SEPT 20 — The death of a polarising figure can harden opinions held while the person was alive. When Baroness Thatcher passed away earlier this year, some Britons celebrated in the streets with the ditty Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead while others solemnly sang I Vow to Thee, My Country as they followed her ceremonial funeral.
History is replete with leaders who can be viewed as heroes or villains, even centuries later.
Similarly, the death of Chin Peng in Bangkok on September 16 has triggered a reprise of arguments about the man and his legacy. I’d like to reiterate four points I’ve made before.
Firstly, all Malaysians should respect the emotions of those who lost relatives during our various conflicts (including the Emergency), and more generally pay tribute to those who died defending our land throughout history (including members of the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army).
Secondly, Merdeka was achieved on August 31, 1957, with a democratically legitimate government in place, but the Communist Party of Malaya continued to wage a campaign of violence in the independent Federation of Malaya. Responsibility for many of the acts of terror and resultant deaths ultimately lay with its leader, Chin Peng.
This is important, because those who claim a parallel to the forgiveness towards Germany or Japan for past transgressions fail to distinguish between a national or institutional collective responsibility and individual responsibility. There are very different leaders in those countries today, and even the present Communist Party of
China is hardly like it was under Chairman Mao (symmetrically, Umno today is hardly like it was under Tunku Abdul Rahman), but individuals remain even if institutions change: last month, a nonagenarian former Nazi bodyguard was awaiting trial for acts committed 70 years ago.
Having said that, and thirdly, emotions should be separated from the legal aspects. If the Malaysian government made an agreement with the CPM concerning the right of party members to live in Malaysia, it should have been honoured. A democracy that fails to practise this basic element of rule of law tarnishes its reputation and damages its institutions. Worse still is the selective application of the agreement, especially on racial grounds.
Fourthly, much of today’s distortion and polarisation stems from ever-increasing political interference in the teaching of history. Some astonishing obituaries label Chin Peng a national hero simply because of his fight against the Japanese that got him appointed an OBE, completely ignoring his post-Merdeka record.
The reason why many people enthusiastically accept this truncated story is because they revile what they see as the government’s version of history, stuffed down their throats for political purposes. It encourages the attitude that whatever contradicts the government narrative must be correct. And so today, any government reference to history is met with scepticism and quickly divides citizens.
That is why the formulation of the history curriculum needs to be completely overhauled. The first priority is to erase the notion that history is merely about the memorisation of names and dates, and then politicians must be removed from the process of determining what should be taught. If this means competing versions of history emerge, then so be it. Citizens must be allowed to make up their own minds based on evidence: it is condescending to think otherwise. Genuine patriotism cannot exist if it is not voluntary.
For now, I invite my fellow citizens who glorify Chin Peng to imagine a country in which he was victor: a “People’s Democratic Republic”. Look at other such countries, and imagine the state of our economy, our international position in the world, and the fate of our ancient institutions, customs and religious traditions. If it doesn’t make you shudder, then you are welcome to swim across the Imjin River.
It is ironic that some see a symbolism in his death being on Malaysia Day, for Malaysia is a project that the Left never subscribed to: they derided it as a Western neo-imperialist plot (never mind China’s bankrolling of communists throughout Southeast Asia), even though the anti-communist stances of the leaders of the four territories enjoyed democratic legitimacy.
But perhaps the greater irony is that so many years after defeating the communists, our democracy has yet to fully cleanse anti-democratic elements from our politics. Too many of our leaders still promote detention without trial, media censorship, concentration of executive power and a command economy based on the principle that “government knows best”.
The death of Ong Boon Hua is cause for neither celebration nor mourning. Rather, we should mark the event by remembering the onerous circumstances in which our founding fathers achieved so much in the pursuit of liberty and justice, and to always battle against anti-democratic ideas.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist. Tunku 'Abidin Muhriz is founding president of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas). - Malay Mail Online Opinion September 20, 2013