Who is our real Father of Independence?
Sep 12, 05 3:49pm
The French thinker Voltaire once said: “There is no history, only fictions of varying degrees of plausibility.”
And so, who is the father of Malaysia’s independence? This seems to be the impetus of our national debate. Intellectually I see this topic as highly stimulating for younger generations of Malaysians who are beginning to get the feel of, and exposure to, the postmodern sensibility.
If we desensitise sensitive issues, we will open up newer frontiers of thinking and understanding.We cannot keep on lodging police reports every time somebody brings up questions we cannot answer. This only reflects our mental weakness in dealing with emerging issues. We must think like scientists and philosophers in order to seek better political alternatives. Scientific breakthroughs are based on the constant revision of theories and that create ‘Kuhnian Revolutions’.
Similarly, as a thinking nation constantly trying to understand history as a mirror of our existence, we must create spaces of dialogue on these issues so that our minds may become sharper and less prone to the attacks of unseen waves of mental colonisation that will eventually lead to physical, moral, and material colonisation.
We must come to terms with the issue of ‘who is the real father of independence’ and explore perspectives to this question. I am sure we will arrive at an answer. I will offer an answer at the end of this essay. I am however more interested in the question of what makes us reach the decision to honour Tunku Abdul Rahman. He is already honoured. I am more interested in the archeology of the ideology and the process, rather than the product of this thinking itself. Why him instead of others? What institutional arrangement of political-economic relations decreed that he would be the one to be remembered/named as the grand Malaysian hero of independence?
There should be no controversy over the issue of deciding who must continue to be honoured as the father of Malaysian independence. We already have a whole city called Putrajaya as a continuing legacy - a testament of the rule of a ‘prince’ in the Malaysian cybernetic world recreated as utopia.
Those who write history has already decided on how to inscribe the name on this new Malaysian landscape. We should now instead argue about paradigms and perspectives and the theories of knowledge at how we arrive at such a ‘historical fact’, instead of demanding this and that person to apologise for saying this and that. We need to seek the history/genealogy of these questions. We need to revisit the questions instead of finalise the answers. I think historians like Professor Khoo Khay Kim need to also understand what the new thinking about history and historicising now means. Here are my thoughts on this.
"Thinking about history"
The old paradigm of Structural-Functionalism in thinking about history will honour men, monuments, mishaps and movements. This paradigm looks at history as a system of evolving structures primarily from ‘periodising’ perspectives. Hence we are asked to remember dates, events, names (of mostly men, buildings and monuments,) that will create bodies of knowledge called ‘historical facts’.
Structural-functionalists would be interested in looking at the stability of the system and how to maintain a pareto optimum level of our understanding of history. There are fixed bodies of knowledge that must not be tampered with and there is not much room for creativity and critical sensibility in re-looking at history. Our history textbooks are written by structural-functionalists and the bodies of knowledge produced are canonised as ‘official knowledge’. Hence, we have structural-functionalist historians such as Sri Lanang, Zainal Abidin Wahid, Zainal Kling, Khoo, the Andayas and others from the old school. Their role in society is to preserve official knowledge; in this case historical knowledge derived from and crafted based on selected memories called history.
Then there is the Conflict Paradigm in historicising - one that looks at history as patterns of conflict between peoples, tribes, classes, and nations over resources and the dissemination of ideologies. Conflict theorists look at history as written by the winners and poetry written by the losers. Hence we have the development of ideologies of nationalism and nationalisation of ideologies written by those who won the historical march of progress based on the might of the ideology.
I agree with Michel Foucault’s idea of history as an enterprise that is based on the notion of power/knowledge and that we need to be more interested in the archeology of knowledge that produce documents of history. We need to also investigate the act of writing history. ‘Historical facts’
"Do ‘historical facts’ exist?"
