Rebooting Chinese history 

Wow. They did all that even back then? My history books sure didn’t teach me that. The Chinese in Malaysia certainly didn’t get a free ride to where they are. But if I didn’t know my community’s history well, how could I expect others to know? 

June HL Wong, The Star 

There would be better understanding of the Chinese if their contributions to the nation were brought to light.

THE clue to the forgotten nugget of information came in the form of an e-mail.

The reader who sent it pointed me to a particular chapter in a book written by long-serving colonial officer Sir Frank Swettenham.

The book was British Malaya, published in 1907, and once I perused chapter 10, I understood why the reader thought I might find it interesting. Here’s the pertinent excerpt:

“Their energy and enterprise have made the Malay States what they are today, and it would be impossible to overstate the obligation which the Malay Government and people are under to these hardworking, capable, and law-abiding aliens.

“They were already the miners and the traders, and in some instances the planters and the fishermen, before the white man had found his way to the Peninsula.

“In all the early days it was Chinese energy and industry which supplied the funds to begin the construction of roads and other public works, and to pay for all the other costs of administration.

“They have driven their way into remote jungles, run all risks, and often made great gains. They have also paid the penalty imposed by an often deadly climate.

“But the Chinese were not only miners, they were charcoal-burners in the days when they had to do their own smelting; as contractors they constructed nearly all the government buildings, most of the roads and bridges, railways and waterworks.

“They brought all the capital into the country when Europeans feared to take the risk; they were the traders and shopkeepers. Their steamers first opened regular communication between the ports of the colony and the ports of the Malay States.

“They introduced tens of thousands of their countrymen when the one great need was labour to develop the hidden riches of an almost unknown and jungle-covered country, and it is their work, the taxation of the luxuries they consume and of the pleasures they enjoy, which has provided something like nine-tenths of the revenue.

“The reader should understand at once what is due to Chinese labour and enterprise in the evolution of the Federated Malay States.”

Wow. They did all that even back then? My history books sure didn’t teach me that. The Chinese in Malaysia certainly didn’t get a free ride to where they are. But if I didn’t know my community’s history well, how could I expect others to know?

If they did know, surely it would help create a deeper appreciation of the Chinese and assuage the suspicions about their loyalty.

As the nation mourned the loss of eight policemen and two soldiers and hailed them as heroes in the recent Lahad Datu armed intrusion, a blogger thought fit to write:

“As has always been the case, when we send our policemen and soldiers into battle and they are killed or injured, the chances are they are Melayus and bumiputeras. Perhaps there is wisdom in getting more Chinese and Indians to join the armed forces so that they, too, can die for one Malaysia.”

“Always been the case”? How sad that the many Chinese Special Branch officers who died fighting the communists are unforgivably forgotten.

Online columnist K. Temoc who took umbrage at this blogger’s “caustic and unfair” remarks pointed out that five Chinese police officers have been awarded the nation’s highest gallantry award, the Seri Pahlawan Gagah Perkasa (SP), two posthumously.

Again, it shows how little is known about non-Malay heroes who served in the security forces.

This blogger certainly didn’t and he clearly buys into the belief that non-Malays aren’t willing to risk life and limb for the country and doesn’t consider why there are so few of them in uniform today.

The irony is even if you are well-known, your deeds may not be officially recorded.

Hence, Robert Kuok may be a business legend in Asia but few Malaysians know he was the close friend and confidant of Deputy Prime Minister Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman.

As mentioned in Ooi Kee Beng’s biography, The Reluctant Politician, Tun Dr Ismail and His Time, Kuok played a role in the nation’s development and politics, including helping to pave the way for Tun Abdul Razak’s historic six-day visit to China in May 1974.

So much is left out of our history books and our national museums.

It’s telling that even Yap Ah Loy’s tok panjang showcasing the family’s exquisite dinner ware are housed in Singapore’s Peranakan Museum, not in Kuala Lumpur, the modern city he founded.

I agree whole-heartedly with the Prime Minister that Malaysians must understand each other better if we hope to become a great nation.

Something therefore must be done to document and preserve the nation’s history that is more inclusive and multiracial.

If the Government has been remiss, the Chinese should take it upon themselves to address this lack of understanding and appreciation of their community’s immense contributions. It shouldn’t, however, be a glossy and glossed-over coffee table account.

By all means include the darker and controversial aspects, including the Chinese-led Communist Party of Malaya’s attempt to overthrow the colonial government (Interestingly, Kuok’s brother, William, was a communist who died in the jungle).

But it was also a long war that was won with the help of the Chinese, like those S.B. officers.

While we take pride in celebrating our most famous Malaysians – Michelle Yeoh, Jimmy Choo and Zang Toi – we must also honour the unsung, unknown heroes like those mentioned by K Temoc: policeman Yeap Sean Hua who died while apprehending a criminal at Setapak and was awarded the SP, sergeant Lee Han Cheong and Deputy Commissioner Khoo Chong Kong who were both killed by the communists.

It’s time to build a Malaysian Chinese museum that will tell a history – the good, the bad, the noble, the inspiring – that must no longer be hidden or forgotten.

> The writer believes the Malaysian Indian community also has a proud and even longer history to share and preserve. Feedback: [email protected] or tweet @JuneHLWong