So I’ve been working on a documentary about Merdeka over the last two years, and today it finally goes on air at 10pm: Road To Nationhood, airing over History, Astro channel 575.
It tells the story of Malaysia’s Independence that is, as our producer puts it, a little more interesting than what we find in school textbooks.
Perhaps that is being a little unfair on our textbooks. Chapters 1 to 5 of the Form Three syllabus pretty much cover the period and subject of our documentary. So why sit in front of the TV tonight instead of browsing your child’s textbook at your leisure?
Because – I hope – the documentary is, at the very least, entertaining (obviously in a different way our textbooks are). And because it has something important to say about our history.
Finding the exact story we wanted to tell was the hardest part of the process. I was part of a group of researchers who were encouraged to not constrain ourselves to a preconceived idea of the story until we had learned as much as possible.
We started by reading books. Lots of books. We began with Road To Nationhood: Malaysia 1941-1966 (2007), the book that inspired the series in the first place. We then read a large chunk of general history by local historians like Dr Ooi Kee Beng, Dr Khong Kim Hoong and Dr Kumar Ramakrishna.
Once the prominent characters were identified, we then read biographies. This included people like Tunku Abdul Rahman, Datuk Onn Jaafar and Tun Tan Cheng Lock.
We also perused source documents, including visiting the Umno library, as well as reading papers from the British Archives. The latter were exceptionally useful, being a collection of official British government documents, many of them now declassified for public consumption and helpfully curated by historians like Prof A.J. Stock-well.
Then came the weeks of piecing the story together. We argued among ourselves what the key points were and made a list of individuals to interview (mainly the authors and historians whose work we found intriguing).
We also interviewed people who were close to many of the personalities involved, including relatives of Tunku, Tan, Tun H.S. Lee and Datuk Mohd Seth Mohd Said. These people gave us the untold stories not readily available in the history books. We also interviewed politicians such as Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Tengku Tan Sri Razaleigh Hamzah and Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad.
All the while, we refined the story we wanted to tell. One key point we realised was that many groups fought for independence, each in its own way. However, only one succeeded.
The main thrust remains the conventional history of Umno’s presidents leading the charge while collaborating with other parties. But we contrast it with the efforts of other groups, such as the communists and the multiracial Independence of Malaya Party, and try to identify reasons why this one attempt succeeded while others failed.
(Alternatively, you can just accept my producer’s take on it: Malay fights Chinese, Chinese fights Malay, both work together to get Merdeka.)
After all that, we finally turned on the video camera and recorded interviews. In all, I am told we have 100 hours of footage, of which only an hour eventually was used.
The other visuals come from film archives, and they were not easy to source. What was initially budgeted at tens of thousands of ringgit eventually rose to hundreds of thousands. However, I think that the combination of compelling interviews with authentic footage helps sell the story we are trying to tell.
And I say “story”, because even after years of research, we are aware that we have our own biases, and that a different group with the same facts might tell a different story.
For example, some say that the British gave us independence and nobody really had to fight for it. But I think Onn Jaafar’s efforts in 1946 for the Sultans to boycott the installation of the new British governor of the Malayan Union was unexpected and pushed the British to eventually negotiate for changes in the Constitution.
And in a parallel, British sources also show that they were surprised by Tunku’s call for the boycott of government positions in 1954, which then led to negotiations with the Alliance (forerunner of BN) of how seats were to be allocated in the 1955 elections.
So we give both events prominence over, say, British documentation during World War II admitting that Malaya eventually had to become independent. Or that the Constitution of the Federation of Malaya in 1948 had text which stated the eventual objective was for Malaya to be self-governing.
In fact, both those points can be found in earlier versions of the scripts, but they were trimmed away as the story evolved – demonstrating the complexity of trying to explain history.
Ultimately, I hope that people who watch this documentary will understand history is not pat and neat, and that there is a lot more out there to discover.
And in making an effort to discover more, we become better, because to understand history is to understand ourselves and what our future may be.
Or as Tunku once said: “Whatever its past may be, a nation can only be true to itself if it learns its history”.
Road To Nationhood airs at 10pm tonight on History (Astro channel 575) and at 10pm tomorrow night on both Astro Prima (channel 105) and Maya HD (channel 135).
Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned- scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.