My Say: Revisiting Malaysian history wisely

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 6, 2018 - August 12, 2018.
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There have been regular calls for a more critical revision of Malaysian history. But it has been getting more pronounced lately. With the right approach, it is a subject that could stimulate healthy intellectual discourse among us. Otherwise, it could be a recipe for strife between differing factions.

Therefore, like any other potentially sensitive and controversial subject, it has to be handled with great care and with sobriety by both sides of the divide. Those who are advocating for such a revision need to do so with great temperance by way of measured language and a circumspect approach. The opposing faction, too, must be prepared to hear out the arguments of the other side without being emotional and hypersensitive.

Just before the 14th general election, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad gave a keynote address at a Perdana Leadership Foundation Forum. He said that there was a need to rewrite Malaysian history books to include problems faced in the past and the steps taken by the government to solve such issues, so as to offer the younger generation a better understanding of the country’s history.

Mahathir’s call was generally well-received by the public as an exhortation to look at history as a living subject that needs continuous discourse and re-evaluation.

Recently, some young activists like Fadiah Nadwa Fikri and Fahmy Reza organised a forum to call for a review of our history textbooks so as to give more accurate narratives of the story of our nation, including the role played and contributions made by leftist groups such as the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) in the fight for independence.

The forum was well conducted and despite emotional flare-ups at the start by dissenting parties, it concluded nicely. All’s well that ends well and credit has to be given to the young panellists and moderator.

Malay language daily Utusan Malaysia recently published a report claiming that Human Resources Minister M Kulasegaran had referred to the Malay community as pendatang. This adds another perspective and twist to our history.

Not surprisingly, Kulasegaran was met with a barrage of attacks and criticisms by many Malay groups, with some calling for his immediate resignation from the Cabinet.

Kulasegaran’s stance was seen by many as being overly provocative. He did not seem to be talking as a minister with great responsibilities but more like an opposition still fighting an oppressive and bigoted government. Not only do such comments put great strain on the tolerance level of many Malays, including the more forgiving ones, they may actually bring disrepute to the new Pakatan Harapan government.

Kulasegaran has since apologised. But the episode should serve as a timely and stark reminder for people to be more measured and circumspect in their approach when broaching such subjects.

Since the calls for such a review of our nation’s history appears to have a more profound effect on and elicited angry reactions from the Malay populace, I would like to begin my take on the subject first and foremost from the perspective of Islam.

Islam lays great emphasis on the pursuit of truth. It is its cardinal principle, never to be compromised under any circumstances. Likewise is its unflinching commitment to the principle of justice. It has to be said and acknowledged that under any jurisprudence or political system, justice is all about establishing the truth.

These calls to review and revisit Malaysian history books can be viewed in the said Islamic context as an exercise to establish the hard facts of past events. This is to enable us to present unvarnished facts and truths about our history while doing justice to the protagonists and players in the development of our nation.

We know too well that the earlier works on Malaysia’s history were largely done by the British, who served their interest and agenda. The credibility and integrity of the works are therefore questionable. The later works done by local historians were also called into question, purportedly on account of undue influence from political masters or people in authority to serve certain set agendas.

As a result, things have often been presented as either white or black. Facts have been juxtaposed against, or adulterated with, myths and fiction. These works became the basis of textbooks used in our schools, colleges and universities.

Now, under the new PH government, where open discourse, engagements and inquiries are tolerated or even encouraged, such an exercise to revisit and re-evaluate our history should be welcomed rather than condemned. It is not to be seen or construed as a mischievous work of politics to serve the nefarious agenda of certain groups.

If what is stated in our history books is indeed the truth, then such an exercise should only serve to help in reconfirming it. Why then do we find certain sections of society being so alarmed and reacting to it with great hostility? Are they afraid of finding out the truth or do they just want to preserve things even though they may not be completely true?

Many who are advocating for the review point to, among others, the struggle of the CPM. The members have been portrayed as outright villains. Their fight against the British and Japanese colonial powers have not been given any measure of recognition. At the same time, their war against the new government of Tunku Abdul Rahman upon Malaya’s attaining independence and many years after that, resulting in the loss of many lives, deserves to be highlighted as such.

The sensitivities of the kin and friends of those who lost their lives in the bloody confrontation have to be dealt with great care. But if indeed the CPM members had contributed positively in certain aspects of our fight for independence or nation building, then let us give credit where it is due. Perhaps there are also many other historical events that have to be revisited. This is to get the facts right and do justice to all.

Last but not least, it will be instructive for Muslims to remember, realise and accept that even the state of Islamic jurisprudence — especially in relation to the collections of hadiths — deemed sacred by most Muslims is constantly being critically reviewed by Islamic clerics and scholars. This allow for new interpretations and perspectives being presented to the ummah from time to time. This is all done in our quest for truth. And in the process, it helps us attain a better understanding of our faith.

Why can’t we look at such a review of Malaysian history in the same context?

Be that as it may, let good sense prevail and may each side exercise calm restraint in dealing with the subject.

Wan Haron Wan Hassan is a senior practising lawyer and is active in civil society. He was treasurer of the Umno Kota Baru division (2004-2008).

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