Historical Reconstruction Again?

March 6, 2012 by Dr. Farish A. Noor

And so, for reasons that are both complex and irritating, the past is being dragged into the present yet again; while we Malaysians bury our heads in the sand and neglect the future. By now most of us will be familiar with yet another controversy-in-a-teacup that has grabbed the headlines: namely the question of whether the events that took place during the attack on the police outpost in Bukit Kepong ought to be remembered as a historic event in the Malayan struggle for independence.

Unfortunately for all parties concerned it seems that the issue has been hijacked by politics and politicians yet again, as is wont to happen in Malaysia on a daily basis almost. More worrying still is how the manifold aspects of this event have been taken up selectively by different parties and actors to further their own arguments, while neglecting to look at the wider context against which the event took place. It is almost impossible to be truly objective when it comes to the writing and reading of history, and perhaps we can do away with that pretense. But for now perhaps some marginal notes on the matter might come in useful to clear the air a bit.

A. Was PAS pro-Communist?

One of the outcomes of this debate has been the resurrection of the old question of whether PAS (The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party) was pro-Communist at that point in its history. This seems an odd question to ask in the first place, as it seems incongruous for an Islamic party to harbour any real sympathy for Communism, which has always been seen as the bugbear to the Islamist cause. But it has to be remembered that when the Malayan Islamic party was first formed in Novermber 1951, many of its founder-leaders were anti-colonial nationalists who were keen to see the end of British rule in Malaya. Some of them were former members of the Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM) and also the first Islamic party in the country, the Hizbul Muslimin (that was formed, and almost immediately banned, in 1948)

PAS’s left-leaning days were at their peak during the Presidency of Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy (1956-1969), who did not hide his opposition to British rule and who refused to negotiate a settlement with the British then. Dr. Burhanuddin was sympathetic to the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), whose anti-British sentiments he shared; but this does not mean he supported Communism as an ideology. PAS’s stand towards the MCP then (in the 1950s and 1960s) was thus a pragmatic one that was based on the same goal of rejecting British colonial rule. However, it has to be noted that PAS was equally wary of Beijing’s influence in the region, and there is nothing to suggest that the leaders of PAS would have ever accepted Malaya coming under Communist rule, albeit directly or indirectly, from Beijing.

B. Was the MCP a tool of Communist China?

That the MCP and its guerilla wing were against any and all forms of British colonial rule is simple enough to verify, and their record of anti-colonial struggle is there for anyone to investigate. The more difficult question to answer however is this: How independent was the MCP, and was it – as the British alleged – working to further China’s communist influence in the region then? The British were somewhat ham-fisted when dealing with the MCP, and it ought to be noted that the invention of the image of the MCP as a ‘Chinese threat’ was the work of the British colonial propaganda agencies then.

Here, however, a broader perspective on the matter might come in handy. Think of Malaya in the 1950s and envisage the region as a whole, as the Cold War was heating up. In Vietnam, Burma and Indonesia the Communists were gaining strength in numbers; and perhaps the biggest worry to Britain then (as to the departing French and Dutch colonial powers) was the possibility that all of southeast asia might turn Communist. Remember that this was the time when the region was called ‘the Second Front in the war against Communism’; and when the Western bloc was keen to ensure that Indonesia – being the biggest country in the region – would not come under the rule of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

In Indonesia, the PKI grew more and more powerful under the leadership of men like D.N Aidit, and was instrumental in developing the civilian para-military forces that later agitated for the destruction of Malaya during the ‘Ganyang Malaya’ (Crush Malaya) campaign. It was only after the failed coup of 1965 and the virtual extermination of the PKI between 1966 to 1970 that the Communist threat in Indonesia was contained, and ties between Malaya and Indonesia were normalised. It was against this background that the fear of the MCP – and the worry that it was backed by China – was articulated and developed in Malaya. While it is true that the MCP was anti-British, there is no evidence to suggest that it claimed the majority support of mainstream Malay-Muslims in the country, despite the presence of Malays in the 10th Regiment.

C. To negotiate or fight?

Perhaps the most contentious issue of all is whether the struggle for independence was really fought and won by the Leftists, Islamists or Nationalists in Malaysia. Here is where contingency steps in and one can only speculate.

