Mourning our finest historian

  • Nation
  • Wednesday, 29 May 2019

PETALING JAYA: Tributes have been pouring in for Emeritus Prof Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim, widely regarded as Malaysia’s national historian, who died of lung failure at the Universiti Malaya Medical Centre. He was 82.

Writing on the Selangor Royal Office Facebook page, Selangor Ruler Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah said Prof Khoo’s passing was a big loss for the country.

“I have known Prof Khoo for a long time through our activities in the Royal Asiatic Society. Through the years, he has given me insightful views and advice on issues regarding history and sport.

“Recently, he helped me with the publication of a book documenting the history of the Selangor football team. The book will be published at the end of the year,” he wrote.

In modern Malaysia, Prof Khoo will be remembered as one of the instrumental figures in the drafting of the Rukun Negara (National Principles) to foster national cohesion in the aftermath of the 1969 race riots.

Born in 1937 to Peranakan Chinese parents in Kampar, Perak, Prof Khoo started out wanting to be a football player.

In his younger days, he was an accomplished forward who supported the great 1950s English football team Blackpool FC and admired its legendary striker Sir Stanley Matthews.

Prof Khoo was also an avid sportsman.

“I have lost a good friend, who would sit down with me on the terraces of a stadium after sports meets and have a chit chat about athletics.

“He was recognised as an athletics coach, especially as a sprints coach in Teluk Intan in Perak in the 1950s. Later, he became one of the first qualified track and field officials in the nation.

“He officiated in many district, state and national athletic meets. His last big meet was the 1965 SEAP Games in KL. He then left to join Universiti Malaya and became a well acclaimed history professor. He did write occasionally on sports, especially on athletics,” said Datuk A. Vaithilingam, a longstanding sports official.

Prof Khoo’s decision to eventually choose to go to university led him to a scholarly life, dedicated to history and nation-building.

“He was able to provide explanations for the tapestry that makes up Malaysian history. In many ways, he was not merely a historian but also a ‘maker’ of history in the positive sense – giving voice to the stories of nation-building,” says Neil Khor, Special Adviser to the Executive Director, United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).

Prof Khoo, who graduated from UM, never slowed down in the academic field, spending decades shaping the course of education history in the country.

“The country has lost its finest historian. One of the happiest moments in my academic life was to see Kay Kim’s completed Master’s thesis for Universiti Malaya.

“It was work of great quality and I was delighted to see it published in Oxford University Press’ Historical Monographs Series (1967).

Unsurprisingly, it was immediately recognised as a major contribution to the country’s history and often mistaken for his doctoral degree,” says Wang Gungwu, one of Asia’s most prominent public intellectuals.

Wang, who is a professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the former chairman of the NUS East Asian Institute, said the book set a standard of history-writing that gave the history department a very fine reputation as a research centre.

“As expected, that was only a beginning and, for the next 50 years, Kay Kim went on to produce a body of work that put Malaysia high on the scholarly map,” he added.

Prof Khoo had mentioned Wang as one of the lecturers who inspired him during his student days in UM.

He served for over 50 years in UM’s History Department, becoming a lecturer first in 1967 and, subsequently, gaining his professorship and appointment as the chair of Malaysian History from 1974 up to his retirement in 1992. He maintained an office there, post-retirement.

As the author of countless works in English and Malay, his essays and writings have been a primary source of reference for the history curriculum in Malaysia. He was most noted for his work The Western Malay States 1850–1873, which was published in 1972.

“Prof Khoo was undoubtedly a walking encyclopaedia of Malaysian history. He might not have all the answers to one’s historical questions but he could recommend authoritative sources which could possibly provide the answers.

“I have great admiration for him as a historian despite having crossed swords occasionally on certain Malaysian historical facts,” said historian and author Dr Ranjit Singh Malhi, who did research under Prof Khoo in UM in the mid-1970s.

“As an academician, Prof Khoo was highly approachable. His door was always open to researchers and he often went out of his way to assist others in their academic research. As a person, he was kind, polite and always cheerful.

“Above all, he was open-minded; willing to listen and accept differing viewpoints.”

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