Thursday, January 15, 2009

Learning Malaysian History: A Lopsided Formula

A major problem with our school system has to be the way we teach history. Our textbooks are profoundly boring, and our syllabus wholly propagandistic. Because both these attributes of Malaysian history as taught in our public schools are so blatant and obvious, it is hard to respect or pay attention to our history - something which I think is a very serious problem with our education system.

I am presently working on a research proposal about our colonial history for my university's history department, and in the process I've been reading up a lot on Malaysian history. I've really been struck by how interesting and fascinating our history actually is, compared to the dull portraits of our past which we were all served back in school. After looking over some university-level textbooks about Malaysian history, I have reached the conclusion that there are two problems with the way we teach history.

The first problem is that we push a particular political and ideological angle far too hard. While no book can be free of bias, it is just difficult for anyone to pay serious attention to a book which so clearly takes sides in discussions of historical events. The result is that students don't really trust the lessons they learn in history classes.

To take an extreme example, several of my secondary school classmates decided that the right lesson to take away from our history classes was that Malay leaders were in general very stupid, because our history books portrayed an onslaught of evil, conniving British colonialists who kept taking advantage of Malay infighting to seize control of the states. The book obviously meant to push the view that the British were bad, and that national unity was important, but by overlooking nuances and subtleties in the facts, it wound up presenting an obviously lopsided view that few of us could take seriously.

In reality, the British were often devilishly smart in manipulating local leaders (sometimes even rejecting overtures from Malay chieftains because they preferred to wait for a new, more British-friendly chieftain to take over from the present one), and often thought they were doing the Malays a favour by introducing more systematic government and abolishing unjust taxes and traditions like slavery. Many Malay leaders were misled by confusing translations of treaties and cultural differences, but there were also many who were not - the rulers of the Thai-influenced states were keenly aware of what was going on and complained mightily when the Siamese chose to hand them over to the British. Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor was a very effective diplomat and administrator, and there very well might have been an independent Johor if his successor had been more able. But we gloss over these nuances and exceptions, opting to emphasise only the facts which fit the story we prefer.

While our books pay lip service to these things, their effort to demonise colonialism as a total wrong and idolise all anti-colonial efforts as a great right has had the effect of devaluing the accomplishments of actual effective Malay leaders and also the development which the British brought. Because the political angle of J.W.W. Birch's murder plays so much to what our biased historians would like to think, we wind up focusing too much on the ostensible tyranny of the British, and not enough on the corrupt and inhuman practices of some of his assassins. By praising Birch's murderers unequivocally as Malay heroes, we devalue and deemphasise the accomplishments of other heroes like Sultan Abu Bakar, even though he clearly did much more for us than the slave traders who fought Birch's rule.

The second problem is that we take far too much for granted. Our books assume that our history could only have worked out the way it did, and suggestions of other inclinations are largely ignored. Only a few hypotheticals are given attention, and quickly brushed aside (most teachers and textbooks might briefly discuss what Malaysia would be like if each state were a different country, and quickly dismiss it as untenable). When we overlook the different ways history can turn out, we miss a great chance to explain why history turned out the way it did.

There are few better ways to explain the formation of modern Malaysia than to consider why alternative structures, like a Malaysia including Singapore, or a Malaysia minus Johor, or a Malaysia plus Patani, did not happen. After all, a great way to reflect on the impact of British colonialism is to consider why Patani and Riau - traditionally considered Malay states - did not end up as part of modern Malaysia. The impact of British-Dutch and British-Siamese treaties in this regard becomes much clearer when you think about the relation of historical events to our present day, instead of just looking at them in isolation as boring musty old documents.

Both of these biases against historical information which does not easily fit into our preconceptions in turn purge history of what makes it fun and challenging to study. If you can get by just through parroting the political propaganda you're fed, why would you bother thinking harder about our history? If you're never really shown other potential histories we could have had, why would you ever think about how you can change the future history of our country?

It's easy to just dismiss history as presently taught by just labeling it as a pointless memorisation of facts. That is, of course, true. But it does not capture the more fundamental problem with the way we teach history.

In my father's day, history was a pretty boring subject too, focusing heavily on memorisation. But the textbooks of his time actually tried to present a challenging way to look at and think about history. My father passed his textbooks on to me as a child, and before I began my schooling, I actually looked forward to history because I found reading and thinking about it to be so exciting and fascinating.

These problems with teaching history are not by any means unique to us. Even Western countries like the US struggle heavily with them; American history as taught in its schools is purged of politically unpalatable facts and alternative views of history. But these are nevertheless important problems which we ought to grapple with.