I think this is an oxymoron or a contradiction. It is a misnomer. We might talk about scientific facts or philosophical musings or religious doctrines, but not with precision talk about historical facts. Facts need to undergo several stages of verification and falsification. History is memory, and memories are recollections of selective perspectives that are formed through sense-perception. If we can forget precisely what happen last Thursday night and we do not have witnesses to tell us what happened, then we might have a poor recollection of the memory as well as inaccurate documentation of the events. That is the issue of knowledge/power in the language of post-structuralism.
Then there is also the philosophical problematique of ‘who gets to write history’. Marx would argue that history of ideas is the history of the ruling class. Many Marxists and Marx’s revisionists have developed further this notion of historicising to its current status as post-structural theories of knowledge in looking at history. The work of George Lukacs, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt and Howard Zinn have exemplified this perspective in looking at history.
What does this mean to the current debate on who is the ‘father of independence’? It means a lot to the way we perceive what history is meant to teach. Whoever owns the means of producing historical documents owns the means of producing the ideology that will produce the means of producing the consciousness of the people. Sri Lanang wrote history that produced the ideas that shape the formation of the ideology of Malay nationalism. Khoo wrote history textbooks that produced the ideas that produced our thinking of what we think Malaysian history is. We therefore have a perspective in which the authors (Sri Lanang, Khoo) produce the texts (Sejarah Melayu, Buku Teks Sejarah) that produce the consciousness of what Malaysian history means, including who to honour as heroes and who will be branded as villains in history.
In the debates on philosophy and theory of history, there will always be Structural Functionalists and Conflict Theorists, between The Essentialists (Cultural Preservers) and Progressivists (Revisionists). No apologies needed We need not apologise to each other on this debate. It is embarrassing to the health of intellectual discourse.
We need not call for a debate in Parliament on who is the real hero of independence. The current culture of parliamentary debates – of booing and yahoo-ing and name-calling – would not be conducive to the pristine-ness of this topic. It will be an unnecessary debate after all. Because we are not equipped with the paradigms canopying the issue. It is akin to saying that Batman is better than Spiderman in our intellectual pursuit for truth in the world of Marvel Comics.
We ought to ask the right questions and elevate the discussions to a higher dimension - one that will focus not on issues versus non-issues but rather on the way of seeing things. I wrote about this in a column on teaching history.
If we still insist on arguing in Parliament, we ought to ask questions such as these instead:
• What makes us decide who is the hero and who isn’t in Malaysian history?
• Who benefits from the honouring of this or that person in history?
• How does our history honour the real makers of history - the farmers, the rubber tappers, the tin miners, the immigrants that built historical monuments
• How many of these unsung heroes perish as statistics in the process of glorifying this or that person? • How else may we look at history?
• Is the history we have been asked to learn credible? • What might a revisionist history of Malaysia look like?
• Who writes history and who pays the historians?
• Where are the ‘mothers’ in history?
• Why do we call history ‘his’ story and not ‘her-story’?
• Why do only some people or classes of people in history get to have their names inscribed onto buildings, monuments, roads signs, institutions of ideology, etc.?
• What happened in history?
I see tremendous value in teaching ourselves to ask these questions in history so that we may better frame issues that come our way at every Independence day. As a nation evolving through ‘historical patterns’ and ‘cycles of interplay between technology and consciousness’ rather than through the memorising of names of ‘peoples, places and events’ that has no real philosophical and therapeutic value, we need fresh new questions such as the ones I mentioned above. If we still insist that we have a parliamentary debate on this, we have actually not understood the history of the history of questions.
I have a proposition for the youth of debating teams of DAP and Umno:
I think the real fathers and mother of independence are the free spirits within all of us multi-cultural human beings; those existential spirits within us that refuse to bow down to any sign, symbols, and signification of colonization, be they in human or material form. The real parents of our independence are the spirits that acknowledge the universality of the struggle for independence and who explore the idea that the purpose of studying history is essentially to change it - so that its meaning will evolve closer to those buried and forgotten, under the might, memory and marketed glories of ideologies, inscriptions, institutions, and individuals.
Must we then believe, as the great playwright Oscar Wilde said - that “…the one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it”?