Banning History: When Will Malaysia Learn To Live With Her Past?
By Farish A. Noor
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
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.
Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political historian and one of the
founders of the http://www.othermalaysia.org website.