see, taste and smell anywhere in the developing world. Yet he also at the same time is clearly describing Lahore, his beloved city, and Pakistan, Land of the Pure.

The anthropological detachment coupled with laser specificity meshes fantastically, such as when you are to join a student movement. “You attend meetings, read the organization’s literature … members of your organization urge you to … recognize your comrades as your true family, and to act through the organization to fulfill your destiny.” It is obvious that you have joined an Islamic party but it never needs be said, since it, like everything in the book, is of interest only inasmuch as it moves you towards the riches you seek.

You implicitly identify with the unnamed ‘you’ – it’s what we do – but you are a flawed man who has chosen riches as his goal and so your life ends with an unsettling mixture of success and tragedy, for yourself, and for your city, general and specific, as you profit from an industry that has contributed “to a noticeable desiccation of the soil, to a transformation of moist, fertile, hybrid mud into cracked, parched, pure land.”

It wouldn’t be fair to such a short book to poach any more of its lines, so I’ll just urge you to pick it up. The author promises not to waste your time and he doesn’t disappoint you.

GoodReads page.

Review: The Way of Sufi Chivalry

The Way of Sufi Chivalry


Translated by Shaykh Tosun Bayrak

Not about martial codes, but more of a guidebook on proper etiquette (adab) in Islam. The biggest focus was on the virtue of generosity. True generosity is giving before your brother is forced to ask, because in asking, the needy one is humiliated by his need. A poem is related:

“The one in embarrassment asked but received nothing, 
For when he weighed what he had received,
His pain was heavier than what had been given to him.”

The Islamic ideal of generosity is then that much harder to attain for those of us who come from “ask” cultures, as opposed to “guess” cultures, an interesting way of thinking about cultural differences that is discussed here.

I enjoyed the book, but would recommend Ghazali’s On the Duties of Brotherhood as a better first book on the topic of adab.

The Way of Sufi Chivalry on Goodreads.

Review: Midnight’s Children

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

 by Salman Rushdie

Could the Booker Prize have gone to a novel that treats three generations of an extended family but remains emotionally dead-flat aside from twin swellings of self-pity and self-love?  Was a career launched by a book that contains 50 years of intricately plotted interconnections, parallels and synchronicities across the breadth of the subcontinent but scarcely a single meaningful insight?   Am I tired of snide snark sarcasm and twee wordplay all in the service of convincing us of the cleverness of the author?  Did I really give up on a book that bloats to 700 pages with endless never-ending repeating repetition and flashback throwback foreshadow for every one plot point? Friends, it could. It was. I am. I did.

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