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Can the Malay young rediscover their history?

Lim Teck Ghee  |  Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT Several days ago I was a speaker at the Association of Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason (PCORE)/Department of History, Universiti Malaya forum on ‘The Study of History: Its Relevance and Significance’.

The forum organisers intended for the meeting “to propose ways in which the reconstruction of the country’s historical narrative will develop in students an enquiring mind and an identity which they can call their own.” It was their concern that students would gain a good grasp of the country’s history based on the shared historical memory of Malaysia’s multifarious, multiethnic society...which will inspire in them the love for history and the land of their birth.”

More than 200 participants, mainly Malays, attended the forum. From all accounts it was a success. The forum organisers led by PCORE's indefatigable president, Halimah Mohd Said, should be congratulated for their initiative in organising what is a long overdue open public discourse on this crucial subject - overdue by three decades?

I was especially impressed by the presentation made by Rais Yatim, socio-economic adviser to the government. His keynote speech ‘Building a Collective Historical Memory of the Nation’ deserves to be made widely available to educators and history teachers at all levels in the country.

The key challenge for me, and some others who spoke to me after my presentation, and who share Rais’s and PCORE’s concerns – though we may disagree on the approach to attain a collective historical memory - is whether the Malay young can rediscover their history from the deviations and permutations that Malay and Malaysian history - especially that conveyed by official sources - has gone through.

Below are excerpts from the presentation I made and my answers to questions from the floor. Some of these comments have been summarised or elaborated here but otherwise this is a verbatim account of my delivery.

It is indisputable that history rewriting has been ongoing for several decades now and has taken place at many levels - not simply in textbooks and in the educational sphere.

We see it in the changes in the names of streets, over the depiction of momentous historical events in official film, radio and other media, in the displays of museums, in the syllabuses of schools and universities.

We see it in the National Civics Bureau (BTN) and the many information or propaganda bureaus of government bodies and their numerous and continuing attempts to reshape the thinking and consciousness of the younger generation as to our national past and present, as well as the past of ancient and recent civilisations, and the events and personalities that have shaped the world.

Has this history rewriting produced a young generation that is critical, perceptive, analytical, insightful ? Has it produced more knowledgable students with inquiring and open minds? Has it produced more loyal and patriotic Malaysians? Has it produced a higher quality of nationalism that is inclusive, progressive and liberal?

The answer is no.

If the history that is taught in schools - as in the words of the forum brochure - does “provide invaluable education which gives a sense of the past, an awareness of the development of differing values, systems and societies, and the inculcation of critical yet tolerant personal attitudes” then I will not be here. And most of you will not be here, too.

What has happened in fact is the opposite, or close to the opposite which accounts for our presence here today.

‘Narrow, blinkered perspectives and views’

The sad part - no, tragedy - is that our younger generation are being forced-fed - as well as are required to regurgitate if they want to do well in their examinations - with narrow, blinkered perspectives and views of world and Malaysian history. The type of history being propagated - propagandised may be a better description - is not providing students with a well balanced, comprehensive and accurate depiction of Malaysian and world history.

It may be guilty of sowing the seeds of disharmony and disunity. This is because, as in the case of the BTN students, it is poisoning minds and reinforcing negative racial stereotypes and ethnic consciousness.

Millions have been spent using taxpayers’ money to produce a history that has been found to contain distortions, half truths, unexplained omissions and has a clear social and political agenda - based on three key foundation stones - that of ketuanan Umno, Islam and Melayu. That history and those advocating it must be made transparent, accountable and held up to the highest standards and values of rigorous historical scholarship and professionalism.

In the project to cultivate the 3Ks of Malay and Malaysian history, we have seen the minimising or jettisoning of not only non-Malay contributions to the nation’s history but also what is profound and integral to the historical roots and traditions of the Malays themselves - roots and traditions come from their forefathers, that go back deep into the Malay past but which are still vital today.

What happens when the young Malays are made to minimise, forget or negate the animistic, Hindu, Buddhist, Western and other civilisational influences that have shaped their language, culture and identity?

What happens when they - from young especially in the Islamic religious schools - an important point emphasised by my fellow commentator, Emeritus Professor Dr Shamsul AB – but also in the national school system and other sources of Islamic knowledge and values – are made to imbibe and internalise a biased and truncated version of their own, the national and world history, and religious and civilisational systems?

It has been said that history is written by the victors. This is so true in Malaysia. But the victors must rise above the political fray and realise that their push for hegemony, supported by third rate and opportunistic academic entrepreneurs, can only diminish and impoverish, not enrich or nourish the minds of young Malays.

It is still not too late for young Malays to rediscover their true history. But the fight for this must come primarily from the Malay community itself and their leaders.

LIM TECK GHEE is a former World Bank senior social scientist, whose report on bumiputera equity when he was director of Asli's Centre for Public Policy Studies sparked controversy in 2006. He is now CEO of the Centre for Policy Initiatives.

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