The importance of history over his-story

I have always been a fan of history. So much so, that I actually wanted to be a historian after I finished my SPM in 2002. Life, however, had other plans for me and I opted to read law instead. My interest in history has never waned though.

There has been considerable chatter, especially on the Internet, about the recently released memoirs of "Sugar King" Robert Kuok.

Most Malaysians my age know of Kuok as a businessmen with a killer-instinct for deal-making and for being Malaysia's richest man. However, we have also known him from a distance because he has not resided in Malaysia for the past 40 years.

A lot of what we know about the man is due to news reports and anecdotes from friends and foes because he has always maintained a degree of anonymity and is known to be media shy.

Robert Kuok, A Memori has naturally ignited debate and intrigue because finally, the man himself is telling his story.

I must confess that I have not read Kuok's autobiography. However, many of my friends, especially on Facebook and Twitter, (whom I suspect have not read the book as well) have shared serialised sections from the South China Morning Post (SCMP) and some of these people have made harsh remarks based on those excerpts.

Comments like "how a nation destroyed itself" or "such an unfair system that drove him away" made me angry because many of these friends, smart as they may be, lack a thorough appreciation of our nation political, economic and social history.

One cannot draw conclusions based on serialised chapters or truncated versions of a book like this. Kuok has played a pivotal role in our young nation's journey and his words will contribute to the study of modern Malaysian history. However, I must caution that autobiographies are more of a "his-story" than history because the "facts" come from an individual perspective and are rarely unbiased.

George Santayana said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In short, a failure to study and appreciate history will result in the very same actions that created previously calamitous situations being repeated.

Most of us, especially those in my age group, do not remember nor relate to the hardships and polarisation of our nation's founding years.

Malaysia was an unequal society in 1957 and 1969. The gulf between the "haves" and the "have-nots" was wide and there was palpable anger over the way things were.

It was incumbent on the government of the day to devise policies to correct this imbalance, keeping in mind social and economic justice.

Bumiputras were the most disadvantaged group and so aided by Constitutional provisions to uplift the community, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was introduced.

Any economic scheme of redistribution results in established individuals having to part with some of their interests for the common good and in a way, this is the cost some have to bear for the sake of nation building, solidarity and stability.

I believe this is important because there is no use owning or controlling everything in a country that is broken and in tatters. It is wiser to have a stake in the nation's progress and development and grow in tandem with the country. In other words, as the country gets richer so do those who make the country rich.

Alas, this was not to be and some of those who felt aggrieved by these corrective policies and the break-up of their own monopolies and vested interests chose to leave the country, but not without attacking efforts to make society more equitable.

Allow me to share some statistics to clarify my point. According to the Economic Planning Unit's (EPU) Household Income and Poverty Survey, in 1970 the mean monthly household income stood at Malays — RM 172, Chinese — RM 394, Indians — RM 304 and others — RM 813. There was a clear and identifiable gap between the incomes of bumiputras and non-bumiputras.

Racial extremists at the time used the numbers to fan ethnocentric fervour. However, the Government embarked on a series of reforms to engender a balanced and inclusive society.

If efforts were not taken to restructure the economy and ensure a fairer economic system we would not have come so far as a nation. A failure to address historical injustices would have jeopardised our quest for modernisation. And despite what the critics say, the efforts worked.

In 2014 the income gap was reduced significantly and a Malay middle class that did not exist 44 years ago exists now. In 2014, the mean monthly household income rose significantly with Malays at RM 5,548, Chinese at RM 7,666, Indians at RM 6,246 and others at RM 6,011.

So while some may laud someone's "his-story" over actual history, it is fundamental to appreciate how the nation was founded and the challenges we faced. Only then can a true and meaningful study of history take place, and only then we will not repeat the mistakes of the past.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.

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