Komunite Seni Jalan Telawi

::ratakan padang::

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Location: Jalan Telawi, Bangsar Baru, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Santai salon with Syed Hussein Alatas

This time around, we were at Prof SHA's house, enjoying the delights of a salon atmosphere with dimmed lights and black coffee (for the record, I am not really a coffee person but it was good enough coffee nevertheless).

The night started off slowly, with discussions about the current issues of the day, which took a detour into the sociology of cults, back into the time of the Second World War and the building and detonation of the A-Bomb (though I should call it H-Bomb since it is made with hydrogen) and back to the current conditions of the day. However, when I asked him why some of the most intelligent and highly educated people would propagate atrocities on behalf of a cult they've joined (and why did they join in the first place), he answered that it has to do with these so called "intellectuals" being merely technicians. Too bad we didn't get to go deeper into the sociology of it. Perhaps another time.

Our talk remained pretty light, until Fathi posed to him a question on how he sees Malaysia as having developed, intellectually in the 30 years since the writing of his book "Intellectuals in Developing Societies" and that began the second half of the evening.

SHA lamented the fact that there are no structure or system that nurtures and encourages the growth of intellectual interest in Malaysia. Intellectual leadership from most academics/lecturers to their students are limited to helping them pass exams (in most instances). Many academics are not too concerned with intellectual pursuits, preferring to centre their attention on the technicalities of their specialisation. Bureaucracy is emphasised and flexibility of thought not encouraged. An important fact that he pointed out is that the lack of intellectual integrity and conviction is what led to many academics to being easily cowed through the blatant use of power.

He talk quite a bit about his experience as an administrative leader at UM but I will not go into that.Maybe I'll bring it out in another post. However, what he said about the need for academics and scientist to engage with society, and to relate their work to society, is something that is being practised more and more today, though unfortunately in Malaysia, only by social scientists and humanities scholars. What happened to the natural scientists? And what about those in professional fields like business, finance, engineering, medicine, etc? Many of them do not seem to engage with communities beyond that of their own specialisation. The good prof believes that while nature might have a role to play in creating an intellectual, nurture is just as important, and thus the importance of education and the encouragement towards critical inquiry and creative thinking. What do these latter two phrases mean? Well, we might examine them in subsequent book discussions.

As many people had pointed out, and so did the prof now, Indonesia as a much more intellectual discourse. It might have to do with history, has to do with their revolutionary spirit in the fight for independence. The same goes for the Philippines. Perhaps the fact that Malaysia has always get things easy (compared to its neighbours) has made its people more complacent and mentally lazy. Perhaps they think that being in a country that gives them ready access to English books (though in no way am I comparing us to first world English-speaking countries), they are therefore cultured and cultivated, without understanding what these two words mean.

In the third half of the discussion, he was asked about his opinion on what constitutes Islamic Literature (with capital L). The answer was interesting. Most of us (myself included) are often quick to give narrow categorisation on particular types of Literature, and this is no different with Islamic Literature. Many great literatures of the world that talks about the universal values of humanity, of love, kindness, goodness, generosity and all that is considered positive traits of a human being, can be classed as Islamic Literature. Even literature that discusses human depravity and evil can be constitute as such, as long as such literature do not promote these values. If you want to know what values I mean, just go back to the respective religions of the Book. Other religions do not have such wholescale control over the lives of their adherents as do Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Though I stand corrected. (: One person pointed out how the hegemonic imposition of certain formulas into what is Islamic Literature had narrowed down the area of its reach drastically. And this could be true for other religions. Perhaps what can be called Islamic Literature can also be called Christian Literature. Unless one wishes to argue from the point of doctrines.

The good prof did give a number of very old reference to out-of-print magazines which contain some of his locally published writings. I will write more about them later once I have the time to dig them up.

Many are other things were talked about but those are not the main ideas discussed so I will not post them here. What you are getting here is just a summary of what went on last night.

(report by : Clarissa Lee Ai Ling )


P.S. This concludes our discussion of the issues surrounding the book "Intellectuals in Developing Societies" (though some of the ideas might come up again in future discussions of other works). Watch the news and updates blog for announcement on the next book discussion in March. We might and would include some thinkers and authors from our region, though it would be a great challenge to get copies of their books, due to the nature of the publishing industry in this region.

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