Thursday, 30 December 2010

Balanced worldview via history

Brave New World (The Star)
30 December 2010

Our secondary school history syllabus needs some serious thought and reworking as it is very imbalanced.


I DID a funny thing on Christmas Day. I went to a bookstore and bought an SPM history book. The last time I read one of these things, Ronald Reagan was president and it was considered the height of fashion to wear carrot-cut trousers and white socks with your little black shoes; an ugly time indeed.
Anyway, the reason I bought this SPM history textbook was because there has been some controversy recently about the proposal to make history a compulsory subject in the SPM exams.
The main contention about this move by the Government is the actual content of the history taught. In the spirit of independent research, I bought the book to see if there is any cause for concern.
The thing about history is that it is not written in stone. Discoveries are made which shed new light on old ideas. For example, archaeological digs in Malaysia have shown that the peninsular has been inhabited for far longer than previously thought.
In Egypt, discoveries of entire towns surrounding the great pyramids suggest that they were built by a skilled workforce as opposed to an army of slaves (or technologically advanced Atlanteans if you read some of the more far out books).
Even existing facts can be reinterpreted in order to view established historical figures and events in a new way.
Recent works on Genghis Khan dismiss the simplistic (and racist) view that he was merely a blood-thirsty conqueror. Instead his empire established progressive ideas such as a common currency, protected trade routes and centres for education and culture.
However, the interpretation and reinterpretation of history has to be done very carefully.
There is always the danger that if a person has a specific agenda in mind, then his version of historical events can be very skewed and untruthful.
For example, for many years the great African civilisations like Nubia were not given any prominence because it conflicted with the European agenda to depict Africa as a backward place, thus justifying their exploitation of the continent and its peoples.
Therefore, any historian worth his salt must be as objective as possible and back his assertions with solid evidence; assertions which can change with future discoveries.
With this in mind, I dipped into my brand new book. And I must admit that the SPM syllabus leaves much to be desired.
The most glaring oddity is found in the Fourth Form section of the book. There are 10 chapters in the Fourth Form syllabus and five of them are about Islamic civilisation.
I do not understand why there has to be so much emphasis on Islamic civilisation.
Great swathes of important history such as the ancient Greeks, the Roman Empire, the Chinese Kingdom, the Indian empires (north and south), the Renaissance and the South-East Asian kingdoms are dealt with almost perfunctorily.
What is even more troubling is that the “history” of Islamic civilisation has elements of theology in it.
This overly heavy emphasis on one aspect of human history is not healthy as it provides our young people with a very imbalanced worldview.
And it is most ironic that it is Islamic civilisation that is given so much space in the history syllabus because one of the greatest strengths of the so-called golden age of Islamic history was the hunger that Muslim thinkers then had to seek knowledge from around the world.
They were not insular and narrow in their thinking and if one were to truly honour Islamic civilisation, then it is this attitude that should be embraced, not the rather strange idea that one civilisation deserves so much more attention than all others.
Looking at the Fifth Form part of the book, there is also some cause for concern.
In studying the development of the nation state that is Malaysia, there is a need for our young people to understand that there were many players involved.
The Malayan Union, for example, was not opposed by the Malays only. The multi-racial AMCJA-PUTERA (which was given approximately three dismissive lines in the book I bought), opposed the Malayan Union too.
They organised massive rallies and a general strike which Malayans from all walks of life and ethnic communities participated in. And they were the first to actually demand independence.
So yes, I do believe that our secondary history syllabus needs some serious thought and reworking. As it is, it is very imbalanced.
If taught correctly, history can be fun and also invaluable in shaping a sense of common identity.
However, if taught wrongly it is deadly dull and if content-wise it is wrong, it can be divisive and breed dangerous ideology.
With the New Year upon us, let us not forget that to move forward we must understand the past.
Let that understanding be a fair one in order for our progress to be fair too.

The beauty of democracy

Brave New World (The Star)
16 December 2010

Governing well is a boring thing because it is scandals and exposes of corruption that sell the newspapers. Still, it is important that the people choose those who govern well.

SOMETIMES, we can miss the forest for the trees. In Malaysian politics, there are so many rotten trees that we sometimes forget there’s even a forest in the first place.
The forest I am talking about here is that when we elect a government, we are primarily concerned that they should jolly well govern.
However, everyday government business is actually a very boring thing, so it is unlikely that the newspapers will cover it.
Why should they when scandals sell so many more copies. This is true with the online media as well.
So there is a tendency to emphasise more on the juicy stories.
In the meantime, boring stories about governing either do not get told or are lost amid the more titillating tales.
I admit I too am guilty of running with the most exciting issue of the day but sometimes we need to just look at the boring stuff to remind ourselves that a country is not run by rhetoric alone but the drudgery of simply organising things day after day.
We have to look at this because it is important for Malaysians to not just look at the “big” stories, we must also examine the minutiae of a government’s record of doing its day-to-day job.
If we take a look at Selangor for example, the state government made some good decisions since it has been in power.
Local councillors in my area have been chosen from a wider array of people than before, many of whom are recognised and respected in our local community.
There are councillors who established their reputations by being representatives of the interest of the disabled, local residents and human rights.
It is reassuring that local council posts are not being treated merely as a reward for the faithful and if the Selangor government can overcome the legal minefield that lie before it, we should see proper local government elections.
The Freedom of Information Bill, if it is passed by the state legislature will ensure much better access to information that citizens deserve.
Sure, it is not perfect, but it does put into place a mechanism where in a clear and organised manner, we can demand information which, by and large, should not be denied to us.
And I am certain that if it comes into force, we can demand information about the open tenders being conducted by the state government and it won’t have anything to hide.
Despite the whinging in some quarters, I like the fact that on Saturday I will not get plastic bags in my local store.
It forces me to carry my little canvas bag when I go shopping.
And although I have yet to see a canvas shopping bag that has even the slightest hint of masculinity, I am quite happy to do my little bit by using them even if it means swinging a girly bag when I buy my onions and coffee.
The Penang state government also has much to be proud of.
For example, my home state finds itself in the black from better financial management after tottering on the brink of being broke.
The fact that the mainstream press so gleefully print stories of protests by disgruntled citizens in both these states is also a reason to be happy for it shows their respect for the freedom of assembly.
The Pakatan has had many hiccups in the political arena, the latest being of course the sheer debacle of Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s party elections.
I have said it before, and I will say it again that my main concern for Malaysian politics is that we achieve a proper two-party system, where we have a real choice to vote one party in and if we don’t like the party, to vote it out again.
It is imperative therefore to look at the ability of the parties to govern and if they do a poor job, we can just kick them out again and put whichever party we like in.
That’s the beauty of democracy.