History as a subject can be a contentious issue. It can be used to serve the agenda of either the government of the day or the authors who may want to promote a certain ideological or political world view.
The Malaysian education system has seen so many variations of history textbooks over the years with different generations of students exposed to different content. When I compare my daughter’s current Form 3 national school history textbook to what I learnt in Form 3 in 1987, I see so many disparities between the two.
There have been so many alterations to the content, topics, tone and manner of the book, its views and perspective of Malaysian and world history. The need to review the history curriculum and modernise or edit to ensure that the objective of learning history is suitable to a given generation is acceptable but unlike science and technology, history is static and the facts do not change, unless there are new findings to dispute the status quo.
I remember learning bits about world history, such as Otto von Bismarck, the ruler of Prussia now Germany, and Johannes Gutenberg who invented the first printing press, besides learning regional history and becoming familiar with names such as José Rizal, national hero of the Philippines, Raden Adjeng Kartini, national heroine of Indonesia, King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn of Thailand and Mahatma Gandhi, whose philosophy of non-violence towards achieving independence for India from the British inspired our leaders in fighting for our own Merdeka.
I feel that it is imperative, at this juncture of learning the nation’s history, that the students learn about other countries’ struggle for independence so they are able to understand and compare the different paths that triggered colonisation and the route to independence taken by some countries.
In addition, history textbook authors should refrain from making decisions for the students and should instead enable them to draw their own conclusions. The summary below, which I read in my daughter’s history book, should be checked for feeding students with the author’s personal opinion of what happened:
Pendudukan Jepun telah membawa kesengsaraan dalam semua aspek penduduk negara kita. Slogan Jepun yang telah memikat hati penduduk sebenarnya hanyalah muslihat Jepun untuk mencapai hasrat mereka. Semangat kebangsaan semakin bersemarak di kalangan penduduk tetapi berpaksikan negara asal masing-masing. Pendudukan Jepun memberi pengajaran kepada kita untuk menolak semua bentuk penjajahan sama ada dari Barat atau Timur.
For such a topic, students should be taught to compare the effects of the two colonial powers on Malaya. Without British colonial influence, we could be worse off than Indonesia and the Dutch or Indochina and the French. It is also important to understand why colonialists were hungry for territory at the time and why Thailand was not colonised at all, and reflect upon these different situations and their impact on the country.
History cannot just be about studying for exams and force-feeding information or ideologies through rote learning.
The bone of contention is also that history is a must-pass subject in SPM. Based on the 2015 SPM results (nationwide), there were more candidates who failed history than those who failed Bahasa Malaysia. As a result, more people are completing their secondary education with lower qualifications, all because of history.
It is not just about history being a compulsory subject in SPM. The real problem is the kind of history lessons that are being imparted. Is it history that we are teaching our children or a distorted version meant to overcompensate and project a convoluted realism?
This is exactly why my grandfather and the country’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, wrote his articles, so that future generations will know from the horse’s mouth his story and the path he and his compatriots took on their journey towards our nationhood.
He believed that young Malaysians should know the nation’s true history in order to appreciate the efforts taken and be more committed to preserving our nation’s independence and sovereignty. He felt the youth were not being given the right facts about how we won our independence.
History is just one of the many controversial issues in our education system. We need to ensure that the policies and decisions that the government makes serve the interests of the public and that they remain objective of the progress of the nation.
One of the ways forward is the establishment of a council, such as the National Consultative Council 2 (NCC2) put forward by CIMB Group chairman Datuk Seri Nazir Razak. It will bring together the government, political parties, civil society, academics, religious leaders and businessmen to reach a national consensus.
NCC2’s aspiration is to reform Malaysia into a better and stronger country in all respects — economically and socially — in line with the principles of Rukunegara. AirAsia’s Tan Sri Tony Fernandes was right in saying that education should be at the forefront of NCC2 because unity starts in the classroom.
On that note, join the Association of Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason and Universiti Malaya’s Department of History in the forum “The Study of History: Its Relevance and Significance” to be held on Oct 22 to discuss our history education and perhaps pave the way for the first recommendation for NCC2.
Tunku Munawirah Putra is the honorary secretary of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia