Question all historical ‘facts’
Jul 31, 06 3:14pm
“Man has no nature… what he has is history,” writes the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gassett.
But whose history must man learn? Whose construction of history must we craft as official knowledge? What is the conception of human nature must we hold in writing about history? There are no historical ‘facts’. The term itself is an oxymoron and a contradiction. There are only selected memories we pursue out of our ideological biases. Underlying the selection process lie the act of historicising and the base and superstructure that shape the manner history is written. The modern state - the ‘necessary evil’- dictates the ideology of historicising; thus the maxim “winners write history, losers write poetry or study anthropology”.
In these days, those marginalised by the state-sponsored history will join opposition parties because history is such a powerful and decisive factor in the social reproduction of human beings. The historical-materialistic basis of history predominates; teaching historians what dialectics mean in the march of history. The Japanese revised their history of the Pacific War, the American Indians had intellectuals documenting their rights to the land of the Indian nations, and the occupying forces in Iraq have perhaps completed their version of history of the Iraqi people.
In America, revisionist historians such as Howard Zinn devote their lifetime writing the “people’s history” to counter argue the ‘historical facts’ produced by and about dead white men in American history.
History is memory. And memory can be our biggest liar. This is the greatest challenge we Malaysians must face in the next 50 years if we are to survive as a new ‘nation’. The word ‘nation’ itself is problematic and ever changing - it breeds another dangerous term called ‘nationalism.
"Who writes Malaysian history?"
The intelligentsia of the ruling class who had the means of producing history wrote Malaysian history. Marx was partly correct - the history of any nation is… the history of the ruling class. Those who owns the pen writes and as the hand writes, nothing is erased. The feudal Malay and Javanese kings had their court historians who produced historical ‘facts’ on batu bersurat (talking stones) on which ideologies were inscribed.
The Hindu kingdoms from antiquity had their Valmiki to write about the story of Prince Rama, and the blind poet Vyasa to narrate the history of the great war of Mahabharatha. The Japanese Shogunate had Lady Murasaki to write the ‘Genji Monogatari’ (The Tale of Genji), and the Malays had their Tun Sri Lanang to write about the glory of Malay feudalism. The British East India Company probably had a stable of historians, including Stamford Raffles who is said to have “founded Singapore” even though there were already natives living happily under tyrannical traditional rulers. Richard O Winstedt was certainly playing the quadro-hybrid role of historian-apologist-propagandist-Otherist of the dying British Empire.
The Malacca Sultanate too probably had a stable of oral and print historians who craft selected memories for the future generations so that the legacy of the Sultanate would continue; legacies that produce the signs, symbols, signification, and representation of feudalism that have neatly evolve into this cybernetic-neo-corporate-crony-capitalistic-feudalism which legitimises the sustaining of an economic order based on the feudal system of profits through patronage. Tun Sri Lanang was the quintessential historian-apologist-propagandist-Otherist of the dying Malacca Kingdom; one that succumbed to the might of the technologies of guns, guts and glory of the Portugese.
In Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), this court historian’s name is inscribed on its main library. ‘Naming’ is history’s political tool in which inscriptions become institutions that produce and reproduce ideologies. Revise everything If we wish to have a people’s history of Malaysia, we must do two things: rewrite history and teach our children multiple perspectives in historicising. After 50 years, the state of Israel is having a problem holding on to Zionist interpretation of history.
What is happening now is a continuing fallout of the dangers of selective historicising, especially when such as history is produced as a biblical truth, grounded in 2,000 years of ‘memory’ etched in passages of the Old Testament. After 200 years of American Independence, high school textbooks had to be constantly revised to accommodate newer interpretations of multi-culturalism; one that takes into consideration the contributions of groups, peoples, and nations that helped build America. The idea of inclusive historicising guides textbook writers to produce historical ‘facts’ that speak to the masses more than propagate post-colonial propaganda.
America was an ex-colony and a nation in which no group can claim the land as theirs. Perhaps this explained the popular slogan of post-9/11 America which consoles the nation as ‘Home of the Brave, Land of the Free’; a slogan that reminds Americans to be ‘patriotic’ (a foreign word in the American psyche). After almost 50 years of Merdeka and if we are to survive like the 200-year-old America, we must question authority, including ‘authoritative sources’ in history. The modern owners of the means of producing history lies in the ‘panel of experts’ whose consciousness that help them do history is limited to the dictates of the ideology of post-colonial Malaya.
The curriculum in textbooks and teaching manuals are not neutral artifacts; they are political tools for psycho-social reproduction. It must have been difficult for historians of Universiti Putra Malaysia, UKM or even Universiti Malaya to understand the wave of post-structuralism and counter-factual historicism as spectres that are haunting the way we ought to revise history. Old way of looking at events in history and propagating them as truths may no longer work with this generation of Malaysians that are tired of the lies their history teachers told them. The new generation of Malaysians want to read about the sufferings of the peasants under the Malay feudal lords; the dehumanisation of Indian rubber-tappers under the British colonialists; and the hardship of living in slums and dwellings in tin mines.
The new generation of thinking Malaysians - especially in public universities - want to hear what actually happened to the indentured serfs and slaves and hamba sahaya under oppressive systems created by those with knowledge, power, and ideology to oppress others in the name of history. The children of these indentured human servitudes want to know how much of their blood, sweat and tears were used to first build Lisbon, London and Amsterdam and next, Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Penang and Ipoh. The new generation of Malaysians want a peaceful interpretation of history - one that will not continue to blame this or that group for this or that engineered and well-crafted conflicts seen as factual, objective and official narrations of Malaysian history.
"What then must we do?"
We ought to be makers of history whose resolve is based on peace. We must approach the writing of history based on the idea that it is capitalism, greed, racism, militarism, colonialism and imperialism that must become the major themes of the study of history. Historians must have a heart for radical humanism in order to guide the nation in examining itself and using history to rehumanise society so that we may not become another Bosnia, Palestine, pre-Columbian America or Tibet. This is our challenge. This is the biggest challenge for our historians - to revise our outdated perspectives that propagate peace and reconciliation.
I revise Gasset’s quote to read:
Man may not have nature … and what he has is history, but what nature of man must historians hold in order to provide him with a better history?