Are Malays lazy?

During that conference about economics studies and sustainable tourism at the University of Malaya (1-4 October), I met Dr. Khadijah Khalid, a most interesting  lady professor attached to the Faculty of Economics and Administration of the university. She told me that economics is really a branch of philosophy  and I added that it is also entwined not only with tourism but also history.  As we both have a deep interest in the histories of our countries, we traced common roots that have been effaced by colonization but have come to the surface in  Bandung (Non-aligned Movement),  Maphilindo (President  Macapagal’s call for unity), and South-South relations in the context of the Third World. We glossed over the SEATO (USA’s Cold War devise) but were hopeful about ASEAN.

Then Khadijah exclaimed that the colonizers who intruded in our region called us natives lazy. The British denigrated Malays  just as the Spaniards disparaged us for being indolent. She recommended  Are Malays Lazy? written by Syen Hussein Alatas in 1966, where it says there was  a thriving  Malay merchant class, evidence that Malays were not lepakor lazy, but lamentably,  this  was wiped out after the British and the Dutch established their monopolies. There was subsistence agriculture consisting of  fishing and  padi planting,   undeniably hard work which the British ignored as they were concentrated in urban areas.

The colonialists’ own writings, Khadijah stressed,   are full of statements that contradict their own claims of laziness.  If Malays were indeed lazy, they certainly would not make for “industrious” or “superior” naval crew, nor would it make any sense for them to engage in constant war with colonizing forces. How did the false  stereotypes  come about? — we both wondered. She added that in  social studies textbooks they kindly forget to mention that Raffles and Co. landed in Singapore for one purpose and one purpose only —  to make the bank. Trading posts infrastructure, plantations and other local institutions all served to fuel the British economy and enrich Her Majesty in London.

Prof. Khadijah has not come across Jose Rizal’s “On the indolence of Filipinos,” an essay he wrote in 1890, serialized in the fortnightly “La Solidaridad.”  I promised to  send her a copy (of the English translation) as she will find astounding similarities. Before the Spanish colonizers came,  we had flourishing trade relations that encompassed Asia  and the Middle East, but the Spaniards established the Manila-Acapulco galleon route in 1565, monopolized trade in these islands, and  killed most of the local artisanal and handicraft industries that  had burgeoned during pre-colonial times.

The Malay population, who mostly refused to participate in colonial exploitation, were thus labelled “lazy.” According to Khadijah, for the “crime” of refusing to be a plantation slave, or to risk their lives for meagre wages in a mine shaft, the Malays were considered “essentially indolent” by the British government, who were undoubtedly worried  about the labor shortage this resistance created. The British also compared Malays unfavorably to the  Chinese and Indian laborers whom they praised for being  “industrious” and “indispensable”; they conveniently  forget that Chinese and Indian immigrants were slaves in everything but name under the system of indentured labor.

Author Syed Hussein Alatas, whose  book Khadijah recommended,  began delving into this  subject after reading  a German scientist  who said Filipinos made their oars from bamboo, ”… so they could rest more frequently from the fatiguing  labor of rowing whenever the bamboo paddles broke…so much the better, rowing must be suspended until they are mended again….” Alatas denounced  such comments  as vulgar and unscholarly.

In his essay about indolence,  Rizal also said that Spaniards. did not give the natives a good example because they despised manual labor and were remiss in their bureaucratic duties. Cockfighting and all forms of gambling, were promoted because these vices were lucrative revenue sources  for the colonial government. The educational system also bred indolence; although there were a number of excellent decrees from the King of Spain,  these were not properly implemented in the far-flung colony at the rim of the Pacific.  Rizal said schools did not teach agriculture, industry, science, subjects that   the Philippines needed to progress. Moreover, friars of religious orders  controlled the educational system that made natives believe it was easier for a poor man to enter Heaven, than for a rich one.  That was surely why they had no ambition to improve their lot here on earth. Natives had to pay exorbitant taxes so they could hardly enjoy  the fruits of their labor;  exploitation made them lose interest in working harder so the colonizers thought they were  lazy, lepak and indolent.

There will be another conference on economics studies and sustainable tourism in Tagbilaran, Bohol next month. I hope Dr. Khadijah Khalid and other Malaysian friends come so we can continue mining history  to discover  our common roots.