Putting history into perspective April 4, 2019 – Posted in: In The News

Last month, the National Institute of Public Administration (Intan) held its first lecture series for the year under the “INTAN Lecture Series (Integrity)” banner. The lecture aimed at creating a platform for intellectual discourse among civil servants on integrity and nation building. Professor Datuk Dr Ahmad Murad Merican from the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS) of Universiti Sains Malaysia delivered the lecture titled “Engaging with History, Society and the Nation”, which in many ways awakened the senses of civil servants.

His lecture did not subscribe to the common substance of integrity that the civil service is accustomed to. Rather, it delved into the integrity of the nation’s history, revealing the idiosyncrasies of our history which has either been misrepresented, under represented or not represented at all.

Its main takeaway was the importance for civil servants to engage in, to quote Professor Ahmad Murad, “the different levels of discourse permeating in our midst”, “the origins of the discourses” and “how they affect public sentiments.”

Such a discourse could not have come at a more opportune moment, as our nation is being confronted with different forces, ideologies and schools of thought that are challenging its existence.

Being at the forefront of national development, it is crucial for civil servants to have sound knowledge of the foundations of the country, which encompass its history. Malaysia’s administrative and diplomatic officers, who constantly enrich themselves with knowledge of the nation’s past and the diverse levels of popular discourse, are bound to craft well-informed decisions for generations to come.

Without knowledge of history, man is at a loss because history links the past, present and future. Since his comeback as Malaysia’s seventh prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has time and again reminded us of the significance of history. In his address to the Malaysian civil service on Jan 14, he said, “Sejarah penting bagi kita menentukan kita bertindak dengan cara yang bijak (History is important for us to ensure we act wisely).”

Quoting Harvard Professor in Philosophy George Santayana, he further reminded us that “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The civil service must value the importance of history as a branch of knowledge that helps us to execute our daily routines effectively. But history is not without its diverse versions. We must be conscious of its different angles and intent. The history that prevails in Malaysia and in many other parts of the world, including developed nations, are the versions promoted by those in power.

In the process of constructing the nation, specific versions of national history have been promoted publicly through school textbooks, tourism brochures, monuments, buildings, commemorations, museum exhibits, films and the media. The use of these vehicles to colour the people’s perception of local history is not a new design of the post-independence government. Rather, it is inherited from the colonial administration.

In Malaysia, the 1971 National Cultural Policy has further fashioned the narration and representation of Malaysian history. The works of scholar and historian Abu Talib Ahmad (2008, 2014) have consistently revealed how, with such a policy in place, national history has been depicted to fit official perspectives while aspects that are religiously and politically inappropriate are concealed and silenced.

Local films produced to re-enact the nation’s road to independence have not done justice to the different groups who had played significant roles to free Malaysia from the clutches of the colonial powers. In the case of local museums, Abu Talib in his work, Museum, History and Culture in Malaysia (2014), wrote that the role of Malaysian museums in nation building has been at the expense of museums as “custodians of heritage within the context of a narrowly defined nationalist agenda.”

He further observed, “This nation-building function was inherited from museums during the preceding period, which according to Benedict Anderson, shaped the way in which, along with censuses and maps, the colonial state ‘imagined’ its dominion. Newly emerging nation states have adopted and adapted this role.”

After independence in 1957, national school textbooks in Malaysia had promoted the Kapitan China, Yap Ah Loy, as one of the founders of Kuala Lumpur. In 2018, the narrative of Kuala Lumpur city took a different turn when scholar Abdur-Razzaq Lubis released his book titled Sutan Puasa, Founder of Kuala Lumpur. The book revealed new information about the founder of Kuala Lumpur. Earlier, in 2017, historian Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim had raised questions in several intellectual discourses when he stated that “the founder of Kuala Lumpur was Sutan Puasa, from Mandailing.”

Lubis’ work provides substantial evidence through illustrations and documents, establishing his argument that the prevailing versions of Kuala Lumpur’s history had omitted. In his foreword for the book, Terry McGee from University of British Columbia described Lubis’ research as making “a major contribution to the reinvention of hegemonic Malaysian historical narratives.”

McGee further described Lubis’ work as “vernacularising history.” By that, McGee explains, “this is history as seen from the perspectives of ethnically and culturally diverse groups of people who are actively engaged in making history at the local level – the people who are often perceived, by other more privileged groups in society, as ‘getting in the way of history’.”

We must understand history as a construct that has room for revision to give individuals and groups their rightful place in history. Lubis’ work is only a fraction of the many oral traditions in the country that need to be researched and documented. There are many more untold stories in Malaysian history which deserve to be unearthed so that we can learn from them.

The reality is that there are many more communities in the country that have not been given due recognition in the annals of Malaysian history.

Once upon a time, the unique mix of communities in Malaya was assumed by cynics as impossible ingredients for the formation of a new nation. The widespread scepticism of the 1950s that newly independent Malaya would be a disaster is a vast contrast to the optimism of the 1990s when Malaysia was observed as a vital economic power in Asia. Indeed, Malaysia has proven to the world that diversity is a strength rather than a weakness.

Dr Pushpa Al Bakri Devadason

We must come to terms with the reality that regardless of race, creed or ideology, each of us play a pivotal role in moving the country forward. Coming from a God-conscious society, no Malaysian can dispute the decree of the Almighty that has placed us in a nation which is diversely rich to make us come out of it enlightened, empowered, resilient, strong and united.

Dr Pushpa Al Bakri Devadason
National Institute of Public Administration (Intan)

This letter was originally published on 27 March 2019 in The Star.

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