I WAS shocked and saddened by the passing of Emeritus Professor Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim on Tuesday morning.
As soon as I got the news, I called and spoke to his wife and son Eddin to relay my condolences and apologise for not being able to visit them that day as I had to leave for Jeddah to attend the OIC Summit.
But I had managed to visit Dr Khoo and family at their home earlier, in March. The family prepared a delicous dinner for my family and I, but Dr Khoo had no appetite. He could only take a few bites of his mee goreng. He was thin and gaunt as he had to go back and forth to the University of Malaya Medical Centre for treatment.
But his eyes remained bright. His speech was erudite and full of wisdom as usual. Although his body was weak and lacked energy, his mind was still active and sharp.
“Are you happy?”
He immediately asked me as I sat down in front of him as soon as I arrived at his house.
I understood what he was talking about, so I answered, “Yes, Prof.”
He threw a big smile at me and muttered, “What matters most is that you are happy with what you do. Do the best you can.”
It is a statement he always reiterated when advising his students.
And he repeated something he has always said to me, and a few others: “If you had followed my advice and continued studying, you would have become a good professor.”
I could only smile.
At UM’s History Department
Prof Khoo was my master teacher. I had specialised in history at Universiti Malaya for a Bachelor of Arts degree in the early 1980s. He was the head of the History Department.
I still remember my first Malaysian History lecture in my first year. Prof Khoo started his lecture by saying: “History is facts, not what you think about the past.”
He added, “History is also an interpretation of the facts. You’ve come to university to learn to interpret historical facts. If you only want to memorise facts, you don’t need to go to university.”
He reminded us that interpretations must be accurate. In one of the exams, we were asked to answer each question with no more than 40 words. His rationale, “If you give a long answer, you’re just ‘goreng’ it (embellishing the facts)!”
Prof Khoo also always reminded his students that the core of history is the “primary sources”. We were taught about it by writing about local history: our village, school or district, using original documents or interviews – primary sources.
Prof Khoo was my favourite lecturer. He was passionate about teaching and did it in an interesting way. Attending his classes was like following the story of the country’s journey.
In addition to his classes and books, I learned a lot from Prof Khoo through casual discussions in his room on the top floor of the UM History Department, the room he used until his last breath.
Prof Khoo produced many seminal reference books on Malaysia’s history. He was among the pioneers who wrote Malaysia’s history from our perspective – ‘Malaysia-centric’ historiography, which was a paradigm shift from the earlier “Eurocentric” writings.
He was the pioneer of Malaysia’s “social history” writing. For him, to talk about Malaysia meaningfully, it is important to understand its people in depth. Without a clear understanding, it is almost impossible to make the right analysis of the country’s social process, politics or economic development.
His final lecture that I attended was the launch of his book, I, KKK: The Autobiography of a Historian, on April 12, 2017, which was officiated by the Sultan of Perak, Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah.
The book ends with this post-script: “I always feel that my achievement is very small. I conclude that if you are a pure Malaysian, you are lonely.”
I can only guess why he said so.
As a Peranakan Chinese who mastered the Malay language and culture better than most Malays; who knew that May 13, 1969 was not the only racial riot that ever happened; who played an important role in the formulation of the Rukunegara; and who revived an authentic Malaysian narrative – multi-racial and moderate – in his family, I can feel that all of his earnest efforts all this time to become a pure Malaysian has been a lonely struggle.
Sultan Nazrin called Prof Khoo the “walking encyclopedia of Malaysian history.” To me, he is an eminent intellectual-historian – unparalleled and irreplaceable.
I did not follow Prof Khoo’s advice to become a lecturer. But while talking to him on that one night in March, I promised him that I would help Eddin compile, translate and publish all his unpublished writings, so that they can become the most comprehensive collection of Malaysian historical thoughts.
Who would have thought that it would be my last conversation with him. Now I have the responsibility to fulfil that promise.
Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah is the Foreign Affairs Minister of Malaysia.