Saturday, April 11, 2009

Whose Story Is It, Anyway?

What can and what can't be found in school history textbooks has been a source of concern for many years. Besides omissions and insufficient emphasis on certain communities, experts and parents alike contend that some of the text and illustrations in history textbooks are placed there to subtly brainwash young minds. ... Some of these elements contain politically-aligned and narrow views that can skew students' impressions of historical events and their impact on the country and its communities. ... While school history textbooks now make a clear push for a national culture and society, are more comprehensive, and encourage students to be more analytical than in the past, when they were required to merely regurgitate facts and dates for examinations, certain elements in the texts must be reviewed.
The thorny issue of whether Malaysian History textbooks for schools are ripe for review is given much space (and the front page) in today's New Straits Times. (Here, here, here and here).

Whose version of history is the correct one? Once again, I don't think anyone has asked the question as effectively as Kee Thuan Chye in We Could **** You, Mr Birch.

I'm no expert on the teaching of history but I think that instead of getting students to swallow what's presented to them as cut and dried facts, students are allowed to see how the events of the past could be interpreted from different viewpoints. It would do their thinking skills no end of good.

I'd also like to see Malaysian students learning a little more world history. I was shocked when I realised my undergrad students knew almost nothing about the Second World War, for example.


Anonymous said...

I don't see why 'viewpoints' have anything to do with history. History is about facts and dates. You can make it a lot more interesting, sure, but in the end, if Churchill was the British Prime Minister during the war, then he was PM during the war, and no amount of opinion will change it.

Why would there be "versions" of history?

gnute said...

"I was shocked when I realised my undergrad students knew almost nothing about the Second World War, for example."

Whadd! Please, please tell me this is an exaggeration...!

bibliobibuli said...

erm ... not one student in a matriculation class had heard of the holocaust for starters, so even though i was teaching literature i made 'em sit through the BBC series "world at war". then i found myself having to go into the history of the first world war when i did the war poets.

first anon, of course history is about interpretation. one of the stories in the nst shows that very nicely - was this chap a murderer or a freedom fighter? it doesn't come down to facts but the interpretation of facts.

Damyanti said...

If history was only facts, and not facts as interpreted by people (historians, if you like) the study of Historiography would have no reason for existence.

One of the questions Historiography seeks to address is : "How do historians establish their own objectivity or come to terms with their own subjectivity?"

Drachen said...

Ask anyone out there and they'll think the US defeated Nazi Germany. The ugly truth is the USSR did it, suffering about 30 million casualties in the process. The US lost less than a million men in WW2. But the Americans are perceived as the great heroes that saved the world. That's how history can be twisted by the people who control the mass media.

The word "holocaust" originally meant something else until it was appropriated/monopolised by the Jews for their genocide in WW2.

bibliobibuli said...

but again, history gets rewritten, or subverted. the holocaust was not only about the genocide of the jews. much of europe's roma population was incarcerated in concentration camps - but much less is heard of that. and then there were the handicapped and homosexuals.

history is slanted by whoever writes it!

Kee Thuan Chye said...

I can vouch for the fact that Malaysian students who have completed Form 5 know hardly anything about world history as I have 2 children who are in that position. And it alarms me!

What is also appalling is the content of the History textbook for Forms 4 and 5. There are 19 chapters in the entire textbook -- of these, only three-and-a-half chapters are given to world history (of which HALF a chapter covers World Wars I and II). FIVE whole chapters are devoted to Islamic history, and the rest of the book is on Malaysia, replete with Umno propaganda. The contributions of the other races to this country are hardly acknowledged. Umno is portrayed as almost single-handedly winning Independence. The efforts of those who started the struggle for independence long before Umno, e.g. the Malayan Communist Party, PUTERA-AMCJA, are sidelined.

That is how history can be distorted, Anonymous, or presented from the victors' viewpoint.

I think it's time Malaysians made a concerted effort to reclaim our true history. Although even then, "true" would still be subject to the biases of the historiographer.

Anonymous said...

Not just Malaysia, it appears many countries face a similar malady of selective memory. In India, for instance, when a religious bent political party came into power, it changed the history syllabus taught at school. No doubt one that puts in a favourable light..Japan has a perenial problem with its history.. And the Middle east is awashed with so many histories..And Serbia, Bosnia..Don't think China authorities will allow for disclosure of events leading upto and the aftermath of Cultural Revolution..

maybe the past is really another country where things are different


Anonymous said...

Is it true what I heard, that the story of Hang Tuah and his buddies are no longer taught in schools because of the possibility that Hang Tuah and gang could be Chinese?

Anonymous said...

Bib -

It doesn't matter. It all depends on your POV. When I was doing it (Form Five history)

Damyanti -

Lots of things don't have a real reason to exist (this is IMHO) -- you can do a degree in Tolkien Studies if you want. For me the purpose of history is so that people can learn from past mistakes.

Things have changed have they? I don't even remember reading about politics during my time.

Kee -

It's true that I don't remember them, but I do remember the MPAJA being mentioned. I remember the Baling talks, there was a chinese guy (Chin Peng) and a malay guy (Rashid Mohidin). So yea they did mention the MCP. I can't remember who was on the other side of the table.

Anyway if we want to be racially oriented, list of Chinese I remember being mentioned :

Chin Peng
Hang Li Po
Henry Hau-Shik Lee
Yap Ah Loy
Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He)

List of Malays :

Tun Abd Razak
Tok Janggut
Wan Mat Saman
Hang Tuah and friends
Sultan Muzaffar Shah

List of caucasians :

Birch and co.
Alfonso d'Albuquerque

I don't remember that many Indians being mentioned (other than Parameswara.)

