Revise perspectives, not facts

The recent issue of Bukit Kepong could be food for thought for the special committee set up to carry out a review of history textbooks for secondary schools.

“We had no other choice but to pick up arms against the colonial power when the peaceful path was shut down. It was not us who closed that path but the British. All the organisations and democratic political parties were outlawed and their members arrested, detained and hanged. There was no other way to fight peacefully or constitutionally.”


IT may have happened almost 60 years ago but the din of the firing guns and the whirling blades of helicopters hovering above the thick jungle during the Malayan Emergency is still vivid in the mind of retired soldier Baharin Abu Bakar.

What haunts 83-year-old Baharin most is his memory of comrades being killed in combat by communist insurgents.

“(Once in a while) the memories will come flooding back and it is very difficult to hold back my emotions,” says Baharin, who was a soldier for more than 36 years.

Upset veteran: Baharin (centre) wearing his police uniform during the demonstration in Kuantan.

He, too, was almost shot by the communists, he says.

“I was a young recruit at that time. I was afraid but I fought them,” shares the “war” veteran who was stationed in Kuala Lumpur for five years and then transferred to Bukit Galing Camp in Kuantan. He was stationed there until his retirement on Dec 31, 1988.

Recalling the operations against the communists in the thick jungles of Malaysia, including Sarawak and the borders of Thailand and Malaysia, he says they normally took between two and three months.

“I had friends who went to Sarawak alive but returned in coffins,” says Baharin.

There were even times when they had to battle not only the enemy but also hunger, as new supplies could not reach them due to bad weather or lack of space for helicopters to land and make their drops, he adds.

As is usually the case in historical traged ies, those who killed and were killed were neither especially sadistic or especially virtuous. – DR RACHEL LEOW

Meagre food supplies and dangerous conditions in the harsh jungle, besides being shot at and killed, also threatened the Malayan nationalists, as noted by one of the leading female leaders of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) Shamsiah Fakeh.

As she wrote in her memoirs, many of her fellow nationalists were forced to go into the jungle and join the armed struggle when the British started cracking down on them.

“We had no other choice but to pick up arms against the colonial power when the peaceful path was shut down. It was not us who closed that path but the British. All the organisations and democratic political parties were outlawed and their members arrested, detained and hanged. There was no other way to fight peacefully or constitutionally,” she wrote.

From their accounts, it can be seen that both groups had to make personal sacrifices to achieve their objectives in the course of the nation’s history.

But who is more deserving of a place in the nation’s official narrative of history?

This issue came up recently when PAS deputy president Mohamad Sabu was reported to have made some unconventional remarks about a well-known episode during the Malayan Emergency – the attack by the communists on Bukit Kepong in 1950.

Although Mat Sabu has since maintained that he was misquoted, his “remarks” have created a storm of sorts in various circles. Family members of the victims and hundreds of retired policemen and soldiers like Baharin were also reported to be outraged.

“I was very upset; I still am,” Baharin says.

Need for a review

Coincidentally, the secondary school history textbooks are currently being reviewed to make it more “suitable” to the country’s current needs and future challenges.

A special committee was established earlier this year to carry out the review, which is due to be completed by the end of the year. A few committee members, however, have come out in defence of the present curriculum.

One is the committee’s chair, Malaysian Historical Society’s executive committee chairman Datuk Omar Hashim, who reportedly said there was no need to rewrite the nation’s history as improvements were being made continuously.

“Changes are made through improvements. If there is new information or evidence, we will study its veracity (to see) whether additions need to be made. History is a dynamic knowledge,” he was quoted as saying.

Historian Datin Paduka Ramlah Adam, who is also on the special committee, is against the idea of rewriting our textbooks too, pointing out that there is nothing wrong with them.

For other academics, however, the recent brouhaha only reinforces the urgency for a rewrite.

Dr Lim Teck Ghee, spokesperson for Campaign for a Truly Malaysian History, a watchdog group set up to monitor the revisions proposed by the special committee, believes that the Bukit Kepong episode is only one of many events in our history where political gains are being sought.

“The politicians should get out of trying to influence how history is being written or taught in schools. Leave it to the professional scholars, and by this I mean those that are respected authorities from within Malaysia and abroad,” he says, emphasising the importance of selecting independent and internationally-recognised scholars to help in interpreting our history.

