One Malaysia, many histories

It’s taken me weeks, but it just struck me that our prime minister’s "1Malaysia" concept could have in fact been derived from the Conservatives’ "One Nation" tradition, which promotes unity through shared values and the promotion of freedom for all. 

by Tunku Abidin Muhriz, The Sun

THERE have been some strongly worded letters about history in this newspaper in recent weeks. As a lowly research fellow I dare not get in the way of Dr Collin Abraham and Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim: as a postgraduate student in the Comparative Politics of Empire I have witnessed violent debates between historians and social scientists. However, if I may be so bold, I was under the impression that it was Hugh Clifford, not Ormsby-Gore, who supplied the quote in Khoo’s letter, "Base conclusions on hard evidence" (April 29). I have hard, albeit secondary, evidence.

Such disagreements are why it is foolish for one version of history to be taught as "truth" in classrooms, and yet this is precisely what happens. There is this wacky idea – favoured particularly by fascists and communists – that a united citizenry necessitates the imposition of a single national narrative. Yet there are dozens of conflicting accounts of the reigns of Henry VIII or Queen Victoria, and the English seem quite content with that. There are healthy and enriching debates that make history a wildly popular subject both within and outside academia – just look at the number of historical movies which are released. It is inspirational.

Reversing our situation will require some enabling reforms, including academic freedom and some competition in school curricula. In the meantime, we should take comfort in the growing interest in family history, which is easily the number one resource for alternative accounts of the past, and I’m an avowed fan of the BBC’s Who do you think you are? and the Photos for the Future spots on History International. But it is difficult for Malaysians to challenge official accounts. The textbooks and encyclopaedias say that one of my ancestors arrived in Negri Sembilan in 1773, but recent discoveries show that this is probably rubbish. It pains me that I cannot put this right in the textbooks, and I imagine it offends countless Malaysians who have first-hand accounts from ancestors that the story of our nation has been raped for the sake of academic laziness and political expediency. But if we truly are patriots then we ought to know what really happened, and that is why I keep repeating the mantra that history began way before Aug 31, 1957.

On one important point I definitely agree with Khoo: sovereignty was never transferred from the Malay Rulers to the British Crown. I have here a copy of the treaty between Tuanku Muhammad and Queen Victoria’s government and indeed there is no such clause. Even the MacMichael Treaties, which the Labour government needed to create the Malayan Union, do not mention the word, and include a clause acknowledging the validity of subsisting agreements. Apart from Penang, Malacca, Sabah (as North Borneo) and Sarawak, we were never formal colonies of the British Crown.

The issue of "divide and rule" also seems to have been exaggerated to justify later public policy. For vast swathes of territory (Terengganu, for instance) it barely applied at all and in others there were intra-racial splits and multiracial alliances where conflict and cooperation were motivated by other concerns (like in the Selangor Civil War). Indeed the notion of racial unity is rather dubious; including among Malays: cultural and linguistic unity, perhaps, and even then with variations – as a Minangkabau I will gleefully highlight the many advantages of adat perpatih – but certainly not political unity. I have raised this and other similar points before.

Divide and rule, however, has made a comeback in our former treaty partner – but on class grounds. Notwithstanding the Labour government’s record of failed multiculturalism, last week its budget introduced a 50% rate of tax and the abolition of incentivising tax breaks. My not-so-wealthy friends who were recently laid off despair that this will do nothing to encourage the creation of jobs for them, while my wealthier friends might simply leave the UK altogether. Naturally the polls show massive leads for the Conservatives.

It’s taken me weeks, but it just struck me that our prime minister’s "1Malaysia" concept could have in fact been derived from the Conservatives’ "One Nation" tradition, which promotes unity through shared values and the promotion of freedom for all. Although Margaret Thatcher is characterised as having moved away from One Nation Conservatism, she once said this: "From Malaysia to Mexico, privatisation is on the move… We Conservatives believe in popular capitalism… We Conservatives are returning power to the people. That is the way to one nation, one people."

Given his recent encouraging statements on market liberalisation, perhaps Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak could make a similar speech to more clearly define "1Malaysia" – lest academics of the future go to war over it.

Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is director of the Malaysia Think Tank (