I don't remember reading much about religion at all. Times have changed I suppose.

Kee Thuan Chye said...


Mentioning a name doesn't amount to much. It's acknowledging their contribution that's more important. Yes, Chinese names appear in the textbook; yes, there is mention of the Baling Talks and Chin Peng, but the subtext is predominantly Ketuanan Melayu and the gloriousness of Umno.

To the other Anonymous, I'm not sure if Hang Tuah is the stuff of myth or a real-life person. If the former, then he should not figure in a History textbook. Has it been proven that he did indeed exist?

Anonymous said...

I think the comment by the first Anonymous beautifully illustrates the MAIN problem with the way history is taught in Malaysian secondary schools! History is *all* about interpretation, but nowhere -- unless, maybe, you are lucky enough to have an exceptional teacher -- is this acknowledged in Malaysian classrooms. I didn't have any teachers who acknowledged that; only years later did I discover what history really was. And I was relatively fortunate; most of my friends were turned off the subject forever by the utterly false notion that it was all about "facts and dates." As far as I'm concerned there's no argument for simplifying the discipline in this way for secondary school students; students of the same age in the US learn from the beginning that it's all about interpretation.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...


Regarding Hang Tuah and his cohorts: I was taught that in primary history class in the 80s. Them and the Malacca Sultanate and Hang Li Poh...

dreamer idiot said...

That's why fiction and literature is so important, because HISTORY, or as some feminist would argue, his-story (men's story without or with minor role of women) is always incomplete, it cannot fully encompass the whole panoply of 'voices' (silenced, marginalized, or sometimes left out for space constraints, ie. one could not possibly go into ALL the details, which necessarily has been selected and left out). So, fiction plays the role of 'supplementing', and 'reading' history, not just in giving voices, but in exploring, and probing the experiential side of history, from the human/character point of view, and to opening up history to the possibilities as yet unknown or unexplored, because history is always first and foremost a text that brings together a whole array of facts in a way that is selective and also interpretative. So, history, as is written and proscribed officially (which is not always bad, but is its inherent limitation) needs to be open to rereadings (one can never fully grasp the past in its totality and significance, which in itself is always changing when read in relation to today and later tomorrow's light).

dreamer idiot said...

oops, typo, "are" important.

Anonymous said...

Mr Kee --

They're both me.. just at different times. I don't know how true anything is. I'm no historian, but I've read some malay classical text, it seemed to me that they were being overly fanciful, so maybe all of it was the invention of some court scribe.

I seriously don't remember reading about UMNO or any other political party.

Preeta -

Exactly. The way history is taught here, it's about names and dates and places. If there's any subtext at all, or any form of interpretation, it's only in the mind of the reader.

This probably has to do with the definition of "history education". Malaysian history education typically gives you all the facts and lets you come up with your own interpretation of events (at least where History and Geography are concerned.) It's very dry and factual, they give you facts, and in the exam they expect facts from you.

American education is less about the facts than about the interpretation. I studied American history in college, and Preeta is right,an American history text is about people, what they did and how what they did changed history.

Malaysian history/geography textbooks are about names and facts and places. Any interpretation is thus left to the teacher or the student.

That was how I remember it.

Drachen said...

I've heard people say that you can't use "holocaust" to describe the slaughter of the North American Indians, for instance.

Anonymous said...


You must have been in school a long time ago. The Form 4 and Form 5 history textbook was rewritten extensively as I recall a few years ago (6 to 7? maybe)


fadz said...

I have to state something here as I felt its alarmingly "weird" dat undergrads and after-form fives nowadays dont know about WW2. In Malaysian national schools, WORLD HISTORY are tought while we are in form 4 (16yo) and some topics about WW2 and the Japanese Occupation were discussed quite a lot while we are in form 3 and form 5. I couldnt understand why the undergrads from Madam Sharon's class doesnt know anything about world history. Are history classes are such a bore dat they dont even care what they answered after SPM? its sad to hear about this becoz i enjoyed my history classes quite a lot.

Anonymous said...

Drachen -

I wouldn't even have used the word "slaughter" if I was writing about that in college :P

Jen -

You're probably right. Things have changed.

History teacher form 1 - 6 said...

Bravo fadz. I bet those who never read all the history text books should start reading it. Please don't simply jump to a conclusion.. Read first, then comment.
To Sharon, please ask your students to read more of the form 4 text book. Don't forget to read the form 6 history books too. Tell them not to bullshit you.

bibliobibuli said...

none knew about the holocaust. not one of them. the japanese invasion i'm sure they knew about.

this was a quite a few years ago so maybe there have been changes since

history teacher form 1 - 6 said...

Been teaching history for 20 yrs now. So far, they did change the text books twice for form 4 & 5. WWI & WW2 are both included. There is no excuse for students NOT TO KNOW about the Second World War.. they should know the cause and casualties of the war and the parties that were involved . They also learned about the European Civilization ( Dark Ages, Renaissance and Reformation )
Why don't you take your time and read some of these wonderful text books.

BTW,those pictures taken are from the form 3 history text book, regarding the Laporan Barnes, Razak and Fern-Wu.. prior to Malaysian Independent.

Anonymous said...

The Japanese invasion, now that's been a bit dramatized -- sword-wielding, bicycle-riding, banana-note-carrying people with squinty eyes who will chop off your head if you don't bow to them.

That's how I remember it in history. I just looked up a revision book for history, and yea it's got three chapters or islamic civilization. Makes me glad to have had school done and over with a long time ago :P