Sunday, 17 May 2009

Blog & Roll: The Other Malaysia

Ever since I was a wee lad, I always found studying history the Ministry of Education way baffling. How is it that there is always only one version, one set of established causes, one undisputed outcome? How can we trust historical sources which clearly mix fact with fiction? How do we know which is which? How come so many things remain unmentioned while others were overblown?

Only much later would I learn that this was because history, as the famous adage goes, is always written by the victors. With every carefully selected "fact", picture, diagram and chart inserted into the (official) textbooks, an entire generation's understanding of its country's history has been shaped to fit the needs of the powers that be. With every removal, denial or distortion of the past, we are shortchanged when told story of our nation.

This official paradigm is rarely challenged, because it has always been presented as truth, and taken as such. But it is a narrative that is one-dimensional, always inadequate and at times completely incorrect. Take for example the widely accepted "fact" that our Indian community's roots lie in a large number of Indians being brought over as labourers by the British colonial authorities from the sub-continent. I do not doubt that many of them were brought over as labourers, but the Malay archipelago's links with India have existed many centuries before the British came, and even before Malacca flourished. We have ruins of Indian settlements in our country that predate the Malaccan sultanate. (This alone should put a stop to any highly offensive and fatuous remarks asking Indians to "go home"!)

Another example is how our beloved government keeps reminding us how their political forerunners, the founding fathers of Malaysia and their supporters who later formed the Alliance, "won" independence from the evil, evil British and how lucky we are to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Now, again, I am by no means discounting the importance of their actions in any way, they did of course contribute much. But what about the long and hard struggles of the Malayan left and their leaders, the thinkers, artists and writers, the Malayan labourers from all races, and (dare I say it?!) the Malayan Communists? Why are their contributions hardly mentioned? (No, we can't ever say anything nice about the Commies cause they're the worst baddies ever, as in worse than the British bad, right?!).

Another highly objectionable way of handling Malaysian history is to erase it or hide it. Witness the renaming of streets, places and entire towns which were given English names. Witness the destruction or neglect of colonial buildings. Witness the demonising of the British (but of course we are never as bad as them even if we use their gift lovely to us: the ISA). Witness the erasure or rejection of all things Western from our past.

We cannot hide our past, especially our colonial past, even if we tried. Its marks on us are only too obvious. We speak plenty of English (and not French, Dutch, Indonesian or Thai). Our laws were modeled after English and Indian laws (which were themselves modeled after English laws). Our courts are modeled after the court system of England. Our entire political system reflects the Westminster model. Our Federal Constitution bears the fingerprints of British drafters as much as it does the handwriting of Malayans. The British rule had (and has) a huge influence on the character, outlook and make up of our country. This is not to discount nor justify the obvious atrocities and grave injustices of colonialism, but what I'm saying is this: why try to deny or hide what simply cannot be denied or hidden? Why not just come to terms with it?

Which is where Dr. Farish A Noor, (since I'm talking so much about him here I thought I might as well feature his site) and Dr. Yusseri Yusoff come in. They have set up The Other Malaysia, what they call a "resource site" for all those who, like me, "are interested in unearthing aspects of Malaysian history, politics and culture that have thus far been sidelined, marginalised or erased in the official historiography of the post-colonial state".

As a Malaysian, I'm very glad for their efforts, because the story of our country deserves far more than one version from one (clearly self-serving) story-teller. The writing (mostly articles by Farish) is always top-notch and informative, and the terms of usage are very liberal, so click on the post title to visit the site and enjoy learn.


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