Monuments of change

  • #Abidinideas
  • Friday, 26 Jun 2020

LAST week I argued that improving our institutions should be according to our historical circumstances, laws and the desires of Malaysians, even though lessons should be taken from international best practices.

I focused on the police, and was happy to read the assurance of the Inspector-General of Police that Bukit Aman has no intention of intimidating politicians.

One possible structural reform I did not mention is decentralisation, where police forces could be overseen by state or local governments made accountable with commensurate democratic legitimacy.

Our Federal Constitution did not envisage such a possibility (written as it was during the Malayan Emergency) but many federal countries split law enforcement roles between federal, state and local bodies.

This is the case in the United States, yet the calls for reform and “defunding” indicate a widespread perception of systemic racism and brutality.

Alongside evaluations of policies and procedures affecting the police and other institutions is a debate about removing statues and monuments, or renaming buildings and organisations that have links to slavery.

The premise is that who we commemorate in public can affect power dynamics and perpetuate discrimination today.

Already in the US, statues of generals of the Confederate States of America (the southern slave-holding states that seceded from the United States of America and ultimately lost the US Civil War in 1865) have been defaced, dismantled and even decapitated, and in the UK a statue of a slave trader was chucked into Bristol Harbour.

As protests have continued, statues of traditionally widely celebrated individuals have been targeted too: in the US, of George Washington and Christopher Columbus; in the UK, of Winston Churchill and Robert Baden-Powell (founder of the Scouts; today 50,000-strong in Malaysia) and philanthropists who endowed hospitals, schools and libraries, albeit through profits from the slave trade.

It is quite normal to encounter statues when walking in European and US cities: unless they are very famous, one normally assumes they were local benefactors. Now, biographies are being pored over to see if they withstand today’s moral compasses.

Those who demand removing these statues are uncompromising: slavery and racist policies were so bad that no good deeds can compensate.

Those who resist counter that history cannot be unwritten and we cannot simply remove things at the whim of an angry mob (and some people have been injured at these violent topplings).

I think most people are willing to accept a middle ground, in which individual legacies are contextualised according to the standards of their times, and in which their contributions to humanity can still be celebrated despite character flaws (if not, it’s not just political and military leaders whose legacies are at stake, but also those of countless scientists and artists).

This means that the reasons for erection are important. A statue of a Confederate general built decades after the end of the Civil War, during the height of Jim Crow laws (mandating racial segregation in southern states) is different to a statue of a slave-owning hospital benefactor built within his lifetime.

The case of the statue of Cecil Rhodes (whose legacy I remarked upon when writing about my trip to Zimbabwe and Zambia) highlights how mindsets have changed even recently: in 2003, Nelson Mandela spoke of healing the divisions of the past and paying tribute to the work done in the memory of Cecil Rhodes when establishing the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, but today the words of the foremost anti-apartheid leader mean little in the campaign to have the imperialist’s statue removed from an Oxford University college.

Thus, it must be accepted that public values do change, and that there should be mechanisms to satisfy the dual demands of removing things that people find offensive and paying homage to history.

Urban landscapes can and should change according to what inhabitants value, whether for reasons of aesthetics, the environment and evolving understandings of history: and accountable local government bodies are the best way to gauge this, while museums are a logical destination for controversial monuments of historical value.

Indeed, a once public statue of Frank Swettenham – sculpted short as a supposedly deliberate affront –now sits in Muzium Negara. Tunku Abdul Rahman’s statue in the grounds of Parliament is inaccessible to most, leaving Tan Sri Felix de Weldon’s other monument nearby, the Tugu Negara – as the most famous sculpture in Malaysia.

Repaired after communists tried to destroy it in 1975, the monument has slowly been relegated in official use, no longer appearing on our currency, nor being a scheduled stop for visiting dignitaries and most importantly, no longer being the site of Warriors Day commemorations.

We too have changed our attitude towards symbols, while demanding better substance within the institutions they represent.Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of Ideas. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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