That history is written by winners is an oft-repeated saying when studying political and historical writings. Another less addressed issue is that the history of the common man – of any given era – has not been captured anywhere near as much as that of royalty and political leaders.
In putting together A People’s History Of Malaysia, veteran politician/professor Dr Syed Husin Ali attempts to redress that imbalance. The history of Malaysia, he argues, has largely been shaped in the images of the upper classes of society; a traditional elite who made a smooth transition from the old royal systems to democratic leadership.
He claims, and there are indeed, many corroborating accounts, that the role of workers, women, students and indigenous activists in the formation and development of our nation has been downplayed and almost forgotten.
This is not to downplay the leadership of the likes of mainstream leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman, Datuk Onn Jaafar and Tun Abdul Razak but to acknowledge that there were so many other players who helped contribute to building our nation.
The truth is that modern Malaysia could have evolved in a dozen different ways. Singapore could still be a state, while Sabah and Sarawak could be on their own. The northern states have an affinity with Pattani Thailand, while there was a movement among the Malay left to tie up Malaysia’s destiny with that of President Sukarno’s Indonesia.
From early figures like Tok Janggut to radical unionist A. Ganapathy and the nationalists who assassinated Sarawak’s Governor Duncan Stewart in 1949 and, of course, the Communist Party of Malaya’s Chin Peng, there were many grassroots leaders and movements that were of their time.
Like any good historian, Dr Syed firmly believes that understanding our past is essential to preparing for our future. And he would be the first to tell us that we should not blindly trust alternative sources too, as it is likely that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Dr Syed has always leaned heavily towards emphasising the impact of the idealist leaders of the Malay left like Dr Burhanuddin Helmy, Ahmad Boestamam and Ishak Haji Muhammad (aka Pak Sako) as well as the Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya, which was founded before Umno. The strain of Malay nationalism they espoused was deeply intertwined with social justice, and these men influenced a whole generation of thinkers including Dr Syed himself.
As a disclaimer, I should say that Dr Syed was my former party president in Parti Rakyat Malaysia back in the mid 1990s and as party cadres, we would receive a condensed history lesson from him. This book reminds me very much of that time, and I feel it’s something that every Malaysian should be aware of.
Having said that, this is rather light reading and could easily have been more in-depth. In fact, the author states that it is a preliminary step towards writing a more complete work.
I would probably rate other Dr Syed books like Two Faces: Detention Without Trial (1996) and Memoirs Of A Political Struggle (2012) to be more gripping.
But then, so many of Malaysia’s intellectuals have fallen by the wayside and Dr Syed is one of the last survivors of a pioneer generation that lived through WWII, the Emergency, independence and the formation of Malaysia.
We should learn from his wisdom. This book is not a bad place at which to start.