NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.
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 spotted 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 endeared in my mind to this very day. To paraphrase the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “There are no facts, only interpretations”.
Suddenly, my mind 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 an 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 ten 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?