The truth is a funny thing. It stretches, it can come in halves, it even has its moments. And it matters – really.
Take the debate last fortnight in Parliament.
Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik was asked about the curriculum of the History subject, specifically whether there was anything controversial and how much time had to pass before events could become part of the subject’s curriculum.
In reply, the minister said that the 1MDB issue will be included in the history of Malaysia before going on to attribute a quote to Winston Churchill about the victors being the ones who write history.
Dr Maszlee continued, “In this era of the New Malaysia, we must be concerned with the opinions of those who won to form a fresher narrative and a newer narrative, that is more critical, more fair and more objective in assessing history”. (My translation of Dr Maszlee’s statement from the Dec 3 Hansard; online at tinyurl.com/star2-parliament.)
The thing is, the objective truth is important, if not only for the fact that Churchill never actually said, “history is written by the victors”. He alluded to it, usually as a witticism that he himself would be the writer.
But usually when people say the victors will write history, they mean it in a bad way – that there is bias in history and the losers don’t get their view across. There wasn’t a sense of irony when the minister acknowledged that the victor now would write a “fresher narrative”, a “newer narrative”, which is “more fair”.
On top of that, the question asked was not even answered: How long does it take before things get into the history books?
There is a reason why it takes time for current events to be recognised as historical fact. I think the most recent event as prescribed by the current history curriculum is Wawasan 2020 (Vision 2020), which was announced in 1991.
As a comparison, the British GCSE History curriculum’s most recent event is the United Nation’s involvement in the war in Kosovo (1998).
Both these events can be described as being a generation back, if not from the time of our forefathers, then at least of our fathers.
Part of the reason why we wait so long is because we want to be sure of the facts. It takes time to understand what exactly happened, and for things to be recorded. History is a lot about going through documents, or documenting what hasn’t been documented.
That documentation itself, even when presented as facts, is prone to bias. One important job of a historian is to sift through the information presented and have the skill and ability to recognise bias and put facts in their correct context.
It must be noted that in Dr Maszlee’s address to Parliament that day, the minister said that Malaysian students should acquire “analytical, creative and reflective” skills. He never said anything about searching for the truth, or sorting through the facts.
In fact, it was technically the minister who introduced unproven facts in Parliament. He said, in connection with the 1MDB issue, that some leaders had “robbed” the country even though the court case to try this has not yet commenced.
Is this what history should be? Presumptions taught to Malaysian students as conclusions in anticipation of proofs yet to come?
Or should we be focusing on inculcating the skills to sift through the detritus to find data and facts that hopefully point us to something closely approximating the truth?
And then there’s the broader issue of context. The minister himself acknowledged that history isn’t just about individual events and dates. They are about how these events resulted from and proceeded to influence other events.
There’s another famous quote about history: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
It’s generally given as a warning to say people who don’t learn from their mistakes will continue to make them.
But George Santayana, the philosopher who originally wrote the quote, places it in a different context.
It’s more about not being able to improve yourself if you don’t remember what you were before: “When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.”
This is the true value of history. The arguments we have now between races about the social contract – we should better understand where the contract came from in the first place (“Turning point that shaped Malaysia’s race-based politics”, Contradictheory, Star2, May 1, 2016: online at tinyurl.com/star2-context.) The debate about Islam being the official religion of the country – do you know how it got into the Constitution? (“Malaysia: An Islamic, secular country”, Contradictheory, Star2, April 2, 2017; online at tinyurl.com/star2-religion.)
And thus, ensuring context is not forgotten is how we should look at 1MDB.
Like “social contract”, it’s possible the word “1MDB” will become a mantra of why we have or don’t have certain policies in the future. It’s important that we make clear the circumstances and the facts, and document them clearly for the coming generations.
And be aware of the bias we bring to the table when we do so.
Yes, there are many things you can do with the truth.
But you should always give it due respect and never forget that it matters.