Myths, prejudice and history
Question Time by P.GUNASEGARAM
It is next to impossible to make history objective, but we must give it a damn good shot.
LEGEND is a lie that has attained the dignity of age. – HL Mencken The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice. – Mark Twain
Remember Jalan Birch in Kuala Lumpur, near the Merdeka Stadium? It’s been called Jalan Maharajalela for many years now, Birch becoming a victim of a programme of Malaysianisation of road names.
|Image via Wikipedia|
But Birch also became a victim of Malaysianisation of history – from hero, he became a villain, and his killer, yes, Maharajalela, became a hero in the flash of a road sign change.
Few things can so poignantly illustrate the change in historical perspective as a country changes.
JWW Birch was a British resident (adviser to the Sultan) in Perak in the 19th century. The British used a system of residents to control most Malayan states. A local called Dato Maharajalela assassinated Birch.
Although the reasons why he did this are obscure, Maharajalela is now hailed as a nationalist who opposed colonialism and died in the process – he and his accomplice were hanged.
Hence his elevation to hero status and Birch’s relegation to villain, a representative of an occupying force.
I remember my early history textbooks post-independence put Maha ra jalela in bad light until years later when the historical perspective began to shift.
We studied in our history books that Sir Francis Light was the founder of Penang which is ridiculous from a Malayan/Malaysian perspective because Malayans must have known the existence of Penang long before it was “founded” by Light. To this day, Wikipedia states that Light founded Penang. How confounding is that.
Captain Francis Light: The statue of Captain Sir Francis Light at Penang, Malaysia
When the British “founded” places, it meant they then established a system of governance with rules of law. There is a court system and a police force. Prior to their “founding” there was no such legal system among the locals.
Then, there was Sir Stamford Raffles who similarly was said to have “founded” Singapore conveniently and erroneously erasing the arrival earlier to that place by a prince from Palembang, Sang Nila Utama, some 500 years earlier.
|Image via Wikipedia|
It seems like even Singaporeans believe their history started with Raffles. I was at a performance put up by Singaporean MBA students in 1991 which started off the history of the country from the time Raffles “founded” it in 1819. How unfortunate!
It was with great amusement that I read many years ago of a stunt pulled by an American (Red) Indian.
After arriving in Italy via a commercial flight, he promptly announced that he had founded Italy.
And what right did he have to make that outrageous claim? The same that Christopher Columbus, an Italian who sailed on behalf of the Spanish monarchs, had when he proudly claimed that he had discovered the Americas (at that time Columbus thought it was the East Indies) in 1492, a land already in habited by millions of others.
Now, Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim has controversially raised lots of heckles and temperatures by saying that Malay warriors such as Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat were mere legends – myths invented by fertile minds for the amusement of others, much like the Greek gods.
He is, however, a renowned historian with no political ideology, racial or national axe to grind.
To his critics he has this to say: “If you don’t agree with me, bring out the sources to show I am wrong. You cannot simply say you don’t agree. I am saying that these things were not true because no reliable sources confirmed they existed.”
That is a clear indication as to how we should go about clarifying history.
History must be based on facts. It must seek to recreate – without any ideological, national, racial or any other bias – what happened to who, what, when, where, why and how, the journalistic five W’s and one H.
Otherwise it remains a myth and legend.
Just as in the case of Hang Tuah, one should seek to ascertain whether Maharajalela was indeed a hero by trying to establish, based on facts, his motives for killing Birch.
Otherwise it becomes a mere speculation and interpretation which is not history.
We are a relatively young country and yes, we would need to rewrite history from the perspective of Malaysia and Malaysians. No, Light had not founded Penang and Raffles, Singapore.
There may be many questions we can’t answer but we must make an effort to find them. And we need a proper system of archiving so that future generations know things the way they were.
History in school must not be a tool for nation building or used for any other agenda but to paint a true picture, as far as that is possible given all our collective prejudices, of Malaysia and of the world.
It needs to have balance, fairness and most of all truth about everyone’s contribution to nation building.
It must not seek to aggrandise one race or religion at the expense of others.
It must have enough of a mix of subject matter to ensure Malaysians have sufficient appreciation of Malaysia and how it has come to be where it is as well as an unbiased understanding of the state of the world. Anything else and it would become poor propaganda instead.
The best way towards this is to have a curriculum drawn up by historians and true educationists and to put in place a rigorous means of verification if we need to change history or at least what we learn of it.
You can interpret history but you must not rewrite it without factual basis.
It is next to impossible to make it objective but we must give it a damn good shot nevertheless, if we are not to live in and perpetuate a lie.
Independent consultant and writer P Gunasegaram (firstname.lastname@example.org) says we need an accurate history before we learn anything from it.
Hang Tuah part of Malay cultural heritage
I REFER to Prof Emeritus Khoo Kay Kim’s statement declaring that Hang Tuah and Kris Taming Sari are the figments of somebody’s imagination based on the lack of credible evidence to authenticate their existence. As such they are not historical facts.
|Image via Wikipedia|
But these two elements are part of the Malay cultural heritage and have been embedded in the annals of the Malay civilisation, initially through oral tradition and later recorded in literary, dramatic and scholarly works.
Together with Puteri Gunung Ledang, Nenek Tempayan, Mat Jenin and Lebai Malang, they have adorned our lives through the retelling of their adventures and foibles in literary, dramatic and cinematic works.
They provide us with the opportunities of exploring the moral and ethical percepts of their actions.
Such traditional characters are ingrained as part of our psyche.
Many of us were brought up with Hang Tuah representing the epitome of loyalty, bravery and humility, character traits of such universal and noble stature.
In one swift swoop, Prof Khoo demolished part of our mores and lore citing the lack of concrete evidence to corroborate their existence.
As such, he suggested that they cannot be included as part of the history of the Malays.
But history itself is not beyond reproach. For historical narrations are a conglomeration of facts and fallacies that are given credence by those in power who tend to benefit most from such accounts.
And again, history was written by the victors who neglected the contributions of the vanquished, except those that portray them in a negative light. Thus, the “facts” were slanted to favour the powerful and the ruling elite.
Look at the account of the American Indians in the history of the American West. It portrays them as barbaric and evil and the white man as humane people who civilised these savages by putting them in reservations.
Likewise, the skewed perception of the aboriginal people in the annals of the Australian history.
In the same vein, a “historical” account of Palestine by the Jews would differ markedly from that of the Palestinians.
Similarly, the descriptive exploits of the Christian Crusade extolling the bravery and virtues of King Arthur would not tally with the account of the Muslims praising Sallahuddin Al Ayobi and the Arabs in the defence of Islam.
Thus, oral and recorded history is perceived from the perspective of the recorder who is not a disinterested party.
As for Hang Tuah and his companions, they have for so long been part of our cultural history. So too is the Kris Taming Sari which may not just refer to a single physical entity but rather a recognition bestowed on those that possess mystical and supernatural aura.
MOHAMED GHOUSE NASURUDDIN, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang