Tuesday, September 13, 2011

History debate in KL turns political

KUALA LUMPUR: A heated debate has broken out in Malaysian political circles over the country's history, with ruling party Umno being accused of sidelining non-Umno players in the official account of independence.

By Teo Cheng Wee, Regional Correspondent

Politicians have been exchanging barbs, newspapers have been running commentaries, and netizens have filled blogs and forums with arguments over who played what roles in the road to independence.

Minority communities have complained before that their contributions have been underplayed. But critics are taking it further this time, questioning Umno's dominance of the Malay narrative as well.

Some allege that last month's celebration of Merdeka Day had inadvertently turned into an 'Umno celebration' that highlighted only the party's leaders for their efforts. Others say Umno is taking more credit than it deserves, and maintain that many non-Umno Malays had lost their lives in the campaign to drive out the British colonialists. Malaysia gained its independence on Aug 31, 1957.

More than a mere debate over history, this challenge strikes at the heart of Umno's identity as the party that united Malays and acted as the key to achieving independence. That is why, said political analyst Shaharuddin Badaruddin, it has continued for weeks and gone far beyond academic circles.

Political analyst Wong Chin Huat pointed out that not all Malays supported Umno during the independence movement. 'Some Malays saw Umno as a sell-out working together with the British,' he was quoted as saying by an online news website.

The spat, mostly between Umno and the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), first arose in the days leading up to Aug 31, when PAS deputy president Mohamad Sabu charged at a rally that independence day had become monopolised by Umno.

It sparked an intense debate online and in the media, with reactions mushrooming and even branching off into different and seemingly off-tangent issues, such as the country's colonial history and the governing role of the British.

But PAS has also drawn fire. Umno and its supporters accuse it of twisting facts for political gain, while others slam Mr Mohamad for hailing a Malay communist leader as an independence 'hero'.

Mat Indera led more than 200 guerilla fighters in a siege on a police station in Johor in 1950, and over 20 Malay constables and their families died defending it. Mr Mohamad's comments triggered angry responses from former servicemen. He later said he supported Mat Indera's fight, but not communism.

The debate has seen Prime Minister Najib Razak and former premier Mahathir Mohamad weighing in with their opinions. On Sunday, Datuk Seri Najib said people should not be 'changing historical facts or glorifying the communist terrorists'.

Yesterday, Tun Dr Mahathir chided those who 'invent history'. He had earlier suggested that history textbooks be updated to include more on Malaysia's struggle for independence by leaders such as its first premier, Tunku Abdul Rahman. 'The government needs to focus on what really transpired so that writings on the country's history would not be influenced by current political interests,' he said.

But PAS is not letting up. It has made it a 'top priority' to push the government to set up a committee to review the pre-independence history. 'If the government is sincere, PM Najib should form a committee and we will send our historians... to participate,' said its vice-president Salahuddin Ayub.

With the history topic taking on a political slant, analysts said the protracted debate has confounded many. Political analyst Ooi Kee Beng said: 'Official Malaysian history is radically simplified, but what Mohamad Sabu purportedly said was unwise too and oversimplified matters in its own way.'