28 February, 2007

Banning History: When Will Malaysia Learn To Live With Her Past?

Written by Farish A. Noor
Monday, 26 February 2007

Scholars who are engaged in the humanities will tell you that History happens to be one of the most politically-contested disciplines. It is well known by now that the writing of history is hardly ever an innocent process, and that any claim – no matter how laudable or couched in lofty prose – to objectivity has long since been defunct. The saying that ‘history is written by the victors’ may have passed onto the register of clichés by now, but it remains true nonetheless. What is more history’s endless repetition of the narrative of sameness; the continuous telling of the story of ‘we and us, us and we’ is no mere rhetorical device. Any claim to objective moral ‘truth’ (if one can be made at all in the case of historical writing) often requires the re-telling of the same facts again and again, to lend the guise of consistency and solidity.

That is why official historiography and official (re: state-appointed) historians balk at the thought of the subaltern voice making itself heard. In so many post-colonial societies, the narrative of post-colonial independence was hastily written in a brazen attempt to hide or gloss over instances of collaboration with the imperial hegemon and colonial power; the petty internal feudal conflicts between the colonised subjects themselves; and the fact that most of these struggles were clumsy affairs, mixed with chance and flavoured by deceit.

This is true of many post-colonial countries and Malaysia is no exception to the rule. Malaysia’s independence, we are told, was a gentlemanly bout between British and Malayan aristocrat-patriots who did not bloody their hands in combat. Contrary to the case of Indonesia, Burma, the Philippines and most recently East Timor, Malaysia’s independence was a negotiated affair.

But what has been lost in this official narrative is the fact that long before gentlemen-aristocrats like Tunku Abdul Rahman – who became the country’s first Prime Minister – won the country’s independence, Malaya’s future was also being decided in a bloody conflict in the jungles that pitted the imperial forces of Britain against the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). Malaya gained her independence in 1957, but the country emerged into the world in a state of Emergency, that was declared by the British in 1948 and lasted till 1960.

Even before independence however, the MCP has been routinely stigmatised and demonised as the evil Red Menace threatening to devour the free world. Of course much of this rhetoric seems dated by now, following the end of the Cold War; but in the 1950s and 1960s the same discourse of demonisation was used to systematically present the MCP as a fifth column poised to take over Malaya and serve the interests of Peking and Moscow instead.

It is against this context that films about the MCP, its struggles and the biographies of its members have been banned in Malaysia. Most recently the latest ban was imposed on the film ‘Apa Khabar Orang Kampung’ (oddly translated as ‘Village People Radio Show’, for some unknown reason). The film’s director, Amir Muhammad, was in Berlin just a week ago to present his film which premiered at the Berlinale, to much public acclaim.

Yet, like his earlier film ‘Lelaki Komunist Terakhir’ (‘The Last Communist’), Amir’s latest film has been banned in his own country. While ‘The Last Communist’ was approved by the Malaysian censor board, it was banned by the Home Affairs Minister nevertheless. Amir’s latest film was banned on the grounds that it was ‘historically inaccurate’ and that it presents a distorted picture of history. How ironic, considering that for decades Malaysian historians have also argued that much of colonial history of Malaya/Malaysia was also distorted. And on that note one might as well reactivate the perennial question of history-writing itself: Can there ever be any historical account free of subjective bias, cultural perspectivism and the inherent solipsism of the author him/herself?

It would appear that Malaysia is still suffering from growing pains, despite the fact that the country will celebrate its 50th anniversary of independence this year. After 50 years, and despite the fact that the MCP is practically non-existent in the country today, the ever-so-sensitive sentiments of right-wing nationalists will tolerate no alternative viewpoint contrary to their own; even if this means denying the fact that it was the MCP and its military wing that fought against the Japanese imperialist army during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia during World War Two, and later the returning British imperialist army following the end of the war. Dubbed ‘terrorist bandits’ by the colonial power then, the MCP and its members have been steadily written out of the history books and the process of historical erasure continues unabated till today.

It is ironic, though not surprising, that Amir Muhammad’s film has been banned in the country. The word ‘ban’ shares etymological links to the word ‘banish’, which means to expel something from the space of the familiar. The banning of ‘Apa Khabar Orang Kampung’ may have been an attempt to banish from the present traces of the past, but in their zealousness to impose only their ‘correct’ version of history the Malaysian authorities have shown that Malaysia is still far from ready to live with a history that is complex and laced with alterity.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 27 February 2007 )

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