History-loving Ong Kar Jin laments about a syllabus that’s far removed from reality, and how Malaysian students are all lesser for it. This post was originally published on the Voice of the Children, Malaysia blog.
I love History. I really do. I love how it has a tendency to manifest itself in different forms from time to time. How a single event has the power to change the fates of nations across generations. And how rich and colourful the characters of the past are.
History speaks volumes to me. Which is precisely why I disliked the syllabus we got back in school. It was stuffy, repetitive, and it had a one-track interpretation of things. In short, it was like a really ancient man who suffered from amnesia, paranoia, and inertia (API). So today, like a slightly spoilt grandchild, I’m going to delve into the fiery (get it? Ok, lame) issue of our History syllabus and complain about this old man.
Twenty-three years and 15 days ago, hundreds of students who stood up for their voices to be heard, were killed during the Tiananmen massacre in China. The Forbidden City witnessed a bloodbath. The foreign media condemned it. The world cried bloody murder.
You’d think that such an event would’ve changed a society at its roots. You’d think that people would hold that date dearly to their chests and remember it as a day of shame. One never to be repeated again. Yet today, students at Beijing University do not remember it at all. When shown a picture of the tank-man – you know, the one with a man who tried to stop a procession of army tanks – they could not recognise it.
Some of you who’re reading this may be gasping in horror, especially if you’ve watched the video embedded in the link. How could such an important event be completely forgotten by students from the very university that had led the movement? It’d be like the Singaporeans having no knowledge of the 1965 separation, or the Indians not knowing about the Amritsar Massacre.
The funny thing is, my generation suffers from amnesia too: they don’t remember May 13, 1969, the day when violent ethnic clashes rocked our country. Most of my friends have no idea about the significance of this date. Even after explaining it to them, their reaction would be one of incredulity, i.e “There were race riots in Malaysia?” But then again, they’re not to blame: it wasn’t in their History syllabus. Apparently, the education ministry had decided that our textbook should only include ‘positive elements and not negative elements’. By that same logic, I suppose the Germans should not read about the Nazis either.
May 13, 1969 is not the only case of selective forgetfulness. The contributions of the leftist political parties in the fight for independence, the story of Yap Ah Loy, and even the origins of the Malay ethnic group have all but been omitted, if not barely mentioned. So, have many parts of our own nation’s history been blotted out because they weren’t positive enough?
Now, let me test you. Napoleon Bonaparte, Mehmed the Conqueror, Dwight Eisenhower, Deng Xiaoping, Genghis Khan, George Washington, Josef Stalin, Muhammad Jinnah – what do you think they all have in common? They’re all great leaders? Perhaps. All men? Well yeah, but that isn’t what I’m looking for. The answer? They’re all absent from our History syllabus!
Suffice to say, the lack of world history in our syllabus is a great source of shame when meeting foreigners, especially when the history-savvy among them are familiar with Malaysia’s backstory. (An American acquaintance of mine was shocked to find out that our Sejarah textbook had condensed both World War I and World War II into four pages.)
My friend, who’s headed to Cambridge University, is now getting informal coaching sessions from another acquaintance to brush up on his knowledge of the world, lest he looks like an idiot in ‘jolly good’ England.
And mind you, I’m not even one of those who complain that the current syllabus is too Islam-oriented. In fact, I rather enjoyed those parts – they’re important parts of world history that are often ignored in the West. What I really didn’t like, however, was the sheer repetitiveness (and this is why I say our History syllabus is like an old man) – Melaka in primary school, Melaka in lower secondary, and wow, whaddaya know, it’s Melaka again for upper secondary! Yay.
The old man that’s our History syllabus is not only forgetful but paranoid. For instance, according to him, the communists are apparently evil, indiscriminate killers who want to take over the world. The History professors behind our annals are living in the past – the Cold War is over. Today, we’re doing business with the largest communist country in the world (China) while many communist parties elsewhere have rebranded themselves and won democratic elections. Yet, our History syllabus carries on in its own time capsule, not the least bothered to explain the ideology of communism before condemning it as rubbish.
