‘Where Monsoons meet: A people’s history of Malaya’ provides a different perspective because it foregrounds the role of economic exploitation in the shaping of our society, say Aliran member Amir Muhammad.
A few weeks ago, I received in the post a photocopy of a Malaysian book. Yes, yes, I know photocopies breach copyright and all that, but this book has been out of print for years, so do forgive the sender and myself.
Titled ‘Where Monsoons Meet: A People’s History of Malaya’, it was written in 1979 by a group of people who chose to be known only as Grassroots. (Who were they and where are they now?) It is a comic history of the country; not comic as in rib-tickling but because it is told through lots of drawings and speech bubbles. Yes, a “graphic non-fiction novel” of sorts. True, it’s not as sleek as something by Neil Gaiman or Frank Miller, but it’s about us, damnit!
The version I have was published in 1987 by Insan. (What complicates matters is that there exists another, different book with the same title published in 1956, but with the subtitle The Story of Malaya in the Form of an Anthology.)
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I think that Where Monsoons Meet (the comic, that is) should be required reading in all National Service programmes. In fact, even the kids’ parents should read it, instead of whining all the time about safety standards and what-not.
Our nation’s history is told through a somewhat different perspective because it foregrounds the role of economic exploitation in the shaping of our society. There are lots of interesting nuggets that may not make it into standard history texts. For example, did you know that 59 per cent of the revenue of the Straits Settlements a century ago was derived from selling opium to immigrant Chinese labourers? And did you know that in 1947, well-organised workers’ movements managed 291 major strikes, resulting in the loss of 696,036 man-days to management? (If you don’t know what a strike is, perhaps this book can serve as a start).
Yes, it is didactic, but the facts and figures are often leavened by wit and sarcasm, courtesy of the drawings, and also a propulsion in the chronological structutre.
The book also makes you consider parallel scenarios; for example what would have happened if the British had not stopped immigrant Chinese and Indian workers from planting rice? We would now have a multi-racial peasantry, with arguably different repercussions for how we view ourselves now.
Although it ends in 1957, this is not a story marked by mothballs and cobwebs. A progressive history of this country is well worth telling. Although it has it blind spots, these can be better appreciated after reading the whole thing and contrasting it against the standard ethno-nationalist narratives with its ruling-class heroes, which you are presumed to already know about.
It would be great if an intrepid publisher can bring it back into print, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the lowering of the Union Jack on these shores.
The above is extracted from the preface to the book Where Monsoons Meet.
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