On Howard Zinn and Malaysian history

Malaysia’s history is written by those who are paid by the feudal lords or the sultans and the bourgeoisie class who have become an appendage to the modern neo-feudalistic Malay state.


Azly Rahman

“From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.” – Howard Zinn, American historian par excellence.

On Jan 28, 2010 America mourned the passing on of one of her greatest historians whose 50 years of work pioneered not only the style of historicizing that put the oppressed, marginalized, disposed, victimized, and otherwise losers and forgotten in history – into center-stage and hailed as heroes.

Prof Zinn, an alumnus of Columbia University’s History Department was a radical educator whose work inspired the Civil Rights movement, left a legacy of looking at history through the lens of critical pedagogy.

Zinn can provide a way Malaysian historians cn promote the teaching of Malaysian history.

Inspired by Howard Zinn

I was first introduced to Howard Zinn’s work, in the early 1980s through a professor of mine who was a close friend of William Ayers, another radical educator whose work centered around the idea of education for social justice.

As part of a required reading for a graduate course in Education and Democracy, alongside seminal works such as John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Michael Harrington’s Socialism, and a collection of key writings in Marxist theories of education and human liberation, Zinn’s work provided a tour de force of American history.

I was introduced to the context of how history ought to also be looked at in relation to how those historied by history ought to be schooled, trained, and most importantly, educated and next, liberated.

I was introduced to the idea of ‘a people’s history of the United States” and how America was ‘founded’ as a consequence of the massacre of tens of thousands of Arawak Indians; those massacred a few year after the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

Subsequent epochs saw the wars, as Howard Zinn chronicled, that made America into an empire founded upon the idea that in order to arrive at peace, one must prepare for and wage war.

The war machine that is America progressed well in subsequent centuries with the advancement of technology and the culture of capitalism.

America was not only fuelled by what Marx would call “technological and economic determinism” but also by the experiment in the championing of a strange yet familiar idea of ‘democracy’.

Zinn’s heroes are the natives, the slaves, the workers, the Civil Rights leaders, and those who oppose war.

America the land of the free and home of the brave has evolved into a powerful military-industrial complex.

Howard Zinn’s work became an inspiration in my teachings of The Foundations of Western Civilization and The History of the United States, among the more than 40 course I have taught in seven different departments, particularly in the United States.

Historicizing Malaysia

Malaysia’s history is written by those who are paid by the feudal lords or the sultans and the bourgeoisie class who have become an appendage to the modern neo-feudalistic Malay state.

Malaysian history, a basis of the violently disseminated idea of Ketuanan Melayu, as an apology to the idea of economic dominance of the Malay-dominated National Front, favours the powerful and the wealthy as heroes of history.

Tun Sri Lanang, court writer for the Malay Annals or Sejarah Melayu, wove tales of the overblown glory of the Malacca Sultanate with phantasmagoric and avatar-like conception of heroism of Malay warriors with Chinese-sounding names, foremost among them was Hang Tuah, the epitome of a blind-follower of istana/royal court orders; one who can be categorized in sci-fi genre as a Malay drone with android characteristic created out of the need to showcase what idiotic pride means.

The narratives of Malacca was well-preserved and well-transmutated into what is now Malaysian history, claimed as “a body of historical facts” embalmed in Malaysian history textbooks to be devoured by the curious young minds of Malaysians; children whose minds are like filtered funnels ready to accept whatever the State deemed necessary and “Official Knowledge” not to be questioned but to be regurgitated as immutable facts at the end-of-year examinations.

Much of what is happening in Malaysian schools is the teaching of history devoid of critical historicizing let alone the reading of history written from the point of view of ‘the people’s history of Malaya’.

Missing from the textbooks, are chronicles of the natives enslaved by the feudal lords, narratives of the indentured serfs from China and India, stories of the robbery of land in Sabah and Sarawak, the chronicle of the struggle between the workers and the capitalist class, the real story behind the Communist insurgency, and in recent times the voices of liberation and freedom against the excesses of the modern Malaysian authoritarian state.

History has not been kind to Malaysians. Historians have been kind to the paymasters in history.

In the end, history textbooks not only become a literary graveyard for the losers in the historical march of Capital, but as post-modern blinders – for the closing of the Malaysian mind.

Rest in peace, Howard Zinn. Yes, we cannot be neutral on a moving train.


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