Is it history or his-story?

By Zairil Khir Johari | The Malaysian Insider

SEPT 4 — I was a little apprehensive as I entered the small tutorial room. It was my first day attending class in England.

In the centre of the unassuming room was an oblong table, around which sat eight post-graduate students of various nationalities. I flashed a timid smile before taking my place amongst them.

At the far end of the table, a heavyset man in a worn tweed jacket and polka dotted bowtie cleared his throat. Pushing the thickest glasses I have ever seen up the bridge of his nose, he made a gesture to indicate that the tutorial was about to start.

“I assume you’ve all familiarised yourselves with the required readings for the week?” asked our tutor rhetorically, after early pleasantries and introductions had been done and dealt with. “Now then, let’s start with you.”

It took me a few seconds to realise that he was referring to me. “Er, yes?” I stammered in response.

“Go on. Tell us what you think about it.”

After spending my entire schooling years in the Malaysian national education system, and after having earned a Bachelor’s degree in a Malaysian university, I was faced with a grossly unfamiliar situation. For the first time, I was asked for an opinion rather than have one written down on the whiteboard for me to copy.

Two memories stand out from my first day at SOAS. First, I had been suddenly thrust into an entirely new concept of study, where opinions mattered, where questioning everything was encouraged and where you were marked according to how you argued a point, no matter how far-fetched it was, and where the notion of “correctness” did not exist.

The second memory that I can never forget is my introduction to a cardinal maxim that has stuck in my mind to this very day. To paraphrase the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

Suddenly, I was blown away. Every belief I had about everything I knew was totally and completely changed. History as taught to me by our KBSM syllabus was now nothing more than the opinion of those who wrote it. And as with every other opinion in the world, it was my choice to accept it or not.

My mind had been liberated. From that day on, everything I read or learnt would be tempered with a critical assessment of the source. I began to yearn for alternative interpretations in my hunger for choice. The world was a buffet and I had been fasting for years.

And so it is in such a spirit that I approach the recent uproar surrounding Mat Sabu’s purported remarks about the Bukit Kepong tragedy. Of course, reports by the Malaysian mainstream media are necessarily suspect and have to be digested with a bagful of salt.

That said, I am convinced that there was neither any disparagement of the police nor glorification of the communist aggressors in the PAS deputy president’s speech. Any contention to the contrary is merely exaggerated spin-doctoring.

More significantly, the Mat Sabu incident has brought to question the wisdom of accepting history as fact, without considering who the authors are and what their motivations may be. This is something we must never forget when we contemplate any kind of information.

Like a movie on terrestrial TV, much of our country’s official history has been censored for general viewing. It is shaped and presented in such a way as to trumpet the contributions of selected personalities while conveniently snipping out or downplaying the roles of those deemed counter-productive to the political agenda of those in power.

From the gradual contraction of Yap Ah Loy’s role in the development of Kuala Lumpur to the pitiful passing mention of the ancient Hindu civilisation in Bujang Valley — a historical treasure in any other country — Malaysians are slowly but surely fed a doctrine of half-truths and value judgements passed by politically-motivated authors.

And then we have the vilification of the leftist movement, nullifying decades of political and nationalist activism. By this I am talking about anti-Colonial movements such as SABERKAS (officially “Syarikat Berkerjasama Am Saiburi” and secretly “Sayang Akan Bangsa Ertinya Redha Korban Apa Segala”), of which my late father was the founding secretary; Ibrahim Yaacob’s Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM); Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy’s Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM), and of course the little-known PUTERA-AMCJA, our country’s first multiracial coalition.

The coalition had even gone to the lengths of preparing an alternative set of Constitutional proposals in opposition to the Malayan Union. As a result, the “People’s Constitution” was adopted and presented in 1947, a good 10 years before Merdeka.

The ground-breaking document had proposed, inter alia, equal citizenship rights, protection of Malay customs and religion, as well as the adoption of the moniker “Melayu” as the designation for all citizens of Malaya.

Of course, studying and appreciating the above will by no means displace the contributions of other parties and movements such as Umno and the Alliance. Historiography is not a zero-sum game. There is room for more than one interpretation, more than one point of view and certainly more than a few heroes.

The key to opening our minds is to first remove our blinders. Thus, whenever presented with history that appears to be his-story, it is probably best that we ask ourselves: exactly whose story is this?

  1. #1 by boh-liao on Monday, 5 September 2011 - 1:31 am

    D liberation of minds ala SOAS, as expounded by ZKJ, is most deadly 2 UmnoB/BN
    No way UmnoB/BN would allow such liberation of minds as it will sound d death knell of racist/corrupt UmnoB/BN, which can only hold on2 power by brain-washing rakyat

  2. #2 by boh-liao on Monday, 5 September 2011 - 2:16 am

    UmnoB/BN also no want liberated rakyat 2 question Y our lady PM was given d privilege 2 deliver her Hari Raya message 2 d nation on TV, 1st in our national history

  3. #3 by cemerlang on Monday, 5 September 2011 - 6:40 am

    Education is but a scrape at the surface. Pembebesan dari penjajahan mental dan spiritual. I just learned that Freddie Mercury is not a white man. He sang the song We are the champion. See we could be sining we are the champion when the red devil win or when you come back from gaza or wherever. But do you know that this song sung by Freddie is a Parsi ? Google told me just today. How many of you like me think that he is white until today ?