The fact is that the security measures that were introduced during the declaration of the First Emergency (1948-1960) meant that almost all the left-leaning parties, trade union movements, workers groups etc had been eliminated or left feeble. Those who stood to gain from this were the conservative nationalists who opted instead to negotiate the terms of Malayan independence, and who negotiated on a number of issues including citizenship for the non-Malays etc. But no matter how one looks at it, the historical facts are that the left-leaning movements in the country were established long before the conservative-nationalist parties and movements. (The Malayan Anarchist party was founded in 1919, for instance; and the MCP in 1930. By contrast the MCA was only founded in February 1949.)

Of course we can speculate until the cows come home over the question of the many ‘what-ifs’ had the circumstances of the past were different. What if the MCP was not banned? What if the MCP was successful in its guerilla campaign? What if half the Malay population had supported the leftists, etc etc.

But in the event, as things turned out, the radical left was all but absent in the final stages of negotiation and it was the UMNO-MCA alliance that sorted out the final terms of Britain’s withdrawal from Malaya. Lets not be too sanguine about this: Britain did not ‘leave’ Malaya willingly, but was compelled to do so thanks to the destruction of its colonial economy in the wake of World War II. Its main aim then was to ensure that its capital investments in its former colonies would not be nationalised, as was the case in Indonesia when Sukarno simply confiscated all Dutch capital assets and nationalised them. Unsurprisingly, Britain wanted to ensure that its investments in tin and rubber were not lost in the wake of its withdrawal.

However we are left with several ponderables:

Malaya (then under Tunku Abdul Rahman) negotiated its independence on terms that were mutually beneficial to both sides. The British were not shot to pieces or blown to bits, and despite the loss of lives in the guerilla war the human cost was less than what was paid in Vietnam and Indonesia. Conversely, in the three countries where the anti-colonial struggle was led by the native armed forces – Indonesia, Vietnam and Burma – the army then came to power and dabbled directly in politics for decades to come. Had a similar war been fought in Malaya, could there have been a situation where a nationalist army would then come to power too, with generals and colonels taking over government as they did in Vietnam, Indonesia and Burma?

Which then brings us to the debate over ‘negotiation vs struggle’. Just take a flight to Vietnam or Indonesia and everywhere you will see statues of freedom-fighters, generals, colonels, guerilla leaders etc. Malaya’s first generation of leaders, on the other hand, had almost never fired a shot or stabbed anyone with a bayonet. But is that a bad thing? While I understand the value of patriotism and valour in the face of adversity; one also has to ask: if and when we are confronted by a departing adversary who wishes to negotiate the terms of withdrawal, should we negotiate or fight? I am personally bored by all this tostesterone-driven talk of macho deeds of heroism, and frankly hate any sort of violence. Looking to India, we ought to remember that while there were Indian nationalists who were prepared to fight the British militarily (like Subhas Chandra Bose), India’s independence was negotiated too – through passive civil disobedience and persistent resistance, rather than guns and grenades. The same could be said of South Africa, where Apartheid was brought to an end by claiming the moral high ground rather than to sink to the same level of guttaral violence like the regime’s.

SHOULD the Malayan nationalists have opted for negotiation or struggle then? Now quite honestly I do not see how this question can be answered objectively by anyone (even myself). What we can say, with some certainty, is that in the cases of the countries where local nationalist militias/armies did oppose the departing colonial powers the results have been military intervention, and subsequent military presence in politics. (The Indonesian armed forces during the time of Sukarno and Suharto claimed the right to be political, by virtue of its institutional history and its role in the anti-colonial war.) What then? Could Malaya/Malaysia have then become a militarised state? We simply do not know, and speculation beyond this is, simply, futile.

At the root of the present impasse in Malaysia seems to be the question of who writes our national history and who interprets/defines it. Perhaps one of the reasons why we keep returning to these debates time and again is the worry that our history has not been as inclusive as it ought to be. We cannot deny that in the end it was the UMNO/MCA alliance that won the terms of Malaya’s first independence in 1957. But we also cannot, and should not, deny the historical role played by other groups including the trade unions movements, the workers movements, the nascent vernacular press, the native intelligentsia, the cultural groups, the Islamists and the Leftists as well. ALL of them were part of this collective drama that we call our national history. And our national history has to be precisely that: a National History that mirrors the complexity and diversity of this complex thing called ‘Malaysia’.   My lament, as an academic by default, is that objectivity and balance have long since left the stage and gone flying through the window. Yet we should not forget that a lopsided, skewered and biased history is not simply an incorrect or incomplete record of our past; it would also be a broken legacy that sadly will be passed on to the generations to come. And that is not a singular loss to any one of us, but to all.