Patriots, Collaborators and the Undecidables in Between: The Contestation between Official and Unofficial History in Malaysia

In September 2011 the Malaysian press was abuzz with news that a leading member of an opposition party had suggested that the members of the now-extinct Malayan Communist Party (MCP) ought to be recognised as heroes in the anti-colonial struggle against the British. In response to the politician’s comments, a flurry of newspaper reports and editorials emerged, alleging, among other things, that the politician was a closet Communist and that “Communist elements” were still active in the country. Compounding matters was the role played by members of the country’s Majlis Profesor Negara (National Professors Board) who then claimed that British Malaya was never colonised by the British, which then opened the way for what came to be known as the “Colony vs Protectorate” debate. This article looks at how the contestation over meaning, facts and interpretation in Malaysia is particularly heated in the domain of official historiography, and highlights the political dimension of such debates as they occur in Malaysia’s ever-contested public domain.

History Isn’t Boring After All, at Least Not in Malaysia

A normal day in contemporary Malaysian politics: As the country’s political parties battle it out for their share of the popular vote, the leaders of the parties play their part by playing to the gallery and by assuming their subject-positions at the sniping posts, taking pot shots at each other. Observers of Malaysian politics will know that much of what passes as popular and populist political discourse in Malaysia is mere static: Controversies come and go; scandals compete for the public’s attention and personalities wax and wane according to the mood of the time, which remains ever-changing.

Yet in 2011 there occurred a mini-controversy that is the subject of this article, and it revolves around certain claims to history and the question of who writes history; and whose interpretation of history is correct. To set the stage for the discussion, we need to begin with a cursory overview of the political landscape of postcolonial Malaysia today.

Malaysia was once a British colony – though that claim is precisely what was and is being disputed in this paper – and its political system is loosely based on the British Westminster model as found in India, Singapore and other former British colonies. Britain’s intervention in Malay affairs began in 1786 when Francis Light, an official of the British East India Company (EIC) took possession of the island of Penang from the Sultan of Kedah.[i] Later in 1819, Singapore was won over by Stamford Raffles, who acquired the island from the Temenggong of Johore.[ii] In 1824, the Anglo-Dutch treaty drew a line along the Straits of Malacca and divided Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula into Dutch and British-controlled territories, respectively (Lee, 1995). Then in 1826, the Straits Settlements were created, bringing together the colonies of Penang, Malacca and Singapore under centralised control.[iii] In 1867, control of the Straits Settlements was passed to the Colonial Office in London, and soon after British (and other Western) capital interests were calling for more British intervention in the Malay states in order to secure rights to investment.

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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