Re-writing history

(By Guest Contributor Anna)

This was initially a comment on Preemptive karma, and her post "Those who cannot learn from history are bound to repeat it":

Earlier today on American Street,
I commented that one of the reasons so many Americans have such
disjointed and misinformed views on the state of our nation and the
direction it's going is due to a fundamental lack of solid history
teaching in school.

but it grew rather long, the issue deserving slightly more space than that.

I may not know all that much about American history, but since what concerns America pretty much concerns the rest of the world, I'm learning a lot.

And I'm starting to see trends: like policy makers attempting to re-write, and re-interpret history, so that history can then in turn be used to further their aims.

My favorite example of history distorted is here in Malaysia, perhaps we will be able to draw some parallels.

There was a racial clash on May 13th 1969 that resulted from the strong opposition to the preferential treatment of one of the three races that make up the country. Preferential treatment for the Malays was written into the constitution because the policy makers of the time, Malaysia's "founding fathers" if you like, believed nothing short of a law would be able to even out the balance between the more successful Chinese and Indian, and the less successful Malays.

Whether that was right or wrong is the topic of another discussion, but it caused a great amount of unrest, and a total of about 200-300 people died in the demonstration (no one is really sure of the actual figure, it depends on whether you listen to pro- or anti-government sources).

The government declared a state of emergency, and since that day has been using the "terrible, and infinitely sad" may 13th '69 as an excuse to keep the nation from protesting against similar ridiculous policies. And there have been plenty such policies: like the Printing and Publications Act that essentially controls the media via a license system given out by the government, and the Internal Security Act, that is very similar to your Patriot Act, and is generally used to get rid of influential people who might be able to change things around here. End of last year they used it on three bloggers (On a side, Bush was very happy with the Malaysian ISA, I wonder why).

What's interesting is the riot was localized to a few districts in the capital, but for the last three decades the death toll had "risen" to thousands and it had been blown into something that has apparently rocked the nation to its core. All other methods of promoting unity between East and West Malaysia (that are separated by an ocean) failing, the government started to use the "great riot" to unite the nation on mourning, and give the different people a (false) sense of common history.

May 13th had become a taboo subject, fit for discussion only in hushed voices with the letters C and M to signify the parties in the conflict, lest we be inciting racial hatred by even bringing the matter up.

The best part of all of this is the change had infiltrated the school system, intentionally or otherwise, I don't know. For more than 10 years I studied the names of the Rajah's and Sultans, their offspring and all the useless things they did. And then in my final year of school I got a crash course in modern history - the glory of the triumph against the British, and the formation of the new and perfect Malaysia.

It's almost as if no one wanted to teach me what really happened. All we were taught in school was that some people died, and no one said why, leaving it ambiguous enough for the government to use whatever interpretation they want.

Years later in University I found out that the very same big bad communists that are being denied entry to their country now to visit the graves of their relatives, were the driving force behind that revolution and not the people drafting the Constitution, and most certainly NOT the coalition in power. That's just one of the things the history books chose to leave out.

The reason I'm using an obscure Asian country as an example is because it started out as the perfect democracy - the initial aims of the Constitution are (for the most part) noble and modern. Written in are all of the fundamental rights, including the freedom of peaceful assembly, but things have been twisted  so much that no one really remembers this anymore. We are now told that speaking out against the government is unMalaysian, unpatriotic.

The nation has been scared into shutting up with a series of laws that directly contradict the rights guaranteed by the constitution. But a much bigger chunk of the problem today is apathy. People have been coerced into thinking this is the way things should be. And THAT is the work of the school system, and the "recommended and approved" history books.

Because what better way is there to have a complete control over the nation, than by starting from small and teaching a new generation that their opinions don't matter, that the Daddy government knows everything better than they do, and that they should not question it because everything is done for their own benefit. And what better way to do that, than by teaching them a fragmented version of history which tells them that things have always been like this, and they worked, so why change now?

Here is an example, from a publication that calls itself independent. They are indeed generally known as a rather progressive on-line publication, that breaches certain taboo subjects, and that is (for now) free from censorship because it is an Internet resource. But even here we see the after-effects of the brain-washing:

"To [former Malaysian Prime Minister] Mahathir, everything and everyone was of great value to him. He employed and honed to perfection the very tools left behind by the colonial master to silence those who disagreed with him, for eg. the ISA, the OSA and the Printing and Publications Act."

