Changing the narratives of Malaysian history

A heading in an online news portal, “Fly national colours proudly, Dr M urges Malaysians in heartwarming Merdeka video”, recently caught my eye.

Talking to two children in the video, Dr Mahathir Mohamad says the situation in the country has changed, and that they are living happily and in comfort.

“Because of this, they believe that independence (day) is but a normal occasion.”

Holding their hands as they stroll around the Putrajaya lake, Mahathir tells the children that if everyone in the country flies the Jalur Gemilang during Merdeka celebrations, Malaysia would be more lively and the social bond between the people would become stronger.

Year after year, Malaysia Day is overshadowed by Merdeka Day celebrations. It has been relegated to a secondary national celebration and denied its rightful place in history. Without Sabah and Sarawak, there would be no Malaysia – this should be drummed into people’s heads.

The struggle for independence was not by Malayans only, but also by the people of Sabah and Sarawak who fought against the British. In early North Bornean (Sabah) history, we have Mat Salleh who led a resistance group and rebelled against the British between 1894 and 1900 to free North Borneo from the shackles of its colonial masters.

“Come Aug 31, the government wants us to fly the Jalur Gemilang,” said Ahmad Tajuddin, a village chief.

“Sometimes it feels like we are being colonised once more, this time by Putrajaya.

“They think Merdeka Day is Malaysia Day, and want to erase the day in history when Malaysia was born. They take our oil and build a nice transportation system, roads, bridges, while our schoolchildren have to struggle every day to get to school over unsealed roads and broken bridges.”

Tajuddin’s comments perhaps describe East Malaysians’ lack of affinity with a celebration that holds no special place in their history. If you read books like “A History of Malaysia”, written by Barbara Watson Andaya and Leonard Y Andaya, you will see how few paragraphs actually mention Sabah and Sarawak. The majority of the chapters talk about Malayan history – Sabah and Sarawak might as well be relegated to footnotes.

On page seven of the book, it says: “Until 2015, the official forms only included race specification columns imported from the peninsula – Malay, Indian Chinese and the controversial ‘lain-lain’ (others). In Sabah and Sarawak, individuals will now have the option to state their own ethnicity, which will greatly complicate the current picture.”

As Wing Chi Ling, a schoolteacher from Luyang, put it: “If our ethnicities are just complications, why do we bother calling ourselves Malaysians?

“They ask us to put up the Jalur Gemilang before Aug 31. Do you know that the Jalur Gemilang will be faded and torn by Sept 16, Malaysia Day, when they expect us to come up with more money to buy new flags?

“Why the double celebrations for Malaysia? It is a waste of time and money and will confuse the children.”

The Malaysian narrative is always about the Malays, Chinese and Indians, in that order. How do you decide the pecking order of the 50 or so ethnic groups living in East Malaysia? How do you write their histories, which would run to more volumes than the Melaka sultanate, asks Mary Wong, an activist from Selangor.

There is nothing heartwarming about Mahathir’s video. It should be retaken: Holding their hands as they stroll around the Putrajaya lake, Mahathir tells the children that if everyone in the country flies the Jalur Gemilang on Sept 16, Malaysia Day, Malaysia would be more lively and the social bond between the people will be stronger.

Without Sabah and Sarawak, there would be no Malaysia. Without the votes from Sabah and Sarawak, Pakatan Harapan would not have been able to form the government and bring about the change which the nation badly needs.

According to Andaya on page 10 of the book, “Hoping to foster national identity and cultivate patriotism, the Malaysian government announced that from 2013, history would be a required subject for the secondary school SPM examination.

“This decision generated considerable public debate about the way Malaysian history should be presented and what citizens should know about their collective past. Even the apparently straightforward task of establishing a historical chronology raises questions because Malaysia is a relatively new country.”

I beg to differ with the author. I suspect that the changing narratives of Malaysian history have a lot to do with the previously dominant Malay party which promoted the “Ketuanan Melayu” concept at the expense of other races in order to maintain its grip on power. It has nothing to do with Malaysia being a relatively new country.

It’s just like the “Ola Bola” movie where a Malay scored the winning goal instead of a Chinese, sending Malaysia to the 1980 Olympics. The truth is, James Wong, a Chinese from Sabah, scored the winning goal assisted by Hassan Sani, a Malay. “Ola Bola” was a movie that promoted the concept of Malay supremacy and got bombed by East Malaysians who thought it was a great insult to change the facts of history.

Yes, I agree, it was a movie. But would it have made a great difference in ticket sales if a Chinese or Indian had scored the winning goal?

Joe Samad is an FMT columnist.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.