History In Malaysia

Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters. ~African Proverb

(I still remember this – the history book that I used when I was young and in school. Image source: Blues Riders)

To tell you the truth, the subject of history have always fascinated me.

I hated the subject when I was in school; somehow the subject was made to be so boring. It was nothing but memorizing boring facts from an equally boring text book, taught by another boring teacher. It was something that I did not expect from the subject of history – a subject which I loved when I was small and discovered a thick history book in English in my childhood neighbor’s house.

It was lying on the table – the cover half torn but something about it caught my eyes. I opened and immediately noted that the content was comprehensive and laced with old photos. I asked permission from the owner, the neighbor’s eldest son and excitedly brought back home and threw myself in going through the details. The history book was laid in simple but comprehensive English. It had several chapters covering the major civilizations in the world. It kind of kept in my possession for several years (the owner decided that it will be useful to me than him).

But still, at the time I was slogging through the school and was on the way to greater things, the content of history was still kind of balanced – a bit of everything but just enough for a stressed-out student in national schools.

Then when I was in Law School, there was a bit touch of history when I did Jurisprudence and it was interesting. Then the History and Discovery Channels came through Astro and that wiped out my whole understanding of what is history. I learned about the Romans better through the Discovery Channel than the time I read about them from the books. History is now comes in better visuals – almost CSI like investigative presentation and facts backed by evidence and more balanced insights. History is now backed by science, eye-witnesses and new evidences.

(Early Indians in Malaysia – it gives me the goosebumps whenever I see old black & white photos. I wish I can go back in time and see  how these people lived and interacted with each other. How was the surroundings and how deep their culture was? Image source:  CJ.MY)

Several years ago, I saw a school History book on my colleague’s table – it was his daughter’s and he had to bring it to work for him to get some photos from the net for her daughter’s assignment. I glanced through and I was shocked – after a long time I had not looked into the school books (still having the phobia), it appeared to me that the standard of learning history has gotten to a new low. The content was too simple, focused more on certain civilizations and the other equally rich background civilizations seemed to be made in the passing.

Perhaps it is why, this was raised:-

History textbooks are biased and littered with errors, claim two authors and academicians. Dr Ranjit Singh Malhi and Ng How Kuen, who write history textbooks for Chinese schools, say their experience with officialdom does not augur well for the teaching of history in our classrooms.

Ranjit, author of secondary school history textbooks since 1990, and adviser to the Ministry of Education (MOE) on history textbooks, said such materials were littered with factual errors and distortions. He said that when he pointed out the errors and distortions, a ministry official labelled him “anti-national”.

“Secondary school history textbooks have been used to promote political interests. It should be a scholarly pursuit and not politically-motivated,” said Ranjit who showed theSun history textbooks with errors and exaggerated facts.

“Five out of 10 chapters of the Form Four history textbook deal with Islamic history as compared to only one chapter in the earlier textbook. The intention of the earlier syllabus was to expose our students to World History,” he said when commenting on the announcement that the history syllabus is being reviewed and that the subject will be made a compulsory pass in the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia from 2013.

“The coverage of important historical events such as Renaissance and Industrial Revolution has been reduced by more than half,” he said.

He also said certain historical personalities, such as Yap Ah Loy (the third Kapitan China of Kuala Lumpur), were not given due recognition.

Yap played a major role in the development of Kuala Lumpur as a commercial and tin-mining centre, particularly after the fire of 1881,” he said, adding that the Form Two history textbook had only one sentence on Yap as “one of the persons responsible for developing Kuala Lumpur”.

(Source)

But then again, I only looked at one book and have not been following on the “evolution” of the history contents in school books since I left school. In the age of broadband internet and satellite TV, learning the history is no longer confined to school books. There is more than one avenue from where one can learn what had happened in the past.

And when it comes to what need to be taught as history in our national schools – we are indeed at a cross road.

Do we strip away the wealthy facts of history from the other civilizations and the original immigrants and only focus on what happened in Malaysia long, long time and the people who been here before the British? Or we look deeply into what we can learn from history regardless of civilizations and the people behind the key events in history (like Mahatma Gandhi or Lawrence of Arabia)?

(What if the Japaneses had won the war in the Pacific? How our history would look like then? Image source: http://www.worth1000.com)

It only seems right that the young ones learn about the history of Malaysia and its people first before we can start exploring on the history of the world. But at the same time, the history of the country should not politicized or distorted or allowed to be factually incorrect. Yes, history has been written and rewritten by the majority, by those who have won over major conflicts, by those in power and those with the money. Just imagine how our history books would look like if the Nazis have won the Second World War or if Parameswara have not decided to escape from Singapore and founded the Sultanate of Malacca? So, certainly the content of the history books would be “adjusted” accordingly.

But what is not desired if even the known event in history has now been riddled with factual errors and major distortions. Setting aside the factors of biasness and racial tone of the argument, that is the point that Dr Ranjit is trying to make is valid.

It does not matter that “5 out of 10 chapters of the Form Four history textbook deal with Islamic history” – it is still part of our history but what is needed is that history (no matter which area of the civilizations or era) is presented as whole and in a truthful manner, as close as possible. We should not let the young ones to look back and see things differently.

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