KUALA LUMPUR: After stirring up a heated public debate here this month, the subject of Malaysia's history is set to take centre stage again.
By Teo Cheng Wee, Regional Correspondent
A secondary school history syllabus review is being closely watched by some academics and activists, who have raised concerns that textbooks today have become Malay- and Islam-centric. That allegation recalls similar accusations of bias levelled at the establishment recently.
Opposition politicians here accused Umno of overstating its leaders' role in the fight for independence whenever Malaysia celebrates Independence Day on Aug 31, while downplaying that of other activists, such as writers and leftists.
'You're also putting another wedge into an already fractured society.'
Former bank employee Abu Bakar Sulaiman, on a syllabus with a narrow perspective of history
Contributions of minorities downplayed
Critics say textbooks used to mention the role of the Chinese and Indians inthe development of tin mining and rubber industries. Now, it is given scant attention. The same goes for pioneers from the minority communities.
Critics say five out of 10 chapters in the Secondary 4 textbook cover Islamic history and civilisation. The previous version had only one such chapter.
One senior opposition politician, the deputy president of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), Mr Mohamad Sabu, has been charged with defaming policemen killed by communists during the fight for independence. Mr Mohamad had allegedly described the communists as the real heroes of independence.
The spirited public debate on history coincides with a syllabus review on the subject that is overseen by a government-appointed panel, which was formed in May. It is supposed to complete the task by the end of the year.
Its chief and Malaysian Historical Society chairman Omar Hashim said they had been busy gathering feedback.
'We've been talking to parents, teachers and university lecturers,' said Datuk Omar, a former education deputy director-general.
'Interest in history has declined worldwide, so we're trying to stimulate student interest.'
But some Malaysians believe student interest is only one of the issues that need to be addressed in the new syllabus, which will be used in schools from 2014.
The charge of a 'skewed' history syllabus has cropped up on occasion in the past few years, but has now escalated with the review. Critics say the syllabus has downplayed the contributions of Malaysia's minorities. Textbooks used to mention the role of the Chinese and Indians in the development of tin mining and rubber industries, said historian Ranjit Singh Malhi.
'Now, it is given scant attention,' said Dr Ranjit, who was a schools history textbook writer himself in the 1980s.
The same goes for pioneers from the minority communities. Dr Ranjit said Chinese leader Yap Ah Loy, who oversaw a critical growth period of Kuala Lumpur in the late 19th century, has been reduced to just one sentence in the current Secondary2 textbook.
Gurchan Singh and Sybil Karthigesu - two prominent Indian resistance fighters here during World War II - have no mention whatsoever.
Others have criticised the textbooks for being Islam-centric: Five out of 10 chapters in the Secondary4 textbook cover Islamic history and civilisation. The previous version had only one such chapter.
This perceived prejudice has led to the formation of the Campaign for a Truly Malaysian History (KSMS), whose 18-member committee consists of parents, academics and representatives of non-governmental organisations.
'It was felt that unless we got together and highlighted this issue, we'd be presented with another unbalanced syllabus,' said Dr Lim Teck Ghee, one of the key members of the group. 'These are our roots. Which community won't be concerned about them, or what is being taught?'
KSMS has gathered close to 10,000 signatures on a petition on its cause. It also plans to hand over a memorandum to Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in the next few months, detailing recommendations on a more objective syllabus.
The issue has some Malays concerned as well. Former bank employee Abu Bakar Sulaiman, 68, feels a narrow perspective of history will 'hamper the intellectual development of youngsters', regardless of race.
'You're also putting another wedge into an already fractured society,' said Mr Abu Bakar, who is also in KSMS.
Incidentally, forging greater unity was why the government has decided to make history a must-pass subject in the local equivalent of the O-level examinations by 2013.
Tan Sri Muhyiddin made this announcement last year. But the venue where he did it - Umno's general assembly - raised concerns about a political agenda.
Arguing for an objective narrative, an editorial in Chinese daily Nanyang Siang Pau said: 'In Malaysia's short history, people's memories are still fresh... tampering with history will only raise the ire of the public and affect the country's unity.'
A commentary in the New Straits Times agreed, saying that such worries are 'legitimate and require attention'.
Other Barisan Nasional component parties have said they will watch this issue closely. The Malaysian Chinese Association has set up a committee to monitor the syllabus review.
Its president, Dr Chua Soi Lek, said the current textbook gives 'a lot of predominance to one particular race'.
But the government has insisted that it has no political motive. It pointed out that the committee led by Mr Omar consists of experts of all races.
Mr Muhyiddin urged Malaysians not to be prejudiced, and said the government 'cannot concoct' history.
'I don't think any party should feel suspicious or worried,' he said, 'because history is based on historical facts.'