Of course, the reason why controversial issues such as these are kept in the closet or repackaged into one sanitised viewpoint is this: our young minds would no doubt be influenced for the worse, and we’d all end up being terrorists. Well, thank you for saving my soul, Mr. History Professor. I know I am not as mature as the kids in Europe and other developed nations who can study ‘hot’ topics without going wacko.
On a more serious note, the paranoia evident in the way our History syllabus has been structured defeats the very purpose of studying History. One of the quotes present in almost every chapter of the Sejarah textbook is by George Santayana: “Those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it.” The authors of the textbook who have included this quote are also the ones who have sought to only incorporate positive elements into our syllabus. I can only hope then that my generation, despite not having the opportunity to study incidents like May 13, doesn’t repeat their mistake.
Inertia is a physics term used to describe the tendency of an object to remain at rest. Our History syllabus suffers from inertia of the mind – it doesn’t help students improve their thinking in any way.
Back in secondary school, the History experience was a bit like this: the textbook is your bible, you memorise it, bring it with you everywhere, simply vomit out the facts and, voila, you’re fantastic. Even when it came to essay questions in SPM like “Why didn’t the Japanese invade Thailand during World War II?”, all you had to do was regurgitate the listed reasons in the textbook.
I remember an essay question in one of my exams that asked why people like Dol Said, Sharif Masahor and Dato’ Bahaman deserved to be national heroes. My answer was that they didn’t deserve to be national heroes because they were mainly fighting for their own taxes and influence, and they weren’t concerned with nationalism; it was all about state allegiances back then. It turned out that it wasn’t a yes or no question. And I soon learned to fall in and get my A.
When I began my pre-university course in History, I realised that it was no more than interpretations of events – it’s ‘His Story’ after all. Such a revelation sounds pretty lame. After all, imagine me gasping in awe: “There are VIEWPOINTS!?”
Truly though, it was such a break from the past of blindly memorising Sejarah. When I told my Canadian lecturer what the Malaysian History syllabus was like, he was appalled and said he’d probably resign if he had to teach it in that way.
Today, I’m relearning (and from a Mat Salleh at that) that there were two sides to the Baling talks. I’m evaluating Dr. Mahathir’s time in office, reading and citing from sources ranging from The Malay Dilemma, to Lim Kit Siang’s speeches in Parliament.
I’m allowed to say that Mao ZeDong was a visionary. At the same time, if it suits me, I can also say that he was an absolute murderer. I can even say he was both, as long as I’ve analysed historical incidents properly and am able to come up with plausible explanations to my thesis.
Barely any of the arguments are in the text. We don’t even have a textbook. We have, instead, excerpts from multiple authors to consider all views. Doing it this way doesn’t make me any less patriotic; in fact, I’d say learning about the world has made me more patriotic.
Above all, I’m learning that there are no absolute answers in complex historical events. Only fools claim they do.
It saddens me deeply, therefore, to know that the greatest tragedy of our History syllabus isn’t its myopic and tiny scope or its paranoia and forgetfulness, but its feeble attempt to feed us half-truths and viewpoints as gospel.
George Orwell once said: “He who controls the present, controls the past. And he who controls the past, controls the future.” Then we have Josef Stalin, the authoritarian dictator of the Soviet Union, who launched campaigns to find, imprison and kill historians. Such sentiments reveal the importance of History.
I find our syllabus suspiciously close to being attempts at indoctrination – the ultimate inertia of the mind. And as a young Malaysian, it pains my heart to see others my age turn away from such a beautiful, relevant subject because all they’ve encountered is a twisted, biased and repetitive version of it. No wonder people in general like to complain that many youths are unpatriotic.
As with relationships, we have to know a person, warts and all, to love him or her. How can we love Malaysia if we don’t know her faults and dark moments?
I hope the old man that’s our History syllabus can still be cured. And I pray that my children will be able to know the real world and the real Malaysia. If indeed my child came up to me one day and said, “Dad, I think maybe the communists weren’t evil. I believe May 13 was a spontaneous uprising. I believe Dol Said deserved to be called a national hero”, I’d ask in return, “Did you read all the viewpoints? Did you form this opinion yourself?”. And if the answer was “Yes”, I’d say, “Good for you!”
And the rest would be, as they say, history.
(Featured image accompanying article on main page courtesy of Ana Campos, source: http://bit.ly/LwIpei)