National History Based on Half-truths Undermines the Critical Spirit of the Young

By Santhiram R. Raman

Published on 2021-06-27 Updated 2021-07-06

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A NATIONAL HISTORY is never fixed and instead, tends to take on chameleon-like characteristics. Malaysian history is no different. Under colonial rule, the population was fed a diet of empire-building feats by colonial masters.

With independence, history became a tool for national development. To "decolonise" Malaysia, much emphasis was put on ideals of nation-building and national integration. As a school subject, national history back then advocated inclusivity in Malaysia's plural society. This was a commendable effort to be sure but it was met with resistance, largely for the reasons stated below:

Conflict arose between nationalists who saw themselves belonging to a "civic territorial nation" based on universal citizenship rights regardless of status, age, gender, ethnic origin or religious affiliation; and those who believe in the genealogical ethnic nation based upon specific myths of ancestry, historical memories, cultural symbols and emblems associated with the land in question (Francis Loh, 2014 citing A. Smith 1986: 125-129).

The notion of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay sovereignty), along with Islam became important determinants in the drafting of syllabi from the 1980s onward. With these clearly political motivations, half-truths or "errors of omission and commission" began to abound, antithetic as these are to history as an academic discipline. Several examples from the secondary school history syllabi [based on the latest (2017) curriculum innovation by the Malaysian Ministry of Education] are examined in this article.

Rich Indic Influence

Between 300 and 1,300 CE, the Malay Peninsula benefited from trade and cultural contacts with the Srivijayan and Pallava-Chola empires. Bujang Valley and Sungai Muda abound with relics of Hindu-Buddhist origins. This is a generally accepted historical fact. This information, however, is only superficially broached in the Form 1 history textbook. This era was an important ground-laying one when Indian cultural values and religious ideologies spread throughout the region.

Certain Malay royal succession rituals to this day continue to draw inspiration from practices of Indian kingship imported from those times. For example, the ritual of jejak tanah, where a tray of earth and various other metals are placed before the royal infant to step on to symbolise the start of life, is still observed.

What is even more interesting is the discovery of the Lost City of Kota Gelanggi in Johor, believed to be one of the earliest civilisations on the Peninsula. News of its finding made headlines at first, but was soon blotted out when it was realised that the city was part of the Srivijayan empire based in southern Sumatra. For unclear reasons, there were those in influential positions in government who thought that formal recognition of the discovery would contradict Malaysia's official history, which begins with the arrival of Prince Parameswara to Melaka.

In the history textbooks of Forms 2 and 4, it is claimed that the ideas and the administrative practices from the era of Islamic Melaka are foundational to the building of present-day Malaysia. Notable examples include maritime laws and the growth of the exchange economy and trade. Easily accessible evidence, however, has shown this to be untrue; Malaysia's common laws are inherited from the British.

Here are the facts: i) Malaysian land laws are based on the Torrens Title System, enacted in 1879 in Perak; ii) The modern exchange economy grew with the coming of the Portuguese, Dutch and the British; and iii) Malaysia's infrastructure was developed by the British, the administrative system is purely of British origin, and the Malaysian government is a variant of the British Parliamentary system.

Bunga emas. Photo: The Bangsawan@Wikipedia

In the Northern Peninsula, Thai influence was especially prominent. The British only formally took over control of the Northern Malay states after the signing of the Treaty of Bangkok in 1909. As overlord, the Kingdom of Siam had demanded for its vassal states and for Kedah to send bunga emas (gold flowers) as tribute once every three years to Bangkok; and should the need arise, to dispatch soldiers and elephants as well. When Kedah refused the demands, the Siamese invaded, causing Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin to flee for safety, first to Penang and later to Perak. In the Form 2 history textbook, however, it is very simply stated that in 1843, Siam bestowed the title of Phya Songkhram Ramu Wichit Willis Asmara Phya Pelit on Syed Hussin Jamalullail as ruler of the state of Perlis. No further elaboration was provided of the preceding events (Suffian Mansor, Mardiana Nordin, Ahmad Salehee Abdul & Ishak Saidoo, 2019: 144).

Perhaps one of the most glaring omissions in the entire history curriculum is the development of Malaysia's plural society, which grew in tandem with the tin and rubber industries during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Curiously, the textbook writing of pre-independent Malaysia seems to suggest "a partnership" between the indigenous people and the British in the Peninsula's development.

Long Jaafar is credited for bringing progress to Larut and introducing Perak as a major tin producer to the world market. The hard truth is that it was primarily Chinese capital and labour that made British Malaya the world's largest tin producer by the end of the 19th century.

The Malaysian Blueprint of 2013-2025 states in no uncertain terms that an unshakeable sense of national unity tied to the principles of the Rukun Negara is necessary for Malaysia's future. Every student is to proudly identify as Malaysian, irrespective of ethnicity, beliefs, socio-economic status or geographical location. This patriotism, and a strong sense of inclusiveness, is to be acquired through the learning, understanding and embracing of Malaysia's diverse communities.

But can these goals be achieved if the country's teaching of history does not reflect common experiences in its past? Pro-inclusive historians and non-governmental organisations have campaigned for history as a school subject to be balanced, accurate and inclusive. The civil society movement, Kempen Sejarah Malaysia Sebenar, launched in May 2011, called for factual accuracy and due recognition of the contributions of all communities to the historical development of the nation. The movement managed to come up in a petition signed by 20,000 people but disappointingly, that failed to stir the government to take any remedying action.

Hang Tuah was rehabilitated in the Standard 4 history textbook, as an eminent Admiral of the Melaka Sultanate. Photo: Chongkian@Wikipedia

A history forum, The Study of History: Its Relevance and Significance, hosted by the Association of Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason in 2016, inspired the publication of History for Nation Building. At the book launch, Tan Sri Rais Yatim was quoted to have said, "Malaysia's history must be presented as clear as possible to see equal role of the multiracial community."

In conclusion, I would quote an African educationist who issued a warning to his country's educational planners on the dangers of indoctrination through history books. He said:

"With regard to indoctrination as a general policy to promote misguided national aims, there is a danger of denying students opportunities to contemplate change, to evaluate alternatives and make decisions which are important competencies for youth in a nation. The trade-off of this kind must be weighed by our society with a clear understanding that the cost of indoctrinating the young to uncritical acceptance of their history has consequent costs in the future social and intellectual climate and individual competencies, which may counterbalance benefits accrued through socio-political consensus." (Harber, 1989: 180)

  • Francis Loh Kok Wah. 2014 “Malaysia after Mahathir: Late democratization amidst development, the developmental state and developmentalism” in Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao (ed.) 2014.
  • Democracy or Alternative Political Systems in Asia: After the Strongmen. London & New York. Routledge: 114-36
  • Harber, C. 1989. The Politics in African Education. London, MacMillan Publishers.
  • Suffian Mansor, Mardiana Nordin, Ahmad Salehee Abdul & Ishak Saidoo. 2019. Sejarah Tingkatan 2: Kurikulum Standard Sekolah Menengah. Kuala Lumpur. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
Santhiram R. Raman

Dato’ Dr. Santhiram R Raman is the author of the recently published book, From Decolonization to Ethno-Nationalism: A Study of Malaysia’s School History Syllabuses and Textbooks: 1905-2020. (2021) Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, Petaling Jaya.