Lessons from history: Why repeat the same mistakes?


By TK Chua

Arguing over learning from history is semantic. It really depends on whether we want to learn something from it or not.

Sometimes we choose to ignore history because it is to our advantage. We want to continue with wayward ways as in the past.

Sometimes we emphasise the importance of history because we want to start anew. We want to avoid the same pitfalls, so to speak.

Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak is now asking Malaysians not to forget the misdeeds of Dr Mahathir Mohamad during his tenure as prime minister. He cited many instances of Mahathir abusing and misusing his power. His convenient argument was “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

But seriously, have we learned anything at all from history? Have we forgotten what Mahathir did during his time as prime minister? I think the answer to this question is both “yes” and “no”.

Many of us must remember Mahathir’s era very well. That is why we are fighting so hard now not to repeat the same cycle of power concentration and abuse. In fact, many are concerned over whether Malaysia would be able to withstand another onslaught against its democratic tradition. Hence, time is of the essence.

Ironically, I think some have completely forgotten Mahathir’s past. They are doing worse things now than what Mahathir did before.

Similarly, government institutions and establishments that blindly supported Mahathir then are doing exactly the same thing now. They support the current regime to the hilt, unequivocally and unquestionably. Put simply, they ignore or learn nothing from history.

To me, it is simple: (i) If we truly remember history, we should be fighting the same baloney now that existed during Mahathir’s time; and (ii) If we learn nothing from history, we should rightly be supporting the same baloney now that existed during Mahathir’s time.

If Mahathir asked us to forget history, he should be understood in context. I think he has implicitly admitted his mistakes and is now trying his best to correct them.

Similarly, for Salleh, if he asked us to remember history, he should critically examine and evaluate the same baloney being perpetuated now. If we have truly learned from the past, why are we repeating it?

I think history is neutral. The problem is our own expediency and convenience. Learning from history to avoid pitfalls is different from learning from history to justify our continued misdeeds.

If we argue that the present regime can behave exactly like the regime during Mahathir’s time, then we are learning nothing from history. Similarly, to argue that what happened in the past has no bearing on the present or future is a form of escapism.

Bad examples are easy to duplicate. Mahathir can’t deny that he set many bad examples, although his intentions at the time may have been justified, as is often argued.

One lesson I have learnt from Malaysia’s short history is: Don’t mess with our constitution and institutions of government in the name of “noble intentions” or for the “greater good”.

Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely, period. There are no “ifs”, “buts” or exceptions.

Don’t ever argue that absolute power was okay during Mahathir’s time but is not okay during Prime Minister Najib Razak’s. Absolute power is not okay with anyone, Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Kit Siang or Abdul Hadi Awang. All are the same, all must be circumscribed.

TK Chua is an FMT reader.

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