[full article]

That's about as blatant as historical inaccuracies promoted by the educational system (and now the media) get. The colonial powers did not make those laws, as we have been led to believe, and the Printing and Publications Act came into force in 1984 toward the end of the emergency. Does no one remember that just 20 years ago this very same Government had been hailing the Act as a means to prevent further "disasters" like May 13th, and further racial clashes?

But of course, now that the legislation no longer holds the faith of the people, we will revise the history books and write it off onto the British.

The rather long winded point I was hoping to make is that history is at the mercy of the policy makers, and just like the "landowners" (and the big bad corporations) that Carla brought up, they have their own agendas, that don't necessarily (if at all) coincide with the needs of the people.


"To [former Malaysian Prime Minister] Mahathir "

Just a quick parenthesis here Anna:

Isn't Mahathir the guy whom Australian ex-Prime Minister Paul Keating (probably the best nation leader I ever witnessed), some 10-15 years ago, once referred to as "recalcitrant ", LOL, following which Mahathir screamed blue murder at such a racist and vile insult, and nearly called on war against Oz?

Then followed a long, convoluted and hilariously grotesque series of negociations about semantics between the 2 govs that kept the entire Oz country rolling on the floor laughing for weeks.

Or am I confusing Mahathir with another nation leader?

PS: "recalcitrant" an insult? Goodness, the guy obviously never heard the delightfully colorful repertoire of lovely insults Paul would hurl at now-prime-minister little rat John Howard (then opposition leader). Here are a few samples:

- "...the brain-damaged Leader of the Opposition..."

- "He is the greatest job and investment destroyer since the bubonic plague"

- "He has more hide than a team of elephants."

- "I am not like the Leader of the Opposition. I did not slither out of the Cabinet room like a mangy maggot..."

- "Come in sucker!"

Can you imagine Mahathir's reaction to one of these gems, LOL? 

Posted by WhyNot
3/22/2005 09:34:00 am  
WhyNot, you're right, but I'm afraid the issue is much deeper than that.

Mahathir, for all his faults, has always been sensitive to Western criticism and I think he has a just cause - this side of the world is largely misrepresented to people of the "western nations".

During the "reformasi" period (reformation) in the mid-90s, the Deputy Prime Minister was sent to prison on some false charges. Bad Prime Mininister. Bad.

Everyone was shocked, people did protest, but then CNN went and turned it into a riot, feeding very nicely into the west's ideologies of the east. They saw the appeal of the story (supposed liberal malaysian jailed for being too liberal) and then they sensationalized it.

They used images of riots in Indonesia to make it look like the situation was worse than it really was. It created quite a panic in Malaysians abroad.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not blaming the "western" people, heck, I'm one of em. But then the media does represent what we expect to hear about such countries, and Mahathir was right in being competely outraged at that point because it was indeed unjust criticism of his person.

There were many things wrong with the Mahathir "rule", but the rest of the world just wasn't pointing out the right ones.

Both sides are kind of ignorant of the other...

But I got sidetracked I believe...

I think I see what you're getting at, and yeah, you're right: Mahathir wasn't the best thing to happen to this country, not by a long shot. 

Posted by anna.
3/22/2005 04:52:00 pm  
"the issue is "why not" keep the definition of marriage as it is and call a gay union something else "


Thank you for putting everything in context. As always, only the ppl who live in or near the scene have a real sense of what's going on, and outsiders, especially ones from vastly different cultures have no clue of the real picture.

This is why we are so pleased to have members from all over the world. I'd hate our group to be trapped in a US-centric-only view of world events. It is not enough for the purpose of really getting an objective view of world events.

PS: I'm still giggling at Paul's insults. They'd fit Bush quite well too, LOL. I particularly love the "team of elephants" one :-) 

Posted by WhyNot
3/23/2005 12:50:00 am  
"...policy makers, and just like the "landowners" (and the big bad corporations) that Carla brought up, they have their own agendas, that don't necessarily (if at all) coincide with the needs of the people. "

We don't evolve, we only revolve. Until the left becomes organized more coherently the 'needs of the people' everywhere will remain at the mercy of the policy makers and big corporations.

Nice article Anna. It's well written and very interesting. Thanks for your contribution. 

Posted by Dianne
3/23/2005 11:16:00 am  



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