One man’s history is another man’s propaganda


  • Living
  • Sunday, 17 Sep 2017

The declaration on the formation of Malaysia being read by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong at the time, in September 1963. Photo: Information Department Malaysia

AS I was doing research for this article, I discovered something surprising. I think students in Malaysia have been learning something incorrect in history.

The following is a multiple-choice question in the Pahang SPM trial paper for history in 2014 (translated from Bahasa Malaysia):

“Barisan Sosialis win in the Hong Lim election in April 1961 worried the Singaporean Government led by Lee Kuan Yew. Why was the Singaporean Government worried by this win?”

“A. It delayed the formation of Malaysia.

“B. It threatened national unity.

“C. It interfered with the plans for independence.

“D. It strengthened the position of the British.”

The mistake is that Barisan Sosialis did not contest in the Hong Lim by-election. It’s not just a mistake that appeared in that trial paper but also on various websites and in books I found online.

The thing is, I’ve spent part of the last three years researching the history of Malaya’s independence in 1957 and the formation of Malaysia in 1963. This was work done for a pair of documentaries titled Road To Nationhood: Journey To Independence, and Road To Nationhood: Formation Of Malaysia, the latter to be aired on Astro this weekend.

A little bit of background first on the Hong Lim by-election. It was held in April 1961 when Ong Eng Guan, the former PAP (People’s Action Party) assemblyman and Minister for Foreign Development, resigned from the Legislative Assembly in December 1960 because he was expelled from PAP after criticising the party’s policies.

He then tried to reclaim his seat by contesting in April 1961 against a candidate from PAP, his former party. So this election was more like a referendum on whether Ong’s expulsion was accepted by the voters or not.

What did this have to do with the independence of Singapore and the formation of Malaysia?

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew was pressing for independence from the British to happen through a merger with Malaya, partly because the British were not confident that Lee could contain the Communist threat in Singapore by himself. So defeat in the various by-elections (there was another in Anson soon after the Hong Lim one) would make Lee look weak politically, and he would risk falling out of favour with the British.

Coming back to the exam question, which of the four answers is correct? I can actually make a case for any of them.

Lee might be worried that the British had lost confidence in him, and this would have both delayed the formation of Malaysia and interfered with plans for independence (answers A and C).

But perhaps Lee would have been worried that the country was not rallying behind his leadership (answer B).

And, if Lee looked weak, then perhaps the British would have more leverage against him in any negotiation (answer D).

Incidentally, the “correct” answer is C. I know this because this was what was given in the answer key.

It’s also repeated in one revision text book that said that the Hong Lim by-election results would “disturb British plans to give Singapore independence”, and also that Barisan Sosialis contested in Hong Lim in 1961. This fact is repeated over and over again on various websites you find when you search for “SPM sejarah Hong Lim”.

There’s no way of saying this nicely – the books and websites are wrong. How do I know? Because I know how to use the Internet.

Specifically, if you search for the front page of The Straits Times on April 30, 1961, it specifically says “Mr Ong Eng Guan, the Independent candidate in the Hong Lim by-election”. So he was not a Barisan Sosialis candidate.

Why shouldn’t this be surprising? Because Barisan Sosialis did not exist in April 1961. The first mention in The Straits Times of the name “Barisan Sosialis” wasn’t until Sept 11, 1961.

The group that went on to form Barisan Sosialis was referred to as “PAP rebels” in the July 27, 1961, issue of the paper and, at that point, were only going to form an “opposition party”. So it was impossible for Barisan Sosialis to have even contested the Hong Lim by-election in April 1961.

Ong Eng Guan himself was never a member of Barisan Sosialis, and he founded the United People’s Party which was quite distinct from the left-wing Barisan Sosialis.

How on Earth could the SPM history text books get it so wrong?

I believe it’s because no student has ever had to check it. No student has been encouraged to read the newspapers of the time and compare them with what the books say. No student has been told that the real value in history comes from examining facts from a variety of sources.

As a result, no student has come across that perplexing situation when two sources referencing the same event say completely different things. And this is when history gets interesting.

The merger of 1963 that resulted in a country called Malaysia is an extremely complicated thing. Explaining why people wanted it to happen was probably one of the harder things to deal with in the documentary.

We didn’t even explicitly mention the Hong Lim by-election, except to say that Lee was under immense political pressure, and, ironically, Malaya’s Tunku Abdul Rahman’s fear that the communists would gain a foothold would have given him reason to support a merger with Singapore.

In the end, history is a story with many truths. And in a sense, the factual mistakes made in the exam question and the text books aren’t really that important. We are always discovering new facts about our past, after all.

What’s more important is whether we understand how to source the truth from legitimate sources; doing so while being aware of the traps we could get caught in because of our own bias; and not accepting at face value the things we are told – if we can teach our kids all this, they’ll find the truth on their own.


 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. Share your thoughts about this instalment of his fortnightly Sunday column, Contradictheory, at star2@thestar.com.my.


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