Recently, a veteran politician made a controversial statement about history, saying one group of people is justified in killing another group of people because in the past that group had killed many of the other. This kind of “tit-for-tat” response uses history as a justification for any action. In this week's column, I wish to illuminate my idea of how history can be baggage that affects us in moving forward in the present.
History, to me, can be a good foundation or baggage that weighs us down so much we can hardly move at all. To get my point across, I need you to think about what constitutes “baggage” and what “history” actually is.
What is baggage? In the non-metaphorical sense, it is literally what we carry with us when we travel long distances, our luggage. We need a change of clothes, toiletries and those all-important chargers for all our electronic devices. What would you pack if you were embarking on a 20-mile hike? Weight becomes important to ensure we can walk at a decent pace.
Baggage, or luggage, is useful and lets us travel anywhere with our creature comforts. But if we do not think carefully about what we need to take with us, then our baggage could restrict our movements and make travelling a painful experience.
Our luggage, or baggage, does two important things for us: It provides us with a necessary set of things to survive our journey, and it defines us as a person in terms of our clothing, what we use daily – in other words, our identity. Someone else might not pack what we do, and thus our baggage becomes a kind of identity.
So baggage can help us and can give us an identity or it can bog us down, depending on what we pack and how much.
What then is “history”? Now, many people think history comprises facts about the past. They cannot be more wrong! History is not facts set in stone. No way. History contains some information that tells of this or that event or this or that happening or this or that statement that was made. These are “things” that happened in the past. Were there many people killed? Well, yes, if the evidence is good. Pictures, first person eyewitness accounts, videos, certificates of deaths, etc, are all evidence that something happened.
The second ingredient of history is the “narrative” or “story” of why these events happened. Now here is why history is usually just “stories” because there is no one alive to verify the “why” question, and if there is, there would be so many personalities involved that all accounts would be impossible to collect.
So the question of why one group of people was massacred in the past remains the conjecture of historians, politicians, parties with vested interest, and so forth and so on. There are therefore many, many versions of one particular “story”. History is tainted by personal perspectives, private agendas and the opinions of know-alls who hardly know anything at all.
Coming back to my baggage metaphor, any person, to be able to function in his or her society, will have to carry some baggage from the past. Our value systems, our cultural rituals and our perspectives have been packaged conveniently by our education system, our religious officials within our religious institutions, our cultural storytellers, our leaders and those we consider elders. And therein lies the problem. All of what they offer are just “stories” or “narratives”.
Like our baggage, if we do not scrutinise what parts of history we take with us on our journey, we could have a difficult time moving in any direction – we may not even move at all due to overloading ourselves. Thus, as a nation, we all must scrutinise our “baggage of history” and decide whether what we have been taught is relevant to our journey.
Once upon a time our journey was to become rich Malays or rich Indians or a rich Bajau or a rich Chinese. Those were journeys with the baggage predetermined for us. But if we were to make the journey about becoming a rich Malaysian that requires harmonious relationships with all ethnic groups, then we need to unpack the old baggage and make a new list of what would help us get to our destination with ease and comfort.
This means we have to scrutinise and question our “packaged history” to get a better perspective on living together with the world and not against all the world with its various ethnic and religious groups. In Malaysia right now, all of our inherited cultural, political and religious history is meant specifically for the sole survival of one particular group, even at the expense of other groups.
Thus a reading of history that makes us enemies of everyone living presently because of what some people did 1,000 years ago does not seem like useful baggage for our current journey in the world.
We need historians who can present a more meaningful narrative that unites us all as a family of humans needing one another for our very survival and happiness. Or else we should just not remember history and live day to day by forgetting yesterday. I don’t think that is possible, though, because to be human is to be a walking archive of history comprising different narratives and perspectives, and we need that to position ourselves in society.
Our religious, cultural and political histories must offer better narratives that will help us forge relationships and not seek vengeance or sow hatred for people that we don’t have any quarrel with in the present.
History should not dictate who we are now, but we must make sense of who we were then so we can recondition and reposition ourselves in the present with the future as our goal. What baggage of history shall we take with us to redefine our destination as a mature society in Malaysia?
Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at UCSI University. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.