It’s not every day one gets to rub shoulders with profoundly eminent historians — I periodically get to do so here at Cambridge (Quentin Skinner, Richard Evans, Mary Beard etc), and today one of the most respected historians in Malaysia held a round table discussion in London, which I attended with much anticipation. Malaysia is one of those places whose history, like that of Japan’s (though certainly to a lesser extent), has been insidiously annexed by the ruling elite for nationalistic purposes. Because of the way Malaysia’s history has been (re)written, today few people realize that the racial divisions that cleave our population into its Malay, Chinese and Indian factions are neither historic nor historically inevitable.
An epiphany of sorts: the Malay word for “nation” and “race” are the same. Even though we have, in Malay, nasionalis (nationalist) and nasionalisme (nationalism), there is no corresponding Nasion, there is only Bangsa — Race. This causes endless trouble. There is no semantic way to distinguish between the Malay Nation and the Malay Race (both Bangsa Melayu). Therein lies the trouble for the assimilation of sojourners.
and even I sometimes forget that Malaysia’s independence in 1957 was not really about the transfer of power from the British to the national party (which the national party likes to claim) but from the Malay rulers to the people (i.e. the formation of a constitutional monarchy). The British in Malaya at the time were, and had always been, administrators and forceful advisors, not rulers. Insofar as it implied emancipation from colonial rule, Malaysian independence is a fiction; the original call was not “Merdeka!” (Independence) but “Tanah Melayu!” (Malay Land!). In 1957 we had no one to be independent from but ourselves.
(all this is, naturally, not in our history textbooks)
There are not many Malaysian historians; fewer still, it seems, in my generation, who tend to be economists, lawyers, accountants, doctors and engineers. The professor, then, appeared ecstatic upon discovering my vocation, and wrote on the frontispiece of the book he autographed:
I hope you, too, will come to accept that history is the mother of all disciplines.
Khoo Kay Kim