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Malaysian Fidel

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January 18, 2017

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By Masturah Alatas

The word ‘sosia’ takes its name from a character in Plautus’ Latin play, Amphitryon, and is still very much used in Italian today to refer to someone who looks a lot like a celebrity or an important person.  Sosias were extremely useful in mythology especially when they ended up tricking husbands and wives into thinking they were sleeping with their actual spouses.

But what about sosias in politics? Are people’s electoral tendencies or their acceptance or rejection of ideas subliminally influenced by a person’s resemblance to another in a position of authority? How would things have turned out if Donald Trump actually did look like those so many are saying he politically resembles—Hitler, Mussolini and Berlusconi? Would he look like one of them, or all three? What would a morphed monster of all three have to look like in order to attract or repel? Should it have Hitler’s moustache, Mussolini’s baldness and Berlusconi’s voice? And the height of all three? In the future, are men and women going to be encouraged or discouraged from entering politics because they look like Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? What prospects of a political career would a woman who looks like, say, Queen Elizabeth II have in India? Or Malaysia? Or China?

I’m not sure if these are questions that can be taken seriously in political analysis. After all, we are not supposed to judge people on their appearance, on their identity. We can’t even agree on what ‘identity politics’ is if we are not seeing class, education, language, the way a person speaks and even dresses as crucial parts of identity that condition the way we perceive others and are perceived. Still, Chinese Trumps, Indian Queen Elizabeths, American Saddam Husseins, British Gadaffis and Italian Thatchers  are visions for a novelist’s imagination to play with.

Malaysia had a politician who looked like Fidel Castro more than even Castro’s own brother, and he also happened to be my father: Syed Hussein Alatas (1928-2007). Even Edward W. Said who had seen my father only in pictures was amused by my father’s striking resemblance to Fidel. But beyond similarities in appearance and private jokes, my father was never considered to be a Malaysian Fidel Castro in any political sense, and with good reason, too.

Alatas was one of the founders of Gerakan formed in 1968, then a multiethnic, opposition party, and he served as senator for a short while in the early 1970s. But he was a sociologist and an academic for most of his life, not a revolutionary leader like Fidel Castro. And he hardly influenced social and public policy. Alatas was one of the first, and remains one of the few Malaysians, to have written extensively about the social evils of corruption. Yet today, Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, is having difficulty coming up with a convincing explanation as to how a sum amounting to almost USD 700 million ended up in his personal bank accounts.

Both Alatas and Castro were anti-imperialist and they were socialist, though the second we say ‘socialist’ we are called upon to qualify what kind of socialist we mean. It is not just people who have sosias but ideologies, too. Socialism has its sosias. Alatas did not like the Eurocentric bias and prejudices of Marx and Engels whom he called socialist. But he considered the assimilation of socialism into Islam as something good. “Socialism has shown the way to realize social justice,” he wrote in his essay ‘Islam and Socialism’ (1977). “Islamic principles associated with the theories of socialism will be very useful for the Muslim world. But this evolution should be achieved without the arrogance that characterizes our generation.” Early in 2016, however, the media carried reports about the Malaysian police forbidding the Socialist Party of Malaysia from holding a course on Marxism scheduled to be held in March for fear that such courses would “revive communism”. While Castro’s revolution was mainly about feeding the people, the revolution Alatas felt Malaysia most needed was principally an intellectual one against the doltish, backward, reactionary thinking that afflicted the ruling class.

As British Marxist historian Victor Gordon Kiernan wrote in his review of Alatas’ book, Intellectuals in Developing, Societies (1977) which my father originally wanted to title The Revolution of the Fool, for Alatas

“colonial rule could spread a taste for the advantages of technology but it could not inspire an authentic enlightenment. These
societies suffer from a prevailing dualism;
they are modernistic in material terms,
but with a mentality still traditionalist, ready to swallow astrology or magic as well as motor cars and electric fans” (The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 31, No. 1, March, 1980).

This dualism, my father felt, would be detrimental to Malaysia in the long run because it would make the country always dependent on others for serious thinking and problem-solving, something we saw, for instance, in the way the case of the missing flight MH370 was handled.

I have not come across any imaginative works written by Malaysians about the fact that Alatas looked like Fidel Castro.  I, myself, do not have many anecdotes to tell; except for the one where Robert Kennedy and my father are in the same Kuala Lumpur radio station in 1964, and Kennedy is startled out of his wits to see my father sitting in a corner, smoking a cigar, trying to mind his own business.

We are in the period fresh out of the Cuban Missile Crisis and fresh into the Konfrontasi (the Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation) for which US Attorney General Robert Kennedy had been called upon to express his concern and mediate. Robert Kennedy himself would be assassinated four years later, though not for reasons connected to his Malaysia visit as far as is known.  What is known is that he got the shock of his life seeing my father in the radio station.

“What the hell is he doing here?” was not the question Kennedy whispered into the ear of the Radio Station director, but something more diplomatic like “Who is that sitting over there?” And Alatas and Robert Kennedy were brought together to shake hands and exchange a few words.

Almost two decades later, in 1983, my father was in Washington D.C. to finish a book on corruption. He and my mother were living relatively close to the red castle of the Smithsonian where my father had a room in the tower to work. He also wanted to live within walking distance of the Congress Library. All this walking put him in close contact with the street youth. I regret not having a camera to take a shot of some of those youngsters simulating a machine gun with their arms and pointing it at my father when he walked by.

“Yo Fidel!”, one of them said.

Better that than In-Fidel, I thought to myself.

Those were the Reagan years. As someone coming from Malaysia and Singapore who was used to people of different backgrounds living together, it was the first time I had heard others define, and with such frequency, residential areas according to the ethnicity of their residents—Black neighbourhood, Hispanic neighbourhood, etc. I wondered how much the youth from those areas knew about Fidel Castro, how successful the media was in demonizing him, in making him the enemy to be sniped at or a brother to say Yo to. One thing I do know, and will always remember: the half smile on my father’s face as he gazed at the ground, each slow step taking him home.

He obviously never felt a real gun would be turned on him. Or on me.

Masturah Alatas is the author of The life in the Writing (Marshall Cavendish, 2010) and The girl who made it snow in Singapore (Ethos Books, 2008). She is currently working on a novel. Masturah teaches English at the University of Macerata in Italy, and can be contacted at: alatas@unimc.it

29 November 2016

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