Revising the textbook does not mean rewriting history, he stresses: “It is a matter of reviewing factual inaccuracies and biases.”

He cites the case of the left and armed struggle in the pre-Merdeka era as an example.

“Acknowledging their contribution is not altering history. Facts are facts. The left and armed struggle was for the independence of the country from the Japanese and British rule. No amount of distortion can alter this,” he says, adding that historical issues such as the left and armed insurgency have their established scholars and they should be consulted.

“At least, their works and findings should be brought to public attention in the current controversy. Instead, we have heard from politicians as well as academics who have not worked on these issues and really should not get involved.”

Dr Lim strongly believes it is possible to give an accurate account of history.

“There are events, official records, eyewitness accounts, memoirs, photographic evidence, archival materials – all of these when evaluated by the scholar provide the basis for historical interpretation and accounts. Those who disagree should challenge on the basis of rigorous research and publish their findings in appropriate journals,” he says.

“We should not be afraid of other interpretations of history if truth and accuracy are our guiding principles.”

Dr Ranjit Singh Malhi, another historian, concurs. “We cannot be 100% objective but we can be generally objective.”

Diverse perspectives

Dr Rachel Leow, who has been appointed a Prize Fellow at Harvard University (Economics, History and Politics), agrees that Malaysian history needs to be looked at from diverse angles.

Citing the period of Emergency in Malaysian history as an example, she points out that it is not just a story of Red violence triumphantly crushed by the government, after which everyone lived happily ever after.

“There are so many other aspects to consider. There was a large, messy left-wing movement in an open and fully legal struggle for political representation. There were civil protests, student activism, Malay radicalism, and anti-colonial movements in which not only Malayans but the whole of the colonised Third World participated,” she highlights.

The issue of “sensitivity” remains, however. Acknowledging the trauma of the survivors, Dr Leow points out that every traumatic history, from the Holocaust to Japanese imperialism to 9/11, is difficult to write.

“And we’re dealing with a very raw past here. The Emergency happened less than half a century ago. It is relatively recent history. Slavery in the Americas has a 400-year history, and it is still traumatic.

“In these conditions, let’s not fool ourselves. There can be no guarantee of objectivity. People will get upset. Anyone who is sincere about learning more about Emergency history should accept that.

“But that is no reason to gag ourselves in fear. On a personal as well as societal level, we deal with emotional trauma through trying to make sense of the past.

We can’t be objective, we can’t always agree, but we can be respectful and sympathetic. And I think it is worth doing even if we find it painful – indeed, precisely because we still find it painful.”

Providing the different perspectives openly and letting other opinions be carried so that it is not only survivors’ stories and voices that are heard is the best way to deal with our painful past, says Dr Lim.

Talk is necessary

More importantly, ordinary Malay­sians should have the right to discuss alternative versions of history, these historians agree.

“We don’t need to be scared of differing analyses and perspectives, opines Dr Ranjit, “and there is no need to charge those who highlight them with criminal offences or accuse them of threatening national security.

“I think this controversy has opened our eyes on the importance of giving a more truthful and balanced account of our country’s history.”

As Dr Leow points out, the debate on Bukit Kepong so far has looked like this: “They were heroes. No, they were villains. They were heroes! No, they were villains!

“This is what that brick wall looks like. Please stop searching for heroes and villains in Bukit Kepong. As is usually the case in historical tragedies, those who killed and were killed were neither especially sadistic or especially virtuous, but ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.”

She cautions nonetheless that debates are only as healthy as their participants.

“If we have respectful people who are as willing to offer their opinions as they are to learn from others, then we will have healthy debates and discussions that don’t descend into shrieking and lynching,” she says.

“It’s not a question of academic versus non-academic domains: both are equally capable of producing healthy and unhealthy discussions.

“There’s also the fact that many politicians benefit from unhealthy discussions. They like people to be angry, because angry people are stupid and easily mobilised to stupid ends.”

Dr Leow says it is most crucial to equip the young with the skills and interest to explore more sources of information and research on history, at least to enable them to look at the big picture and understand, if not to participate in, the discussion.

“Textbooks don’t cover everything … but why should you depend on a textbook if you’re really interested in finding out about the country’s history? To me, it’s not the factual gaps in textbooks that is worrying. I’m much more worried about what sort of society we will have if Malaysians think there will always be just one textbook out of which they can be spoonfed the truth.”