Why you should care

Long-suppressed voices in Malaysia are finally finding space in the country’s textbooks. 

Fifteen minutes before the start of the discussion forum titled “Should We Rewrite Our History Textbooks?” at the Chinese Assembly Hall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, an angry attendee waved his fists and accused panelist Fahmi Reza, an activist and artist, of promoting “evil” communism. The disruption continued once the panel’s conversation began. But Reza remained unflustered. Dressed in a beret and punk-pin-bedecked military jacket, he tried to placate the angry man and his friends at the back of the room. The panel, Reza said, was only arguing that multiple perspectives needed to be heard. “This perspective is legitimate too — the students should know it too,” he said.

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A People’s History of the Malayan Emergency poster.

Source Courtesy of KLSCAH

For decades, hearing multiple perspectives wasn’t an option in Malaysia. Until earlier this year, the country had been under the political yoke of a single party — the right-wing United Malays National Organization (UMNO) — for 61 years, longer than any nation other than communist China and North Korea. That monopoly over power, coupled with Cold War politics, meant students were taught a single, straitjacketed history of the country’s journey. Now that’s changing after 93-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan party ousted the UMNO-led government of incumbent leader Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional coalition.

Scholars and minority ethnic groups are seeking a revision of history books to acknowledge the central role that Hinduism and Buddhism played in early Malay kingdoms but that the country has long ignored in favor of focusing on Islam’s contributions. Seventy years ago this summer, British colonial authorities declared a state of emergency in the colony of Malaya to crush demands for independence from the local communist party and other leftist groups. In postelection Malaysia, leftist groups and activists are seeking a reassessment of that historic role in the country’s modern independence struggle.

As long as we don’t care about our history, we will never get things right.

Darell Leiking, Malaysia’s minister of international trade and industry

And across the South China Sea, far from the glittering glass and steel towers of Kuala Lumpur and the developed infrastructure of peninsular Malaysia, the states of Sabah and Sarawak are demanding a historical reckoning of their own. Under the Sept. 16, 1963, Malaysia Agreement, Sabah and Sarawak joined the peninsula as one nation, becoming founding partners of the country. That agreement granted eastern Malaysia special rights, including freedom of religion and civil autonomy. But school textbooks have downplayed this history, say regional leaders.

“The school history books never really explained it,” says Minister of International Trade and Industry Darell Leiking, a member of Parliament from Penampang in Sabah. “As long as we don’t care about our history, we will never get things right.”

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Activist Fahmi Reza.

Source Courtesy of Fahmi Reza

The new Malaysian government is responding to these growing demands. It has promised a revision of the fourth-grade history textbook that critics argue has particularly problematic political, religious and regional biases. Five out of 10 chapters in the current edition, for example, deal with Islamic history. Textbooks for other grades are also under scrutiny, though there has been no decision made yet on changes in them. Critics have argued, for instance, that the second-grade history textbook underplays the role of Yap Ah Loy, the Chinese-origin administrator widely credited with helping turn Kuala Lumpur into a major commercial center.

Adding nuances and layers to a historical narrative that has dominated a country for decades isn’t easy — not even with a government willing to play ball. The panel that Reza spoke on was part of a three-day conference, “A People’s History of the Malayan Emergency,” held in July. Communism wasn’t even mentioned during Reza’s panel. “What the panelists were focusing on was how the history textbooks tell only one version of the story,” says Imran Rasid, who moderated the panel. But that didn’t stop Utusan Malaysia, a conservative newspaper with close right-wing political ties, from running three days of front-page headlines about “communist terrorist cruelty” and the formation of “mighty communist committees.”

During the panel discussion, the disrupters kept accusing Reza and his fellow panelist, lawyer and advocate Fadiah Nadwa Fikri, of dishonoring former members of the army and police who fought during the Malayan Emergency. When Reza responded that there was space for multiple perspectives, one protester shouted, “We don’t need that perspective here!”

It’s a sentiment some share on the streets too. Sean Long, a father of three in Kuala Lumpur whose father served in the Special Branch of the Royal Malaysian Police, becomes incensed when asked about the possibility of his children reading about the role of communists in securing Malaysia’s independence in their school textbooks. “Maybe [the communists] were good guys back then, fighting against the British,” Long says, but after recounting the way guerrillas assassinated his father’s boss, he adds: “They’re all fuckers!”

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Sean Long’s father (center, standing) during the Malayan Emergency.

Source Courtesy of Sean Long

But those who say that their histories have long been suppressed can’t wait for changes to the textbooks so that future generations learn a more complex and complete story about their country. Understanding that past is critical, they argue, to appreciating the injustice that has lingered all the way to the present.

Though the states of eastern Malaysia produce 60 percent of the country’s petroleum, Sabah and Sarawak receive only 5 percent of the royalties. That’s a flagrant violation of the 1963 Malaysia Agreement, argue MA63 activists. “We have been cheated for more than five decades,” activist Zainnal Ajamain says in a documentary by Malaysian news platform RAGE that aired in September.

The theories of Malay historian Syed Naquib al-Attas also heavily influence the country’s history textbooks. Al-Attas’ work claims that Islam introduced rationality to the cultures of the Malay world and insists that Islam “liberated” the people from a kind of “dark ages” of pagan, animistic, Hindu-Buddhist traditions. That’s “dangerous,” says Rasid, because it teaches kids “that Malaysia has always been Islamic.”

For two generations of Malaysians, the country’s post-independence politics were also predominantly about the UMNO. But the nation’s political change has unleashed long-repressed voices that are reshaping how the country thinks about its past. Under a nonagenarian, Malaysia is on its way to gifting a young generation a new history.

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