A Dartmouth academic once described the citizen as a person who, if he or she found themselves to be the last person on earth, could refound their civilisation. And you can't really say you understand our civilisation if all you know how to do is parrot whitewashed facts about our historic past. There is a lot more to say about us than the cut-and-dried tale our history textbooks have to tell, and we would all be better for it if we had a history curriculum which reflected all the nuances of historical fact, instead of just the bits which we like best.


Andrew Loh said...

very nice, john!

clk said...

I'm keen to see how for example 20 yrs from now, how the history books will record/analyse the 2008 Gen Election events/ results.

How and what will they say about personalities like our PM, DPM, Anwar, Khairy, etc.?

Sometimes when I read the MSM vs the blogs, even events that happened last week are depicted so vastly different.

Shawn Tan said...

History books are always one-sided. That's why it's called 'his-story'. That is the reason why I have always said that there are at least 3-sides to every coin.

In the context of Malaysian schools, teaching history in an exploratory manner is all fine and good. You can actually do this for every other subject there is - including Science and Math. But the trouble comes during examinations. How do you actually evaluate something that is thoroughly subjective and how do you ensure that the evaluation is free and fair?

The only fear that I have with too much freedom is that we will be swayed more by the strength of argument than the facts today. (One extreme of such a thing happening - God vs Evolution). In Malaysia, where families are all in pursuit of 100 A1s in their exams, the problem then becomes one of beating the system. You need to know the 'right' answer to put in your exams so that you can get your A1.

In such a situation, the trouble doesn't just lie with the government. There is no use in a teacher teaching the students to 'think', if it does not end up with the students getting A1s. Reforming the examination system wouldn't help if it becomes too subjective (everyone just ends up with a passing grade).

I think that the best compromise would be this: teachers should teach the students that facts are fluid - what is true today, can very well be false tomorrow and students should be taught to expand their minds. However, they should also be told what the 'correct' answer is for the exams and keep their own thoughts to themselves.

Anonymous said...

Malaysian history starts in 1403 with paramesware. before that it does not exist

Anonymous said...

The textbooks also forgot to praise the Hakka Chinese who stormed the White Raja's castle as heros in the same light of the assasins of JWW.

And the textbooks also failed to even attempt to explain why such Chinese heros are now still paying the price of anti-colonialism imposed by the White Raja for their bravery. The land lease disadvantage is still continued by our Gov who want heros such as these Chinese!

Anonymous said...

Why does Prof Emeritus Khoo Khay Kim keep quiet on the truth of malaysian history?

Anonymous said...

If you control history books you control the people starting by their brains when they are children. It is all part of social engineering started by Dr M. Secondly, if you keep the people ignorant you have an upper hand over them and use divide and rule to further exploit the situation. Together the people stand united to confront a dictator but divided they fall and are weak against a dictator. Thus, you don't blame the politicians for wanting to distort history for their personal interest and agenda. We know that the true people of Malaya are the Orang Asli and the Orang Asal in East Malaysia, but they are deprived off many social and economic benefits because they are rarely mentioned in history books. We also know that many of the leaders were chosen by the colonial power and set up as heads of state even though they were just ordinary folk. But the British are great at creating nations and dividing tribes all over the world. Malaysia is no different.

Anonymous said...

In my mind's eye, the text should be well written with the good intentions of presenting unbiased facts. Interpretation and counter theories would be included but at the same time allowing the reader to draw one's own conclusions.

Curious young citizens could take up this book and be proud. Proud not only to know of our colorful history but also how we persevered. By learning the good and the bad of our own history would we advance as a country.

Proper open debates could be held with the facts established. In the extreme case, imagine what Europe would be if they denied the Holocaust ever happened. Many laws have thus been established to avoiding having history repeat itself.

In my opinion, problem grading of exams and need for qualified teachers need not be a concern. In the end, grades do not correlate with informed citizens.

jcwy said...

I like this post.

I remember how much I hated studying history in secondary school. When I went to junior college in Singapore and joined debates, I was like.. What!? I never thought reading history could be so interesting.

Anonymous said...

Have you noticed about Malaysia history for Islam and other religion are very much skew. Apparently, the form 4 history book spend 5 chapter discuss about Islam civilazation and 50 pages about other religion. I agree that Islam do play an important role towards world civilization but 5 chapter compared to 50 pages. Does that make sense? I shall not write any more and copied a link for you to read it.

Once again, I love to read history and read a lot Islam civilization but I dislike people using history for propoganda reason. Malaysia is a plural society.

Just a concern Citizen

Rowena said...

Out of curiosity, do you remember the names of any of your school history text books?