SOMEONE rightly opined the late Tan Sri Emeritus Professor Dr Khoo Kay Kim was a man without race.
He was, in fact, the embodiment of what a Malaysian should be, a man beyond any definition of ethnicity in his thinking, values and deeds.
He famously said that “when you are a true Malaysian, you are a very lonely person.”
It was hard for many people to comprehend what he meant at first.
He took the risk of trying to demolish the notion of identity contestation among the races his entire life.
He was shunned by some segments of his own kind for his position on certain issues.
He wasn’t Chinese enough for them. Or worst, he betrayed them. Among the Malay scholars, there are those who believed Prof Khoo could have done more.
Prof Khoo cared little about what others thought of him.
He wasn’t vying to be popular, he was a scholar first and foremost.
He was a contrarian in more ways than one. And he put his nation first.
The fact remains, he was one of the most respectable scholars the country has ever produced.
He wrote some of the best books on Malay society, in fact, many are seminal works.
Three of his best books, The Western Malay States (1850-1873), Malay Society: Transformation and Democratisation – A Stimulating And Discerning Study on the Evolution of Malay Society Through the Passage of Time and Majalah dan Akhbar Melayu were unparallel in its scope and insight.
He understood the Malay society better than most Malay scholars.
As a lecturer, he had thousand of students. Many became scholars in their own right.
For many of them, he was their guru, he had differences in opinion with some of them – even openly – but he was still the teacher they respected.
Prof Khoo was in a class of his own. He redefined the teaching of history and the subject itself.
History was never a boring discipline for him and his students.
For many decades, history and Prof Khoo were almost synonymous.
Universiti Malaya was alive with scholarly endeavours and student activism for the many years he was there.
As a premier university, it attracted the best minds.
Prof Khoo was one of them, at the History Department.
It is interesting how Prof Khoo found newspapers and magazines as an important source of history.
He believed there is no easy way to understand the past without understanding the narratives in newspapers and magazines.
He believed journalists too are part of the meta-narrative of the nation, as much as historians are more than mere chroniclers of events.
He had seen the birth of the nation, the making of the nation’s identity and the trials and tribulations it went through.
I was drawn to him first as a student but later as a friend.
We seldom met but the few instances we met, we spoke about the world of journalism that he was always curious and history, a discipline I found intriguing.
But he was always someone I respect highly for his scholarship and intelligence. And I am a huge fan of his books, including his autobiography which carries the provocative title, KKK.
He saw the transformation of the Malays from more than a historical point of view.
Religion and politics have changed them drastically and dramatically. But more importantly their value systems and orientation towards life.
He was perhaps even bewildered by the changes, some of which were beyond recognition.
Prof Khoo wrote less about the Malays as he became very much older. He knew, as the whole, the Malays are less tolerant now than ever before.
He had seen how some segments of the Malay society reacted to his views about Hang Tuah, long believed to be a legendary figure.
To be fair, in Sejarah Melayu (the Malay Annals), supposedly the authentic kitab (old book) on the history of the Malays, very little was mentioned about Hang Tuah.
In fact, the historic duel between the “brothers” did not involve Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat.
The recalcitrant in Sejarah Melayu was Hang Kasturi.
It was in Hikayat Hang Tuah that the warrior was celebrated to mythic proportions. Hang Tuah was given the task to kill the penderhaka (traitor) Hang Jebat.
In 2012, Prof Khoo was lambasted for questioning if Hang Tuah and his four other friends ever existed.
Challenging the existence of a Malay hero certainly caused an uproar.
He almost didn’t win the coveted Tokoh Akademik Negara in 2017!
Prof Khoo’s demise created a void in the academia.
He was a man of principle.
He spoke his mind.
He upset people at times, even his admirers, but cornered his detractors with arguments they can’t win.
Prof Khoo was all that and more.
He was a giant among men, a legend in his own right.
Naming a road after him is the least we could do to remind us of his contributions to the nation.
Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
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