Friday, June 15, 2012

Amnesia, Paranoia, Inertia (API)

I love history. I really do. I love how history has a tendency to manifest itself in different forms from time to time, how a single event has the power to change fates of nations across generations, how rich and colourful the characters of the past are. History speaks volumes to me.
Which is precisely why I disliked the history syllabus back in school. It was stuffy, repetitive, and had a one track interpretation of things. In short, it was like a really ancient man- who suffered from amnesia, paranoia, and inertia (API). And 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.

Tiananmen Square
Twenty-three years and eight days ago, hundreds of students, who had been standing up for their voice 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 out bloody murder.
You’d think that such an event would have changed a society to its roots. You’d think that people hold that date dearly to their chest, and remember it as a day of shame, never to be repeated again. Yet today, Beijing University students do not remember it at all. When shown a picture of the tank man – the famous photo of the man who tried to stop an army tank – they could not recognise it.
Some of you reading this may be gasping in horror, especially if you watched the video embedded in the link. How could such an important event be completely forgotten by the students from the very university that led the movement? It would be like Singaporeans having no knowledge of the 1965 separation, or of Indians not knowing about the Amritsar Massacre.
The funny thing is that my generation has its own amnesia too: 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 when I explained it to them, their reaction would be incredulous, saying “There were race riots in Malaysia?”
But then again, they’re not to blame: it wasn’t in the history syllabus. Apparently, the ministry decided to put in only ‘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 Malays have all been omitted or barely mentioned.
So many parts of our own nation’s history were blotted out because they were not positive enough?

Napoleon Bonaparte
Here, let me test you. Napoleon Bonaparte, Mehmed the Conqueror, Dwight Eisenhower, Deng Xiaoping, Genghis Khan, George Washington, Josef Stalin, Muhammad Jinnah – what do they all have in common?
They are great leaders? Perhaps. All men? Well yeah, but not what I was looking for. The answer? They are all absent from the history syllabus.
Suffice to say that the lack of world history in syllabus is a great source of shame when meeting foreigners, especially when the history-savvy amongst them know about Malaysian history. (An American acquaintance of mine was shocked to find out that our Sejarah textbook had condensed World War I and World War II into four pages).
My friend, who is going to Cambridge University, is now getting informal coaching sessions from an acquaintance to brush up on his world knowledge lest he look like an idiot in ‘jolly good’ England.
And mind you, I’m not even one of those who complain the syllabus is too Islam-oriented. In fact, I rather enjoyed those parts – they are important parts of our 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 Melaka again for upper secondary! Yay.

The old man of our history syllabus is not only forgetful, but paranoid. For instance, communists apparently are evil, indiscriminate killers who want to take over the world. These history professors are living in the past – the Cold War is over.
Today, we are doing business with the Communists in China, while many communist parties have rebranded themselves and have won democratic elections. Yet our history syllabus carries on, not even bothering to explain the ideology of communism before condemning it as rubbish.
Of course, the reason why controversial issues such as these are ignored or represented by one viewpoint is because our young minds will no doubt be influenced and we’ll end up being terrorists.
Thank you for saving my soul, Mr History Professor. I know I am not as mature as all those other kids in Europe and other developed nations who can study “hot” topics and somehow not go wacko.
On a more serious note, the paranoia evident in the way the history syllabus is set defeats the very purpose of studying history.
One of the quotes that are in almost every chapter of the Sejarah textbook is by George Santayana: “Those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Those who wrote the textbooks are the same ones who included this quote; they are also the ones who seek to only include positive elements in our syllabus. I can only hope that my generation, despite not studying incidents like May 13 do not repeat them.

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 is not helping students improve their thinking in any way.
Back in secondary school, studying history was a bit like this: the textbook is your bible, memorise it, bring it everywhere you go and voila, just vomit out the facts and you’re fantastic. Even when it came to essay questions in SPM like “Why did the Japanese not invade Thailand during World War II”, it came down to memorising listed reasons in the textbook.

Sharif Masahor
I remember one of my exams had an essay question that asked why people like Dol Said, Sharif Masahor and Dato Bahaman deserved to be national heroes. I answered that they did not deserve to be national heroes as they were mainly fighting for their own taxes and influence, and they were not concerned with nationalism; it was all about state allegiances back then.
It turned out that it was not a yes or no question. I soon learned to fall in and get my A.
When I began my pre-university course in history, I realised that history was no more than interpretations of events – it is 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 memorising Sejarah blindly. When I told my Canadian lecturer what the Malaysian history syllabus was like, he was appalled and said he would probably resign if he had to teach it in that way.
Today I’m relearning (and from a Mat Salleh at that) that the Baling talks had two sides to it. 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 am 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 analyse historical incidents properly and can come up with plausible explanations to my thesis.
Barely any of the arguments were in the text. We did not even have a textbook. We had instead excerpts from multiple authors to look at all views. It doesn’t make me any less patriotic; in fact, I’d say learning about the world has made me more patriotic.
Above all, I am learning that there are no absolute answers in complex historical events. Only fools claim they do.
It saddens me deeply to know that the greatest tragedy of our history syllabus is not its myopic and tiny scope, not 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.”
Josef Stalin, the authoritarian dictator of the Soviet Union, launched campaigns to find, imprison and kill historians. Such sentiments reveal the importance of history.
I find our syllabus suspiciously close to attempts at indoctrination – the ultimate inertia of the mind.
As a young Malaysian, it pains my heart to see others my age turn away from such a beautiful, relevant subject because all they have encountered is a twisted, biased and repetitive version of it. People like to complain 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 its faults and dark moments?
I hope the old man of our history syllabus can still be cured.
I pray that my children can know the world and Malaysia. If indeed my child comes up to me and says, “Dad, I think maybe the communists were not evil. I believe May 13 was a spontaneous uprising. I believe Dol Said deserved to be called a national hero”, I will ask her “Did you read all viewpoints? Did you form this opinion yourself?”, and if she says yes, I will say “Good for you!”
And the rest, is as they say, history.

As published on Loyarburok, Voice of Children and Malaysia Today.

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