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History – why bother?

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We should not view history as just another subject for a student to score another ‘A’ but rather as one that forms the soul of the nation, says Christopher Chong.

Most of us would probably cringe at the mere mention of the word history. For it conjures up memories of those dull and dreary days of learning history at school. Given the nature of the subject, i.e. names, dates and events that took place in the past, many probably wondered why this subject was part of the school curriculum. I suspect given a chance, many of us probably would support this subject being dropped from the school curriculum.

Yet, history is considered so vital a subject that governments around the world ensure that this subject is taught in their schools. So, why is history important? Because it provides a narrative to frame the collective consciousness of the nation in terms of who we are. A nation does not just suddenly emerge without past events and individuals that gave birth to it. Through history lessons, we absorb (even if we are unaware of it) not just names, dates and events of the past but a certain narrative that brings out a sense of belonging and pride in the nation.

As with many post-colonial societies, Malaysia is characterised by a multi-ethnic society which faces the problem of national integration and unity. The government, recognising this problem, has stated that one of its major goals in its education policy is to “to inculcate and nurture national consciousness through fostering common ideals, values, aspirations and loyalties in order to mould national unity and national identity in a multi-ethnic society” (Ministry of Education, Malaysia (1990), Education in Malaysia, 1989. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka). What better way to do this if not through the teaching of history in the classroom.

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Ideally, students should be exposed to the factors that led to the formation of multi-ethnic Malaysia and the contributions of various communities to the nation that we have today. But the problem with the Malaysian history curriculum, as pointed out by scholars and writers of history textbooks, is it does not give sufficient coverage to the non-indigenous communities as well as the Bumiputera communities from Sabah and Sarawak. As a result, the narrative that comes out gives a sense of exclusion to our students which does not augur well for the cherished ideal of forming a bangsa Malaysia.

If we do not want to see a whole generation that feels alienated from the nation then we must act now to redress what is being taught as history to our students at school. The problem is too important to be left to the government alone. We, as Malaysians, must take ownership of the problem by urging the Ministry of Education to correct the problem in the history curriculum and by providing input as to the content of a revised curriculum.

It is heartening to note that Kempen Sejarah Malaysia Sebenar (KemSMS), a coalition of non-government organisations and individuals, has been formed to this end. I urge my fellow Malaysians not to be apathetic to KemSMS’ campaign to bring about a more inclusive narrative of Malaysian history. So, why bother with history? We should not view history as just another subject for a student to score another ‘A’ but rather as one that forms the soul of the nation.

Dr. Christopher Chong is a member of Aliran.

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