Beauty and the brains: the Alatas family love story

Today is the anniversary of the birth of my father, Syed Hussein Alatas. My column takes on a slightly different characteristic. I reveal an interesting personality in Malaysia’s national history, one who has been largely ignored in public but silently remembered affectionately throughout the decades.

To the sexagenarians and beyond, among both Malaysians and Singaporeans, I hope I bring a smile and chuckle to your day.

Syed Hussein Alatas is no stranger to both Malaysian and international academia and politics. He has been loved, criticised, ridiculed, revered and envied. He has also been ignored, dismissed but deeply admired.

I say with conviction, though, that every Malaysian has been in awe of his perseverance, dedication and profound intellect. Most importantly, his works remain accessible reading, both to the layperson as well as to the isolated scholar and thinker.

Overall, his ideas on modernisation, Muslim society and corruption are timeless. I take note of one of my father’s famous quotes which reads, “The dead can only inspire; it is the living who must aspire.”

When I think about Malaysia’s social and political mess, I revert to a forgotten Malaysia, the Malaysia of the 1950s characterised by different races and religions who truly got along.

An influential personality in that history was a Kuala Lumpur-born Catholic of Indian/Tamil ethnicity. Born Sarojini Christiana Lourdes on Aug 9, 1932, my mother was the voice of Radio Malaya’s transmission frequencies throughout the 1950s.

Syed Hussein Alatas and Sarojini Zaharah during Hari Raya in 1980, Singapore.

Today’s old-timers will fondly recall her vivacious personality filtering through at least two of RTM’s programmes, namely “Mail Bag” and “Listener’s Choice”. She also read the news and conducted interviews of influential personalities.

Around 1954, my father founded a publication called “Progressive Islam”. It was an English-language monthly, published in Amsterdam and circulated in Singapore, Jakarta, South Africa, Trinidad, Germany and Myanmar (Burma). He was a student in Amsterdam at the time. Due to financial reasons, though, “Progressive Islam” folded after only 16 months.

“Progressive Islam” covered topics such as the nature of Islam and its relation to modern society, the state of the Muslim world, and the impact of Western ideas on Asian society.

The articles in “Progressive Islam” are relevant to the politicisation of race and religion in Malaysia today. During the formative years of his work in politics, the media in Malaya caught on, and my parents met for the first time in the late 1950s.

One afternoon, my mother’s boss at Radio Malaya, Michael Smee, summoned her to “go get him”. He wanted my mother to interview the young Syed Hussein, who was then a prolific and vocal head of research at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

The interview revolved around opposition politics, corruption and political Islam in the country. My attempts to get footage and newspaper reports of the interview have failed. It is a shame that we Malaysians still lag behind in our commemorative culture.

While researching material for this piece, I realised that digitalising print and broadcast media has relegated the bulk of non-digital era information to a disorganised, haphazard and unretrievable “pending” pile.

It is a lot like how our leadership seems to treat our much needed post-GE14 reforms; civil society and the rakyat are growing more indignant with the “pending” pile of reforms and back-peddling, which has resulted in the current tensions. We hope this will change very soon.

Notwithstanding the sketchy details of the Sarojini Lourdes interview with Syed Hussein, I managed to gather this much: a few weeks after, a report in Berita Harian on Oct 14, 1959, announced “S Hussein kahwin di-Johor”.

The beginning of the report read, “Thalatha—Juruhebah Radio Malaya yang popular, Sarojini Lourdes dan Tuan Syed Hussein Al-Attas……di-sini telah nikah di-Johor.”

There were some errors in the report though. First, “Al-Attas” should have been spelt as Alatas. Second, their “berbulan madu” sojourn was spent in Singapore, not Hong Kong.

Sarojini Zaharah with her children, two-year-old Syed Farid Alatas and three-week-old Sharifah Munirah Alatas.

During the months after my father’s passing in 2007, I recall my mother relating what Michael Smee told her after their marriage. He said, “Saroj, I asked you to ‘go get him’ to be interviewed… and you really did get him!”

It was a whirlwind courtship (two weeks) and marriage (48 years), cut short when my father passed away on Jan 23, 2007.

It is significant that the opening lines of the Berita Harian report highlighted my mother, and not my father, despite him having already been established as a household name in the Malaysian academia and politics.

I am not surprised, though. Sarojini Zaharah, as she was known after marriage, spoke impeccable English and fluent Tamil. She was the picture of elegant beauty, poise and vivacity.

Most of all, she was witty, a confident conversationalist and very intelligent. A very popular radio personality, these were added qualities which complemented my father’s intellectual vibrancy.

Sarojini was born in Kuala Lumpur to a staunch Catholic family. She went to school in Pondicherry, India. After jostling back and forth between French and British colonial control, Pondicherry remained a part of French India until 1954.

As a teenager, my mother returned to Malaya to complete her schooling and start her career. Her father, Lourdesamy, was a civil servant in British Malaya.

After marriage, Saroj still wore the saree. At that time, it was not an issue. It was what being Malaysian was all about.

After marriage, my mother decided to confine her work to the home. When my father left for Amsterdam to complete his doctoral work, she went along. She was able to develop her analytical skills overseas.

While taking care of my brother, Syed Farid Alatas, who was born in Haarlem, the Netherlands, my mother immersed herself in the in’s and out’s of academia, her chief mentor being my father.

My mother’s interests in problems of development, political oppression, environmental degradation and bad governance culminated in her regular activities with the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO) in the early 2000s.

My mother was instrumental in launching NCWO’s Quarterly publication in 2002. As editor, she wrote the editorial for each issue. The first issue carried information and analyses on ageing, corruption, constitutional politics, sustainable development, Islam and general news. There was also a section on upcoming regional and international conferences, including overseas United Nations-related meetings, which she attended.

In February of 2002, NCWO’s Environment Commission, of which my mother was chairperson, launched its recycling programme. Sadly, it is still common to see Malaysians throwing garbage out their car windows. We refuse to acknowledge that the accumulated garbage leads to a clogged drainage system and perpetual flash flooding, besides other environmental and related societal problems.

One of my mother’s appeals in a particular editorial in 2008 resonates till today: it was about “Complaints and Pleas”.

The opening paragraph read: “Complaints and pleas are very seldom listened to by law breakers and the culprits because their benefits and fortune are at stake… they ignore complaints at the cost of other people’s tragedy.”

The article ends with this: “Above all, we want a caring administration that should work seriously to improve the social conditions and the physical environment of Malaysia.”

A self-taught advocate for social change, Sarojini was a true Malaysian. We should all emulate her, and not only because she was the wife of a famous intellectual and activist. At the age of 70, she was still committed to cleaning Malaysia of its physical and ideological trash.

Despite having no university education, she was more educated than many academics I know today. Despite having no experience in politics, she had more vision than so many politicians today.

My parents savoured the mental relationship they had with each other. In many ways, though, they are better off in their current metaphysical existence.

It would depress them to see the deadlock that our country is in; my parents would be terribly unhappy with the apparent insincerity, lack of vision and political bungling that our politics continues to display.

Most of all, both would be disappointed with the racial and religious divisions that did not exist on that fateful day in 1959, when Saroj decided to “go get him”.

Happy Birthday, Abah. You were truly blessed in your marriage to Sarojini Zaharah.

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