The persistence of feudalism as the root of our problems

“Within Malay society there developed two contradictory value systems, the one stressing co-operation, gotong-royong, usaha (labour), and conformity; the other stressing courage, power … absolute loyalty to the ruler and pillage. The former value system was to be found among the agrarian subjugated section of Malay society. The latter value system was upheld by the rulers and their courts, their dependents and hirelings.”

The above is a quote from an academic paper “Feudalism in Malaysian society: A study in historical continuity” by Syed Hussein Alatas, published in 1968.

Many Malaysian reformers and advocates for social and political change know of him as an academic, former vice-chancellor and a founder of Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia. They are aware of his analyses of corruption and critique of unethical leadership.

However, very few have made the effort to read the details and meticulously apply his analysis to current problems. Excuses abound such as there is no time to read “twenty pages of heavy stuff”. Another concocted myth is that his writings do not address “aspirasi akar umbi” or the bread and butter issues.

Contrary to such beliefs, Alatas is very relevant as an international scholar and a Malaysian intellectual. He presented complicated concepts in simple, short and crisp sentences. His writings on corruption are relevant to the bread and butter issues we talk about. Most of his writings focus on the machinations of elite corruption. He has highlighted how arrogant, unethical leadership has manipulated history imposing their neo-feudalistic agenda to control the masses.

Servility towards people with titles

Our leaders often refer to classical Malay texts such as Tajus Salatin (1603) which touches upon humanistic values and ethical principles of governance. They invoke these texts to provide a historical framework for ethical Malay leadership. In the process, they try to elevate their own moral position as leaders. As a result, the masses are often impressed with their knowledge of history.

Syed Hussein Alatas was a pioneer in Malay sociology.

However, current leaders also uphold many of the feudal traits mentioned in it. Some of these are the servile attitude towards people with titles, a lack of respect for the rule of law, an emphasis on extravagant and opulent lifestyle, an indifference to social justice and the acceptance of unfair privileges for those in positions of power.

Alatas’s writings are relevant because they highlight these historical excesses. He has emphasised how these values are prevalent today and have contributed to the further division of our pluralistic society. It is no surprise therefore, that leaders continue to silence his scholarship, in order to project individual political agendas.

Mahathir’s mental gymnastics

A good example of such mental gymnastics is former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s decades-long diatribe against the “lazy Malays” and his sarcastic comments about the Chinese being “a wealthy lot”. To counter such denigrating images of the Malays, Chinese and other races in Malaysia, it is time for a mass reading of “Mitos peribumi malas” (The myth of the lazy native) and “Intelektual masyarakat membangun” (Intellectuals in developing societies).

Both books address how and why racist and bigoted narratives persist within our leadership circles. In the process, we may gain more insight into the causes for the current political shenanigans. We may also realise that we may never solve our problems if we persist in electing morally-bankrupt politicians.

Most societies in the developed world would not ignore this request to read. Both books should be required texts in all our university undergraduate programmes. Social science and humanities lecturers should make these required readings for courses on modernisation, ethics, morality, logic, social development and climate change.

Since our independence, Mahathir’s “Dilema Melayu” (Malay dilemma) and Senu Abdul Rahman’s “Revolusi mental” (Mental revolution) have been quoted a lot. Malaysians thought they would find answers to the political mess we are in today. Yet, as the decades proceed, we find ourselves deeper in crisis. Part of the blame should be directed at our academics.

A vacuum in academia

Although all our public universities have social science faculties, we have been struggling for decades to produce social scientists with research and pedagogical contributions that are relevant to society. We have produced professors, well-read lecturers and intelligent academics who publish in journals and comment in the media.

But we have also produced too many who are propped up for their paper qualifications and administrative positions. They sit comfortably without any concern that their contributions have not been relevant for nation building and national progress. We desperately need social scientists who can decipher problems, apply historical data and critically arrive at solutions to our current socio-political dilemmas.

Many in Malaysia regard Alatas as a pioneer in the study of Malay feudalism and the neo-feudalistic characteristics of our political elite. Our culture of entitlement, elitism, abuse of power and corruption is grounded in our neo-feudalistic outlook. University lecturers, by and large, agree with this line of thinking, yet concrete scholarly works on the topic by Malaysian academics are few and far between.

In recent years, more activists are discussing feudalism and writing about it in social and mainstream media. However, it is necessary for our universities to institutionalise such trends by incorporating these themes into social science courses. Seminars, conferences and department forums are also necessary.

However, it will not become a movement until the issue is given due academic focus, pushed by academics and public intellectuals. The first step to solving our socio-political crisis is recognising that we have a systemic problem. Universities and academics should seize the opportunity if there is sincerity in the fight. To remain quiet is a grotesque abdication of academic responsibility.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.