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  Talk by the eminent Malaysian social science scholar, Prof. Syed Hussein Alatas on 7th May 2005 in conjunction with the Annual General Meeting of Persatuan Sains Sosial Malaysia (Malaysian Social Science Association) held at Hotel Singgahsana, Petaling Jaya  

Prof. Syed Husin Alatas began by taking to task the neutral mode in which definitions are often made, including the definition of the word “Governance”. To him there cannot be a notion of ‘governance as such', but only ‘bad governance' or ‘good governance'. This first salvo immediately reveals the underlying tone of his speech, and signals what is to come.

Alatas was clearly insisting on the fundamental importance of values, ethics, and morality in social and public action, and hence the knowledge that undergirds it must therefore be similarly shaped or constructed. For a man whose combination of public advocacy and serious scholarship has been well known, this message serves as a timely reminder of what has gone wrong and how things ought to be put right. The notion of Philosopher-King, as espoused by Plato in the Republic , immediately comes to mind at this point. That is, the Ruler must not only be possessed of administrative, managerial or technical skills, but also, and most importantly, philosophic wisdom.

Process, including the developmental process, should not be divorced from purpose, and purpose implies values. Development, like most other things, does not occur in a vacuum, but within a social context and system of values. Divorced from purpose and values, development becomes a meaningless process and need not lead to social well-being but could well create further social problems such as increase in crime rate, corruption and social inequality. A philosophy of development is therefore imperative in order to put society on the right track. Current economistic and technocratic thinking, characterized by emphasis on economic indicators and mega projects, might not reflect the true state of society. But the social sciences, having made a claim and commitment to the description and analysis of social reality, must not succumb to such a misrepresentation of social reality, which consequently leads to the wrong policies and actions.

The analysis of society cannot be but value-laden, and this is where the role of values and social philosophy becomes relevant. As Marx once remarked concerning society: “Our task is not only to understand society, but to change it.” Like definitions, no analysis of society can pretend to be neutral. The appearance of neutrality comes about largely because the assumptions within which we work have become entrenched, taken for granted and not explicitly questioned. Prof. Alatas' contribution here can largely be seen as the philosophic one, i.e. of questioning those largely unquestioned assumptions.

The fundamental problem in our society today, according to Prof. Alatas, is not economic or technological in nature, but sociological . As an example he cites the case of building a bridge in a certain locality, or a high-rise building in an urban area. Coming up with the building is not a major problem, provided one has the financial resources and the pool of architects, engineers, and other workers to do the job. What is more difficult is to determine the effect of such a construction on society, and whether society, including the wider society, stands to benefit or lose from such physical constructions. The more general point that Prof. Alatas is trying to make here is that development should be ‘human-centred' or ‘people-centred' rather than ‘wealth-centred'. Our current thinking is largely influenced by economic indicators that are built around the concept of a ‘wealth-centred' development process, such as GDP/GNP etc., and other such abstractions, neglecting more diffused, intangible, and in some cases perhaps unquantifiable factors equally essential for the well-being of society.

Here cases such as the Bakun project vs Penan culture, comes to mind. Economists and technocrats might retort that a solution could still be found within the prevalent framework of economic-technocratic thinking by disaggregating the data, introducing new indicators and firming up old ones, such as the Gini-coefficient as a measure of income inequality. But this sort of reply would certainly miss the point that Prof. Alatas was trying to make. What is at stake here is nothing less than our humanity and our human dignity, which can only be established by a return to social morality, justice and ethics.

Prof. Alatas quotes from Martin Luther, the founder of German Protestantism in the 16 th century who once said: “ Ich kann nicht anders ”, which means “I cannot be otherwise”. Luther was no economist, yet so great was his influence that the map of Europe changed after his rebellion against the Catholic Church in 1517. The point Prof. Alatas is trying to make here is that, commitment and action should follow knowledge and conviction. As Ghandi once said; ‘to know is to act'. But for Prof. Alatas, that action must be preceded by knowledge, and it is here that he advocates the necessity for the national leadership and elites to base their policies and actions on the knowledge of the social sciences and on sociological thinking. For him this is the fundamental problem. The primacy of sociological thinking over technocratic thinking must be acknowledged if our society is not to further destroy itself. It is also important, according to him, for Malaysian social scientists to create a social science that is sensitive to Malaysian realities. The absence of thinking based on the social sciences is an important reason for the backwardness of Third World countries, he contends. Although Malaysia is relatively better off when compared to other Third World countries, we still have a long way to go when compared to advanced or developed nations.

In view of our present conditions, Prof. Alatas proposed developing a field of study, which for lack of a better term, could be called ‘The Sociology of Disaster'. It would include not only natural disasters such as floods and tsunamis, but presumably ‘man-made disasters' such as corruption and mismanagement. The advantage of such a classification would be to add a sense of urgency to the problem, to take it out of the sense of routine in which they are normally viewed, and to ensure focused and sustained action on such issues. Whether this is a serious suggestion or a statement made ‘tongue in cheek' is up to the audience to decide, but one thing is sure: it cannot be simply dismissed or treated as trivial.

Prof. Alatas also raised the question of ‘public anger', the legitimacy of certain forms of anger, and the lack of it in Malaysian social life. The Muslim, he said, has been educated to control his/her anger and to exercise patience and restraint when anger rages within him/her. Controlling anger is controlling the nafs (instinctual drives). But for him, this is one side of the story, since Muslims also ought to hate evil and to protest against evil, even angrily. I think here Prof. Alatas' has read his Al-Ghazali quite well, since Al-Ghazali made the same sort of distinction and point concerning anger. For example, Malaysians ought to feel anger against the destruction of the environment, as happened to Bukit Cherakah and revealed by the press recently. But no such thing happened or it was expressed only in a muted way. Public anger is justified, especially if it is for the sake of justice, and to fight against evil, such as corruption and the abuse of power.

Is Prof. Alatas tilting against the windmill? Is he a prophet of doom? Or is he the Jeremiah of our age? Or is he simply preaching to the converted? However one might perceive his speech, the importance of the message that he is trying to convey cannot be denied. In fact, under Prime Minister Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's leadership, integrity, ethics and the fight against corruption has become mainstream agendas, while policies and institutions have been created to see to its implementation. Unprincipled development is not genuine development, and on this score I think Prof. Alatas is certainly right.

Prof. Alatas ended his speech again on an ethical note. For him the fight against evil in society must continue, be it through scholarship or public advocacy. To remain neutral is to let evil go by. This is indeed a tall order. But the question is: can we afford to be otherwise?

  This Report is written by Associate Professor Dr Mohd Hazim Shah, who chaired the talk given by Prof. Alatas on 7 May 2005 . Dr Hazim is also the Deputy President of the Malaysian Social Science Association.