There seems to be a lack of appreciation for why we should know and commemorate our history and war heroes.
SOME weeks ago in an article about the normality of foreign funds entering our country I referred to the official visit of President Lyndon B Johnson. As the video shows, the centrepiece of that visit was a remembrance ceremony at the Tugu Negara: there were flag-bearers, musicians, prayers and speeches.
It was nothing extraordinary at the time: the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and his government regularly paid their respects to the fallen at that site according to a script familiar throughout the Commonwealth. No one, except the Communists who tried to blow up the monument in 1975, seemed to mind.
No longer: some leaders have decreed that the Tugu Negara is no longer an appropriate site for Muslims to remember the nation’s war heroes, and the Warriors’ Day ceremony has been moved to Putrajaya.
So it has been up to foreigners to maintain the relevance of the national monument. Last Sunday, the British High Commission held a remembrance event at that site as usual to commemorate Armistice Day, attended by the expatriate community and some Malaysians, too.
There are other sites apart from the Tugu Negara that are significant to our military history, however.
Cenotaphs dot many of our towns – the one in Seremban is opposite the Istana Hinggap, and Tuanku Muhammad observed two minutes’ silence there on Armistice Day in 1936.
Recently, I had the privilege of meeting a Malaysian who has done much to enable commemorations at such places: Datuk R. Thambipillay, a retired Superintendent of Police, whose commitment to “God’s Little Acre” in Ipoh (described in his recently revised book The Last Post) now sees the remembrance events there attract many local and overseas visitors.
He is now in discussions with police and army veterans in Negri Sembilan to repeat his success, beginning with the commemoration of the Battle of Gemencheh that took place on Jan 14, 1942 – an initiative I fully support.
At these smaller scale events, especially in Sabah and Sarawak where the memory of World War II and the Emergency has always been much more in the public memory, wreath-laying by Muslim servicemen continues unabated: “The accusation that we are worshipping the dead is ridiculous,” a general told me. “We are merely remembering those who protected our country for the sake of the country. There is nothing un-Islamic about that.”
Encouragingly, this year has also seen excellent books published about our wartime history.
In March, I was in Penang for the launch of The Battle of Penang by former Royal Navy doctor J.R. Robertson, detailing the steamy exploits of the Emden and Zhemtchug that would quench any parched naval enthusiast.
Last week former British diplomat Andrew Barber launched his Kuala Lumpur at War 1939-1945 – full of vignettes that vividly portray a forgotten and painful period of our capital’s socio-cultural history, including frank references to the comfort houses whose existence young Malaysians are never taught about.
An even more real connection to World War II here was provided last month, when eight RAF airmen who crashed near Kuala Pilah in 1945 during a supply mission were reburied at the Cheras Commonwealth War Graves cemetery after their remains were discovered.
Some Malaysians I speak to don’t understand why I think all this is important, a reaction that reveals the heart of the problem: a lack of appreciation for why we should know and commemorate our history and war heroes.
It is this ignorance that leaves our institutions today open to politicisation, scepticism and corruption because citizens and even office-bearers themselves fail to heed the lessons of the past.
Instead, our police and armed forces, to which Malaysians once faithfully looked to defend their lives and property, are now embroiled in controversies through which the stench of politics permeates.
As veterans tell me, ever since the end of the Emergency the top ranks have slowly become ever more pliant to the executive, and the institutional memory of past acts of valour and sacrifice have become harder to bequeath. (Sporting traditions have died out, too: the PDRM were once known for its tennis prowess.)
The civil society movement has its many champions – striving to protect the environment, saving our heritage buildings, marching for better democracy or campaigning for institutional reforms.
I am hopeful that the relatively simpler act of paying tribute to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom and democracy that we enjoy today will in time also become an established practice of Malaysian civil society.