What We Think 1#: A textbook problem of what’s wrong with our education

Imagined Malaysia currently has its own column space on a newly established local news portal. The purpose of this column is to provide a platform to our members and supporters to speak their mind on issues that are pertaining to society, politics and history. We also welcome our patrons to speak their mind through this platform, and spread information on the cause for improving historical education in Malaysia! 

We know all too well the perils of studying – or rather memorising – for Sejarah exam in our secondary school days but that was the case for almost every subject. An instance in my schooling days that struck me most was when a Form 1 student, my history teacher called a predominantly Chinese class ‘pendatang’.

She went into an exposition on how this country did not belong to us and how we should be grateful for being in this country, pointed to the textbook and said “You can read through this, there is no mention of how you contributed to the struggle of the nation.”

I could not really process what she said at that time and took it as her way of telling the class to keep quiet but as I grew older, this narrative of how the country didn’t necessarily belong to us was reiterated by my peers, that we were just – rather ironically — working hard in memorising the history textbook to do well in exams for a better life elsewhere outside the country.  

Later in my life, I came across Bernice Chauly’s ‘Growing up with Ghosts’, where she was put in a similar position as I was but reacted by publicly apologising for not realising her privileged position in being allowed to be part of this country which she remains ambivalent about in retrospect.

Hence, when the National Education Policy Committee (JKD) called for the public to submit proposals on ways to improve the country’s education system and curriculum, I was particularly keen on revisiting the national narratives presented within secondary school textbooks on history.

Maybe because it was the first time there was an official recognition on the failures of our education system and more importantly, that people could contribute to making it better.

Imagined Malaysia hosted a panel discussion with Assoc. Prof. Dr. Helen Ting, Dr. Ranjit Singh Malhi and Fahmi Reza with contributions from Nicholas Chan in conjunction with the launch of our publication IM Review, themed historiography.

Continuing in the spirit of the theme, we wanted to engage with public discourse on the particular issue of how our nation’s historiography is presented over five years within the current scholarship of our history textbooks, as I could not be the only one dissatisfied with it.

Posing questions on how does one open up set and single-perspective narratives that are presented to satisfy national myths and what steps are needed to make better the regurgitative manner historiography has been taught with clear barriers between teacher and student? Not to mention, how could we, and if we even should, discuss politically sensitive events that have been erased from history to foster a more inclusive and rich understanding of our nation’s history? 

Shortcomings of the Malaysian history textbooks

The aim of the current history textbook has been set out to be nation-building in its essence, stating it is to “menghuraikan usaha dan sumbangan tokoh tanah air dalam memperjuang dan mempertahankan kedaulatan negara” (DSKP, Objektif). So who gets to be the figure that embodied and fought for this imaginary idea of the nation-state that is Malaysia?

We can look no further than the overwhelming focus of our history textbook which is given to the Malay rulers of the Malacca Sultanate, British colonial power and Islamic civilisation wherein one can reference to the five out of ten chapters (116 out of 284 pages/ 41%) of the current Form Four history textbook that deals with Islamic Civilisation within the Arab World rather than in Southeast Asia. Hindu-Buddhist influences are omitted almost altogether despite having a long history within the region like in Bujang Valley. 

Meanwhile,in the Form 3 textbook, alone Dato’ Onn Jaafar has 15 pictures, the history of UMNO has 10 pages while important historical figures of Form 5 textbook were only exclusively Malay Prime Ministers. There is also little attention given to history on the ground and the role that ordinary people played in the nation.

The most famous instance covered in Fahmi Reza’s documentary 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka was Hartal (General Strike) of 1947, led my Malay left-wing parties under the coalition Putera-AMCJA (All-Malaya Council of Joint Action). It is hardly mentioned within the Form 5 textbook when situating events leading up to independence.

From left to right: Dr Ranjit Singh Malhi, Imran Rasid, Dr Helen Ting and Fahmi Reza.

Despite being the biggest general strike to date within our country with more than 140,000 workers observing it, yet it is purposely left out to instead heavily highlight the strike against the Malaya Union of 1946, presented as the reason why the British negotiated with the then ruling party, UMNO. The severe lack of social history fashions a view that Malaysia was built by a few select people in power while everyone else followed suit and applauded them. What about the lives of different types of laborers like woodcarvers, textile weavers, rickshaw pullers and mud girls who were 60% of the workforce on construction sites?

What was the everyday reality of life beyond the palace and constitutional developments?

Reorienting the purpose of our textbooks 

Both Helen Ting and Nicholas Chan expressed that the nationalist framework has consistently determined the approach in constructing our nation’s historical events, leaving no room to critically interpret particular moments within the neat narrative of Malaysia and I could not help but agree.

Nicholas further explained the whole Form 5 textbook itself is dedicated to nation-building as chapter 1-6 tells the formation of the Malaysian nation, covering the concept of the nation-state and Bangsa Malaysia. While chapter 7 covers Malaysia’s current constitutional monarchy, parliamentary democracy, federalism, and national symbols and chapter 8-9 on national unity via national principles, education, culture, and sports. 

Hence, the history textbook should be an opportunity to learn how to critically approach a piece of historical source and access its biases and context, with students forming their own independent interpretations of historical memory and events and how it has influenced contemporary issues. What if there was a room to question the effectiveness of our current parliamentary democracy by looking at the history of the two party system within Malaysia or not to mention examining how particular communities felt about the concept of Bangsa Malaysia (such as feeling the need to specify one is Malaysian Chinese/Indian rather than simply Malaysian)?

The exam-oriented manner in which history is taught made myself and my peers only interested in memorising facts that we will be quizzed in our exams wherein supposedly ‘extra’ facts on uncovered aspects of our history is rendered unnecessary. The cancellation of exams for Form 1 to 3 as of late is a step in preventing learning that is solely reliant on memory recall, however, there is still a need even for teachers (totally not informed by my own experiences) to facilitate critical questioning of such ‘authoritative’ sources rather than dictating how we should feel.

The picture below is a question from a SPM multiple choice paper which is a prime example of telling students how to interpret history with no real exploration into the complexities of how independence was achieved:

 Picture: Penilaian Menegah 2007, Kertas 1, Oktober; Credit: Fahmi Reza

Till today, I don’t know what would be an appropriate reaction towards my teacher who gave me a rude awakening as a teen where I suddenly realised my ethnicity was coded to bear the brunt of decades of historical clashes and form my own ethnic conflict resolution by simply leaving. Netusha Naidu from Imagined Malaysia remarked that instead of glossing over sensitive discourses like the Malayan Emergency and May 13, we should see our history class as a suitable environment to reconcile with historical traumas, rather than presenting a shallow version of history that insists on its ‘peaceful nature’ compressed from Malacca Sultanate to Malay nationalism.

Netusha Naidu delivering the opening remarks at the launch of the IM Review.

I believe as well if we continued to push a narrow nationalist agenda it would only contribute to the perpetuation of stereotypes and further polarise ethnic divides within communities, overly preoccupied with writing a historical narrative that favours the current winners.

Just as America had to reconcile with its history of slavery, Britain with its role as a global colonial power and Germany with its history of systemic genocide, so should we utilise history as an opportunity to heal and address our deeply divided communities beyond Malays, Chinese, Indians but also minorities like the Orang Asli and migrant workers. Rather than upholding the agenda to utilise history as a tool for superficially uniting people, let us instead use it address the fractures that run deep within our nation.

Originally published by The Leaders-Online. The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Leaders Online. 

Photographs by Kalash Nanda Kumar