Telling a story of our nation

TODAY, I would like to propose four sets of historical narratives that would bind us all together as a nation. I believe that the current formally accepted history that is drilled into us in schools and universities is dividing us – and it is something politicians tend to use to keep us divided.

Before I begin, however, let me explain what I understand of what “history” really is and what it is not.

As humans, we cannot live without our history. Whether it is a personal history, a family history, a religious history, a professional history or a communal history, history affects each and everyone of us whether we want it to or not.

Most of the time, we don’t question the history that is “enforced” upon us by our parents, friends, communities, formal education and politicians. And our education certainly doesn’t lead us to question anything, as it doesn’t address how history can either be a devastatingly destructive force in nation-building or a strong binding force of nationhood.

Of course, one major problem is people do not know what “history” really is. I, too, never really understood what it was until I was researching my PhD subject and, through my own readings, finally came to understand the issues and ideas about history.

Many understand history as a collection of facts that tell one true story that is etched in stone, meaning that it is unchangeable and non-arguable. History is history. Nothing can change it and what it means is eternally set. Done. Well, this is complete hogwash and nonsense. Nothing can be further than the truth.

As its name implies, history is simply just that, a story. Just look at the word: “his-story” – some guy telling his story. Now, we all know what a story is, and a story can be true or a total construct. Most of the time a story contains some truth in the details and many fabricated or embroidered details to fill in gaps and make the narrative flow smoothly.

The story of the past contains three main ingredients: firstly, events that occurred; secondly, the ties between events that occurred; and thirdly, the narrative to bind the events into a single linear “story” that has some kind of meaning or importance.

Let us face several facts that are completely undeniable about the human experience. First, despite science fiction and with due respect to Albert Einstein, we can never travel back to the past. Second, even if we were able to travel back to the past and saw the events ourselves – say the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – would we be able to fully understand why this event occurred? We certainly can’t read the mind of the assassin and we do not know what variables led him to do the terrible deed.

However, history presents the assassination in a movie-like narrative – because our human minds that love order always prefer clearly told stories – even though we can never really know what exactly happened and why. The best history, therefore, offers multiple interpretations and multiple narrative constructions. In a way, history tells many stories, not just the one.

Then there is also one other important point that many do not know about history: It is the product of a historian’s concerns for the future within present happenings. The historian goes into the past to construct a story that would help him in the present and give some kind of direction to the future. In a way, he is “philosophising” the future, the present and the past in a single narrative. Thus, as I always say, we can also do that for the good of our nation. We can “philosophise” the past with the issues of the present and paint a better future for all of us.

The first thing about creating a nation’s history is to avoid the exclusivity of one race over others. We must construct a history of many races and many faiths to create the idea of richness and variety that is a strength in all of us.

The second thing is to specifically mention the contributions of each race, each community and each faith towards the creation and development of Malaysia as a new nation. It is for this reason that I advocate the celebration of Sept 16 only as a proper Malaysia Day and that Aug 31 remains a memorial day for Tanah Melayu. Sarawak and Sabah should also have their own memorial days separately. No holiday should be declared except for Sept 16, or a holiday can be declared in each of the separate three entities that came together to form Malaysia (the fourth was Singapore, of course).

The third thing is to not set a blame narrative for the terrible racial riots that occurred in the country’s history. The blame should be narrated as belonging to all – political parties and government servants as well as some individuals. The blame should be shared by all.

The fourth thing about our history is to allow free discussion and discourse about our past in presenting better perspectives, points of view and narrations that are argued on undisputed facts. If ever the “real” reasons for an event were established or unearthed, it should be reconstructed into a positive narrative of our “future history”.

Now, some people might accuse me of “playing with history” or “bastardising” history for my own specific needs. Well, I have news for these critics: all the histories that you know of your race, your faith and your career frameworks have been “bastardised” in 101 different ways.

History is for us to create a story for ourselves. That, to me is the single point about the nature of human history.

Open the Bible, the Quran, the Torah and other holy books, they are filled with moral narratives of human goodness and badness entwined by stories and events we know we will never be able to prove happened. There is a fine line between religion, myth, legends, stories and “educated history” and that line is simply what we want to tell ourselves. Well, then, let us tell a story of our nation that will fill everyone with pride and hope for the future. Now that is a Never Ending Story worth telling.

Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at the Tan Sri Omar Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Studies at UCSI University. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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