NOVEMBER 24 — “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.” — James Baldwin.
Reflecting on Baldwin’s words on history brought me back to the mid-90s. I remember sitting in my class, looking at my brown history book, listening to my history teacher as the fan hanging from the ceiling continued swirling. It was a hot, bright, sunny afternoon.
My attention was drawn particularly to the story of Tok Janggut — how he was brutalised for fighting against the British colonial rule. I can still vividly remember how horrified I felt at that time, learning about the bloodied event. As a young girl, I understood that the world around me was plagued with violence and atrocities.
I was then taken to the next chapter in the history book. A chapter about how the elite group called the United Malay National Organisation (Umno) had successfully negotiated with the British to gain independence. The book portrayed Umno as a hero, the only hero that fought for the independence of our nation we now call Malaysia.
The glorification of Umno’s achievement in the book was unceasing. The lionisation of Umno reverberated everywhere.
I told myself something was amiss. “What about Tok Janggut?” “Why weren’t people like Tok Janggut included in this narrative?” “Didn’t he fight for our independence?” These are the questions I asked myself. There was this feeling that I had in my chest that was unsettling.
I felt the history book had skipped an important episode of our nation’s history. I knew there was a break in the chain of events but I couldn’t pinpoint what it exactly was. My curiosity was left unattended.
Ten years later, I had no choice but to revisit this curiosity of mine after watching Fahmi Reza’s Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka — a documentary about the history which unfolded 10 years before independence. The questions I had nesting in my head 10 years ago demanded to be reexamined.
The realisation that I had prompted me to read about the left anti-colonial movements which were driven by the youth and powered by their unwavering passion for freedom, justice, and humanity.
I learned about Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Muda (PKMM), Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API), and Angkatan Wanita Sedar (AWAS), PUTERA-AMCJA, the principles they stood for, and the dreams they aspired to create for this nation of ours.
I found it sobering to learn the concept of “Malayness” advocated by the left anti-colonial movements was radically different from the concept of “Malayness” imposed by Umno with the unconditional support of the British. The left’s concept of “Malayness” which was elastic, accepting, and accommodative stood in stark contrast to Umno’s “Malayness” which sought to divide and exclude.
The inclusive nature of the concept of “Malayness” advocated by the left was reflected in the 1947 People’s Constitution. The 1947 People’s Constitution was proposed by a coalition known as PUTERA-AMCJA comprising of PKMM, API, AWAS, small grassroot organisations, the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU), Malayan Indian Congress (MIC), Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU), 12-State Women's Federation in
Malaya, Malayan New Democratic Youth League (MNDYL), and the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Ex-Service Comrades' Association.
This historic move by PUTERA-AMCJA was the first political action which united all races in Malaya. The Straits Times described it as “the first political attempt to put Malayan party politics on a plane higher than that of rival racial interests, and also as the first attempt to build a political bridge between the domiciled non-Malay communities and the Malay race.”
In an unsurprising turn of events, Umno and the British moved to thwart this unifying effort because they saw it as threat to their power and interests. The British’s divide and rule policy continued to be practised by Umno after independence and it is still alive and well today.
Upon uncovering this part of history, I couldn’t help but feel betrayed. The betrayal had a lot to do with the difficulty I had reconciling Umno’s elitist and divisive politics with my Malay identity and what I politically stood for. This sense of betrayal led me to learn more about the radical and inclusive left history that was deliberately erased and missing from our collective memory.
There’s something immensely liberating about unveiling the truth about our own history. It helps us understand where and what we were once and where and what we are now. It assists us to make sense of the current state of affairs and why we, people of this nation continue to be at war with each other.
It also enables us to understand how the political elite from both sides of the divide play their games within the existing power structures — structures that were inherited from the British and built to exclude and silence progressive voices.
A clear analysis of power hierarchies and differentials allows us to understand how power works and why marginalisation and exclusion of progressive voices is being perpetuated.
Developing thorough understanding of history allows us to dive deep into our consciousness — a process fundamental to liberating our minds from the obstructionist structures and systems that are preventing us from affecting real, meaningful, and lasting change.
Learning from history allows us to create new progressive political narratives that would influence the direction of politics and create radical change that we desperately need to confront the unspeakable injustices our society is forced to confront today.
This will only be a possibility when the youth are prepared to break free from the old politics, reclaim their voices from the old guard, and dismantle the existing obstructionist political narratives and structures that are stopping them from exercising their imagination beyond the premise of lesser evilism. It bears reminding that politics has a much broader meaning and it is utterly unjust if we were to keep it within the confines of our familiarity. The familiarity that keeps on failing.
In light of the pressing political stalemate, Malaysia Muda — a movement that seeks to capture the spirit of the youth in our nation’s important moment in history decided to march the street of Kuala Lumpur on December 23, 2017 to commemorate API’s first congress in 1946.
We aspire to embody API’s flaming spirit and transform it into radical political actions. All we need is a space to dream, imagine, and act.
* Fadiah Nadwa Fikri is one of the movers of Malaysia Muda.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.