[The following tribute by Alvin Tay is more than a year old, but for those who were unaware of the passing of Prof. Alatas, it is a reminder of the value of his scholarly work, which remains unappreciated in many university settings. Webshaykh.]

23rd January 2007 was a sad day for sociology, Singapore sociology in particular, with the sudden passing of Professor Syed Hussein Alatas, former Professor in Malay Studies at University of Singapore and a pioneer of the kind of sociological theorizing that Singapore, and indeed the region of Southeast Asia, could truly call our own. I did not have the opportunity of the many sociologists before me who had passed through the doors of the department and were taught by him in the university, and so I speak only from the position of one who regrets deeply the loss of a formidable sociologist, and yet feels greatly blessed by the corpus of sociological knowledge which he has left behind. It is the imprint of his many works on me, ranging from religion to race to colonialism, amongst other substantive issues, which impels me to proceed with this modest tribute, albeit with a heavy heart and a prayer for love and peace.

While I was reading “Problems of Defining Religion” a couple of weeks before Prof. Alatas passed away, I was overwhelmed by the kind of incised observations which he made on the problematic of defining religion, particularly in the posit that there could be no analytical utility in constructing a comprehensive general definition for religion, as proposed by Dewey. To even attempt a broadest definition of religion possible which claims to be cover every single aspect of religion and the religious, he argued, would amount to both tautological reasoning and empirical distortion, such was the magnitude and scope of the subject matter. For me, it was a valuable insight into the dialectic between concept formation and empirical evidence, and served as a reflexive reminder to me to always stay true to the empirical data. Prof. Alatas concluded, with a warning on Eurocentrism in no uncertain terms, that “observers from the non-Western world should separate the genuine problems around the definition of religion from historical and cultural influences peculiar to Western society which tend to push such a definition into a particular direction.”

It is this epistemological problem which was also salient in “The Myth of the Lazy Native”, a seminal book by Prof. Alatas which I had read during my undergraduate days while doing a course in ‘Race and Ethnicity’. It elucidated the Eurocentric Othering within colonial ideology which held the minds of those influenced “captive”, and thus incapable of breaking through the stranglehold the former had held on the production and reproduction of knowledge. His forward ideas on Eurocentrism resonates strongly with the “Orientalism” which Edward Said circulated at around the same time, although the very irony, of Eurocentrism in its strongest expression, presents itself in the way “The Myth of the Lazy Native”, found worldwide recognition within the academia only after Said mentioned it at length in “Culture and Imperialism”, a sad reflection of the kind of Eurocentric tradition that still persists in the social sciences and one which Prof. Alatas first pointed out.

I am neither attempting to promote Prof. Alatas and his works at Said’s expense nor to credit the ‘true’ exponent of “Orientalism”, if there can be any; there is no need for that at a time like this. What I intend, however, is to remind all of us sociologists, sociologists-in-training or members of other disciplines, that we have lost a remarkable sociologist who went beyond the “captive mind” as well as the perpetuation of generations of Eurocentric and Orientalist stereotypes, and remember that we would be poorer in our understandings of sociology if not for his forward-thinking contributions. I know I am not alone in my grief and regret at the suddenness of Prof. Alatas’s passing. My most sincere condolences to Assoc. Prof. Syed Farid Alatas and his family.

Alvin Tay, M.A research student, NUS Sociology