Let’s reclaim history for ourselves

Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz, founding president of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), starts a weekly column today. IDEAS is a think tank committed to promoting the fundamental precepts of first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s vision in the belief that a fresh application of those precepts can help the nation overcome the challenges it faces.

Clearly, my two ancestors employed different strategies in dealing with the British. Was one a hero and the other a traitor? No, they were merely individuals trying to abide by their adat while dealing with the exigencies of global British power.


MY formal “hello” will have to wait because the impulse to comment on the current furore about our history is just too great. As I have written elsewhere, genealogy enables us to contextualise events that occurred around our ancestors and those who lived with them.

For me and several hundred fourth cousins, there are two ancestors whose political experiences illuminate not only on the process of colonisation, but also expose as ridiculous this “hero versus traitor” dichotomy that so many are attempting to peddle for political purposes today.

The elder ancestor is Yamtuan Antah, the elected Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan and Seri Menanti from 1872 to 1887, who is today feted as a hero in the Education Ministry-approved history books. You will find him celebrated in websites that also promote Datuk Maharaja Lela and Mat Salleh as valiant defenders of their race and nation.

Essentially, Yamtuan Antah waged war against the British in 1875 after the Undang of Sungei Ujong had signed a Pangkor-like treaty with the British.

When the latter trespassed into Terachi, my great-great-great-grandfather’s forces attacked, repelling the British forces back to Seremban.

Unfortunately, British artillery had arrived, and a cannon shot destroyed Yamtuan Antah’s camp. He was driven back to Bukit Putus where a fierce battle that resulted in the award of a Victoria Cross ensued, and eventually the British got to Seri Menanti where they burnt down the Istana (for which the current Istana Lama is a replacement).

Subsequently, Yamtuan Antah was recognised only as Yamtuan of Seri Menanti, rather than of Negri Sembilan as a whole.

After Yamtuan Antah succumbed to smallpox in 1887, his son Tuanku Muhammad was proclaimed Ruler. A decade later the state was reunited as a federation, complete with the institution of Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan.

Educated at the English High School in Malacca, my great-great-grandfather enjoyed much better relations with the British.

Sir Frank Swettenham wrote that he was an “example of the best type of intelligent, straightforward Malay Raja”, and J.M. Gullick wrote in 1953 “even now, 20 years after his death, a reference to ‘Almarhum’ (the late Yamtuan) evokes, among the older generation in Negri Sembilan, a Ruler still remembered with deep affection and respect”.

It was during his reign that Negri Sembilan joined the Federated Malay States, and during a Federal Council meeting in November 1914 Tuanku Muhammad proposed the creation of a locally raised defence regiment.

This became the Royal Malay Regiment, and provides an example of where the Rulers were not mere puppets of the British as often alleged, but worked within the system to promote political stability, military security and economic development for their subjects – yes, the British exploited our resources but, by any measure, living standards for the majority of the people improved as well.

Clearly, my two ancestors employed different strategies in dealing with the British. Was one a hero and the other a traitor? No, they were merely individuals trying to abide by their adat while dealing with the exigencies of global British power.

A neat reconciliation occurred in Tuanku Muhammad’s son, Tuanku Abdul Rahman, elected as the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong of the Federation of Malaya as a constitutional monarch steeped in Malay traditions heading a parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster system.

The Communist Party of Malaya, opposed to both inspirations of this form of government, tried to murder him.

So, there is an excerpt of my understanding of the evolution of my state and my country. Some will disagree with it, and I would be happy to exchange views.

However, the battle now raging about Bukit Kepong, the role of Tunku Abdul Rahman and the technicality of British colonialism in Malaya is a political debate. The parties of today are trying to claim a genealogy to the history of this country in order to portray ideological purity and continuity, and as a result history is being debased.

Tragically, many supporters of political parties are complicit in this desecration, reducing history to just another marker of irreconcilable polarisation in our country.

The only way to fix this is for us to reclaim history for ourselves. Politicians must be removed from the process of writing the curriculum, and professors granted the academic freedom to include controversial viewpoints.

Most importantly, the entire basis of the education system urgently needs to change from the rote learning of acceptable “facts” to the equipping of young brains to appreciate and analyse different opinions.

This will be a tough sell in a country where sporting and cultural icons of even 20 years ago do not feature in the nation’s collective memory, but this newspaper is doing a fabulous job with its highlights from 40 years ago.

I look forward to saying “hello” properly next week.

Happy Malaysia Day!