March 11th, 2015

History brought to the forefront

IN the last couple of weeks, history has been brought to the forefront. Until then, it appeared that it might be stifled and marginalised in favour of the physical sciences and mathematics. But Arof Ishak’s explantaion of history in “Narration of history of nations” (The Star, March 5) needs some comments.

He appears unaware how history has been defined academically for many years now. There was a time when it was said that “History is politics and politics history”.

It was therefore common for historians then to focus on politics.

It was even said that “History is the story of the conqueror”. The situation is very different today. History has been defined as “past everything”.

More than that, it is now said that “History is the mother of all disciplines”. Indeed, each discipline, including physics and mathematics, has its own history, so has engineering and geography as well as historiography.

Therefore every nation state has its own history and the history is not static. It deals with continuity and change; in other words, all the factors that contribute to as well as retard change.

The term “Malaya” was first used when Britain and Holland signed the Anglo-Dutch Treaty in 1824 dividing the Malay Archipelago into two parts, the equator being the dividing line. The region to the north was called “British Malaya” and that to the south, “the Netherlands East Indies”. The latter was declared a nation state in August, 1945.

“Malaya” became a nation state in August, 1957. It was by then a very modern country. For the past several decades, it had contributed huge sums of money to Britain.

The period 1880s and 1930s saw the rapid development of the Malay Peninsula. The history of that period has not been fully told, only that tin and rubber contributed to Malaya’s prosperity.

But Malaya’s commercial agriculture amounted to much more than rubber which was why the British found it necessary to set up the College of Agriculture at Serdang and also to form the Drainage and Irrigation Department, both before World War II.

Prior to 1900 there was no country called “Malaya”. But census reports of the Malay Peninsula had begun on the eve of 1900.

A plural society had emerged by then. It was the situation existing then which later gave birth to today’s slogan “Malaysia Truly Asia”.

Its population comprised people who originated from several parts of Asia - the most important of which were China, India and Indonesia.

Large segments of these people including the Malays participated in keeping Malaya’s economy vibrant. For that reason Britain, when planning to turn Malaya into a nation state just before the end of World War II, decided that “Malayan citizenship” should be introduced.

To bring the various communities closer together the British formed the Communities Liaison Committee in 1949. E.E.C.Thuraisingham was appointed the chairman. Tan Cheng Lock, in his first speech to the MCA, early in the same year, spoke of “One Country, One People, One Government”. Today, we have shortened this idea to “1 Malaysia” (with Sabah and Sarawak included).

But the people in Malaya were in fact very conscious of nationhood even before World War II. When, in 1934, S.N. Veerasamy was reappointed the Indian representative to the Federal Council, The Straits Times commented positively on the appointment: “In view of the Malayanisation controversy now in progress in this country, and Mr Veerasamy’s prominent and influential position in public life, it is worth noting that he is as good an example of a non-Malay citizen of Malaya as could be found anywhere.

“His father, a Madras university graduate, came to Penang at a time when the Straits survey department was being organised and held various appointments in Penang and Province Wellesley. His mother was born in this country, and so were his siblings. The whole family has settled down in Malaya and has practically severed all connections with India.”

It is possible to give many more examples of how Malaya progressively became a nation and the important roles played by the people which convinced the British by 1943 that as soon as the war was over, they should withdraw to allow self-government to prevail in Malaya; and they would have but for the activities of the communist party.

Admittedly there were ethnic tensions in the early post-war years. When a serious ethnic conflict appeared likely in early 1948, it was Lee Kong Chian, president of the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce, who played the primary role in helping to pacify the situation and this allowed the British to establish the Federation of Malaya in February, 1948 which was the prelude to the formation of the nation state in August, 1957.

Those briefly are important aspects of Malaysia’s history in the contemporary era. The whole history of the nation state would cover the entire length of its existence and development from the distant past to the contemporary period.

Admittedly, there are earlier periods of the country’s history which are not so well known; they are classified under “Prehistory” and “Proto-history”.

But the contemporary period is more educational for Malaysians today. It cannot be neglected.

The significance of history is that it explains the present. Citizens, under the Constitution, incidentally, cannot be called “immigrants”. All of them together comprise “the nation”.Tan Sri Prof Dr Khoo Kay Kim Emeritus Prof of Malaysian History Universiti Malaya The STAR Home News Opinion Letters 11 Mar 2015