Malaysian history textbooks — Ranjit Singh Malhi

SEPTEMBER 30 — I refer to the letter “Do not tinker with discipline of history” by Arof Ishak which was published recently in a local English newspaper. I fully agree with him that history is an established discipline of knowledge.

History writing should be a scholarly pursuit and not politically motivated or biased to serve a narrow agenda. However, I disagree, justifiably, with Arof Ishak that “The history of Malaysia will necessarily be Malay-centric because Malays and the natives are the founding population” and that “history writing in Malaysia has always been proper – there is no untoward racial bias.”

History is a factual account of past significant events that have shaped present day society and nation; it enables us to understand how present day society and nations evolved. Hence, in explaining the origin and current state of our nation and its plural society, one cannot ignore the role played by non-Malays, particularly the Chinese and Indians, in the making of Malaysia.

For example, how can one explain the New Economic Policy without drawing reference to the economic development of Malaya under British rule? Similarly, how can one account for the rapid economic development of Malaya before independence without taking into account the security provided by the British Government and the significant contributions of the Chinese and Indian communities?

Make no mistake about it. Without British rule and the significant contributions of the Chinese and Indian communities, Malaysia would not be what it is today. The Chinese and Indian communities are an integral part of our nation’s history.

The Chinese community played a crucial role in the development of the tin mining industry and towns. Virtually all the towns in what were then the Federated Malay States and the Straits Settlements developed primarily due to the enterprise of the Chinese.

In the words of Margaret Shennan, “The impact of the Chinese upon Malaya was decisive. It was through them that urban life developed in much of the peninsula. Alongside their mining villages they set up shops and workshops, and from these beginnings grew the main towns of the 'protected' states.”

It was Indian labour (mainly South Indians) that was the backbone of the rubber industry and primarily responsible for opening up much of what is today Peninsular Malaysia with their sweat, blood and tears. Rubber was the chief export of Malaya for several decades beginning from 1916; in 1957, rubber constituted 59 per cent of the total exports of Malaya.

Indian labour was also primarily responsible for building the roads, railways and bridges besides constructing ports, airports and government buildings.

Our history textbooks until 1996 were “proper” (i.e. provided a generally accurate and objective account of our nation’s origins and development). The trend of "rewriting" Malaysian history (Islamic and Malay-centric biased) started in 1996 with the formation of the Jawatankuasa Penerbitan Buku Teks Sejarah Tingkatan 1 & Tingkatan 2.

Its members (more than 15 for each committee), including the writers and consulting experts of the textbooks were all Malays. The three authors of the current Form One textbook (first published in 2016) are also Malays although the consulting experts are multi-ethnic.

Our current history textbooks are glaringly biased. First, they downplay the roles of the non-Malays in the development of our nation. For example, the previous textbooks used to mention adequately the contribution of the Chinese and the Indians in the development of the tin mining and rubber industries. Now, it is given scant attention.

Another example is that the current Form Two textbook (page 153) only refers to Yap Ah Loy as “antara orang yang bertanggungjawab membangunkan Kuala Lumpur.” All historians worth their salt will admit that Yap Ah Loy was primarily responsible for transforming Kuala Lumpur from a mining village into a leading commercial and mining centre after it was largely destroyed during the Selangor Civil War (1867–1873).

Indeed, Ahmad Kamal Ariffin (a senior lecturer with the History Department of Universiti Malaya) recently commented that Yap Ah Loy’s “role in rebuilding Kuala Lumpur should be given its place in history textbooks. Yap’s name is synonymous with Kuala Lumpur because if not for his contributions, the city may not be the national capital today.”

Interestingly, our earlier Form Four history textbook (second edition) published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in 1979 provides a detailed account (about three pages) of Yap Ah Loy’s role in developing Kuala Lumpur. It states, inter alia, “Tidak suatu bencana juapun yang dapat menghalangnya [Yap Ah Loy] daripada membangunkan bandar yang dibimbing dan dimajukannya semenjak tahun 1868 itu.”

Second, there is a lopsided emphasis on Islamic civilisation. Five out of 10 chapters (about 40 per cent) of the current Form Four history textbook deal with Islamic history. The earlier Form 4 history textbook had only one chapter (about 17 per cent) on Islamic history.

Third, the amount of text related to Christianity Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism in the current Form Four textbook has been reduced by more than 25 per cent as compared to the earlier textbook. Fourth, our history textbooks do not tell the whole truth. For example, why can't we state categorically that the founder of Malacca (Parameswara) was a Hindu prince from Palembang who maintained his faith until his death.

Johnson Nga (a former principal of Methodist Girls Secondary School, Malacca) sums up aptly the biasness of our history textbooks: “We lie to our students. We lie to them by omitting parts of our history; by reinventing other parts; by glamourising aspects of it at the expense of other aspects. Our youth are not given the whole picture; not told the true story.”

Similarly, Associate Professor Helen Ting concludes that the contents of successive versions of Malaysian history textbooks show “a clear trend towards incremental and excessive Malay bias” and “a drastic increase in the study of Islamic civilisational history at the expense of world history and of the relative coverage of other ancient civilizations and religions...”

We must be proud of our multi-religious and multi-cultural heritage. Our history textbooks must tell the whole truth and not glorify a particular civilization or ethnic group based upon half-truths. In this regard, I applaud Distinguished Professor Datuk Shamsul Amri who recently stated to the effect that we have downplayed the Hindu–Buddhist influence in the early history of Kedah.

Archaeological remains show that there was a Hindu–Buddhist polity in ancient Kedah with the local rulers having adopted Indian cultural and political models — a fact which is apparently not highlighted in our current textbooks.

Our earlier Form Four history textbook (second edition) published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in 1979 provided a detailed and objective account of Hindu-Buddhist influence in ancient Kedah, including facts such as “Kedah menjadi satu kerajaan berpengaruh India,” “Setengah-setengahnya [orang India] berkahwin dengan keluarga diraja” and “fahaman Hindu tentang beraja tertanam di dalam sistem kerajaan tempatan.”

We should all be committed to the writing of history that is accurate, generally objective and well-balanced that can contribute towards buttressing a sense of patriotism and pride as Malaysians.

Let’s adopt an inclusive approach which promotes national unity as best exemplified by His Majesty the Sultan of Johor, and not a divisive approach (exerting superiority of one particular ethnic group and religion over others) which hampers nation building.

Take heed of Professor Santhiram’s critical remark: “How can a people develop a sense of common historical experience and a sense of belonging to the nation if they feel alienated and marginalised and no recognition is made of their participation in the life of the country?” I rest my case.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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