WHO would think that young people, some only in their late teens, would be interested in history? Specifically Malaysian history, which, as I knew while surviving the Malaysian education system, was dry and boring.
My school history lessons definitely did not inspire or engage me. The syllabus did little to help me feel connected to past events that shaped this nation. As a teen or even young adult, there was no way I would have spent a rainy Sunday afternoon listening to yet another lesson about our past.
The re-enactment of the Baling talks during the Emergency festival (Pic by Grey Yeoh)
That’s why it was so encouraging to have attended on 19 Oct 2008 a comprehensive re-enactment of the 1955 Baling talks, with the delegation of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Datuk Sir Tan Cheng Lock and David Marshall on one side, and the Chin Peng-led Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) on the other.
The event was part of the ongoing Emergency Festival! produced by Five Arts Centre. It saw several Malaysian personalities take turns playing the different men involved in the negotiations to end the Malayan Emergency that ran from 1948 to 1960.
The space at the Annexe at Central Market, where the entire transcript of the Baling talks was read, was filled for more than two hours. It’s safe to say that more than half of the crowd were teens and young adults.
Making history cool
Film shoot for Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka (Courtesy of
Fahmi Reza)My own most enjoyable experience of learning about my nation’s history happened in 2007 when I watched Fahmi Reza’s 36-minute video Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka. The award-winning filmmaker did more than reveal an aspect of our history that is officially missing from our textbooks; he also made learning about history cool through the use of a visual medium, edgy film direction, and 1970s British punk music.
A whole generation of enlightened Fahmi fans can now look forward to his sequel Revolusi 48, screening at the festival from 20 to 26 Oct 2008. I watched the trailer and had goosebumps. That’s how sexy a talented young filmmaker has made history.
Another example of history made easy, and irreverently eye-opening to boot, is the book Where Monsoons Meet: A People’s History of Malaya, republished in 2007 by SIRD. The book is introduced by Amir Muhammad as “a comic history that’s no joke”. It provides a version of British colonialism and aristocratic collusion that is far closer to the truth than the official versions we have been fed with.
Illustration on the cover of Where Monsoons MeetThis genius is also present in the 11-day Emergency festival. I say this because it has been able to attract and engage young Malaysians on a fuddy-duddy subject that only academics get turned on by.
Having Jo Kukhatas, Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, Yasmin Ahmad, Anne James and Kee Thuan Chye, among others, replay the Baling negotiations was a neat strategy. It enlivened a part of our history on a wet and cold Sunday afternoon.
Experiencing my history anew as an adult, I’m convinced that our Sejarah syllabus is geared towards deadening minds, instead of igniting them.
Understanding history cannot be about rote-learning to pass exams. Unfortunately, that was how I, and many others before and after me, experienced it.
Watching Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka, for example, made me understand better the role of the Alliance, which later became the Barisan Nasional. It wasn’t necessarily the champion of people’s rights as we have been made to understand.
It also alerted me to the fact that holding demonstrations was indeed part of our culture. This is despite the November 2007 pronouncement by prime-minister-in-waiting Datuk Seri Najib Razak when he was criticising the Bersih rally.
Indeed, there are ample photos in our national archives that indicate that street demonstrations and rallies were indeed a part of Malayan culture. This was especially so in our nation’s quest for independence from the British.
Poster for 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka (Click
on pic for bigger view. Courtesy of Fahmi Reza)Additionally, the Baling talks reveal that Tunku himself encouraged Malayans to demonstrate to show their support for the amnesty terms he was offering CPM: “If they did accept them, they were to hold demonstrations everywhere; if they did not, then no demonstrations were to be held. The results were that they held demonstrations, which, perhaps in the history of Malaya, have been unparalleled.”
That’s why it is important for us to know our history, so that we are better able to assess the degree of truth behind our politicians’ words today. More so when officialdom would rather we didn’t remember, the better for them to maintain the status quo.
The role of royalty
Another highlight for me from the Baling talks was a clear statement from Tunku about the role of royalty in Malaysia. Of royal lineage himself, our first prime minister told Chin Peng this of our monarchs: “They are decorations of the country … They will become constitutional rulers in that they will be more like figureheads. Their position will be such that they will not get mixed up in politics or in the administration. They will be debarred from direct administration or control over political matters…”
This is just one entry point for me to understand what role was designated to the Malay rulers by our founding leaders.
Being aware of what the early government intended for this nation is essential if we are to assess the legitimacy and integrity of the political factions contesting for power today. This applies to both the Barisan Nasional and the Pakatan Rakyat; and to the monarchy or pressure groups.
Malaysians can only question political power and act in the nation’s best interest if we remember what values and visions Malaysia was founded on, rather than believe everything that is pronounced or promised. But in order to do that, we need to know our history.
And with so many new endeavours to make our history exciting, real and sexy, that’s getting easier to do.
(Courtesy of Five Arts Centre)
See also: Rewriting the Emergency
Jacqueline Ann Surin only scored As in History because she had good teachers and a reliable memory. It’s only now, years after leaving school, that she is learning about Malaysia’s history.