  4. #4 by cemerlang on Monday, 5 September 2011 - 6:41 am

    sining…typo error…singing

  5. #5 by k1980 on Monday, 5 September 2011 - 8:02 am

    Why isn’t the study of the Srivijaya and Majapahit Empires included in the KBSM history syllabus? The Indons will soon be claiming bolehland as their latest province.

  6. #6 by Bigjoe on Monday, 5 September 2011 - 8:35 am

    Lets be honest. Ironically Mahathir is in this case. Mat Sabu, while he spoke the truth, was intended to reduce the role of UMNO historically. But the truth is UMNO has been white washing history so what is so surprising about Mat Sabu attempt to reduce it?

    Those people who get caught up with emotion of the issues are not qualified to think critically of politics and history in this country. History is seldom so simple in neat little packages as they have been fed for decades because politics is seldom so cut and dry. Politicians have been dirty little creatues and distorting the truth ever since men invented group living in caves and huts.

    Can’t handle the truth? Want to hold on to sentimentality? They don’t deserve it..

  7. #7 by dagen on Monday, 5 September 2011 - 8:38 am

    When in rome do as the romens do. When in umnosia, do as the umnoputras do. Hows dat for an argument huh, son of johari?

    Not workable? Oh yeah, I didnt realise that. I kinda cant stand up to claim ketuanan rights can I, even if for a fact I am a national of this country and am living here. Woow. Now dat’s evil. Evil umno. Big bad evil umno.

    So can I do? I am in rome. Yet I cant do what the romens do. Neither can I do what I normally do. This is far too complicated.

    Son of johari, pls dont lah drown me with such heavy stuff first thing monday morning. Hoi cintanegara, ice blended rambutan satu. With grounded peanut and choco topping. Relak lah.

    … dagen undergoing a mysterious transformation and showing some signs of umnoism. Or is it umno-wannabe-ism which is a level below the real thing, umnoism.

  8. #8 by drngsc on Monday, 5 September 2011 - 8:53 am

    Hi Zairil,

    History is written by the victor.

    This bunch of leaders that we have nowadays, see history this way. Tomorrow, they will see it another day, when it suits them

    We must change the tenant at Putrajaya. GE 13 is our best chance. failure is not an option. So work very very hard.

  9. #9 by boh-liao on Monday, 5 September 2011 - 9:28 am

    Sure, aah, HIS-story? Not HER-story meh, now dat we truly hv a female PM?

  10. #10 by yhsiew on Monday, 5 September 2011 - 9:35 am

    Really like the brainstorming kind of lectures/tutorials conducted in UK colleges – it makes you think.

  11. #11 by monsterball on Monday, 5 September 2011 - 10:00 am

    Actually there is nothing much in history that one can write to praise Malays in building Malaysia….in defending against Japanese invasions ..except during the confrontation created by Soekarno.
    Besides putting out UMNO stories…they must be dressed up with false titles.
    No good enough…must become millionaires…for “Money is Power” said Mahathir…and there is no brakes for what they are.
    Once the stop and apply brakes…thousands of nakn gaji buta will abandon them…and vote for change.
    It is like ganja,,,,you feed them…you cannot stop.
    And these drug addicts can only be cured if the givers confess their evil intentions and acts.

  12. #12 by joehancl on Monday, 5 September 2011 - 10:40 am

    Man this is a mind blowing essay. Yes, the govt.(umno) has been feeding the people crap so it can feed on corruption. With the net info is everywhere and every young is having visions of a renewal, a good, harmonious, peaceful world.
    When sons and daughters have visions it WILL be. So people, do not be way laid, prepare for a new MALAYSIA.

  13. #13 by undertaker888 on Monday, 5 September 2011 - 1:53 pm

    This umno buggers still think that we are living in the stone age. Still using ancient tools to spin their lies. Oyyy bodoh. Ini zaman Internet lah. You ingat kita bodohkah?

    Probably they may fool a few like jihad Ali, katak zul and ahli ahli bodoh umno.

  14. #14 by cemerlang on Monday, 5 September 2011 - 8:45 pm

    The Nyonyas and the Babas have been doing that. They change everything except one thing.

  15. #15 by sheriff singh on Tuesday, 6 September 2011 - 3:11 pm

    Come on, come on. Don’t keep us in suspense.

    Did you do your homework reading that day? Did you do your alamak mater proud?

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