HISTORIANS deal with the past. As the architects of our collective memory; they record, document and preserve. History can never be objective because like any form of storytelling, there’s always a writer or narrator who selects, edits and crafts the source material. Biases are therefore to be expected. The best we can do is to be aware of their existence.
Most historians remain in academia. Their interests are often esoteric and obscure. A rare handful venture into the public arena – seeking to influence and shape popular opinion – drawing more general conclusions from their narrow-based research. Not all are successful and many stumble because of the shortcomings of their arguments – moral or otherwise.For new nation-states – especially in South-East Asia – an underlying meta-narrative is critical, especially if this grand, overarching set of themes can unite populations divided by race, religion or geography.
In order to craft this meta-narrative, it helps if you’re a historian with wide-ranging interests. For Malaysia, the late University of Malaya historian, Professor Dr Khoo Kay Kim was just such a man. He took his public role very seriously. He was both guardian and architect of our shared Malaysian journey – helping to draft the country’s Rukunegara, (or National Principles), the equivalent to Indonesia’s state ideology, the Pancasila, for which he put to use his intimate knowledge of the country’s historic roots in order to strengthen our essential cosmopolitanism and inclusiveness.
Still, those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.
Brexit is a case in point, with the British courting disaster as they refuse to acknowledge the past. The entire “European Union (EU) project” has always been about preventing the recurrence of war on the continent. Ahistorical thinking, basically a rejection of past lessons, means that politicians (they’re not leaders) such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson risk resurrecting the horrors of World War I and II.
So: history and historians are important. However, they need to be reach beyond academia and be able to inject good sense and a broader perspective (part of that meta narrative I was talking about) into our everyday lives.
Intriguingly, there are also many non-professional “historians” – artists, singers, filmmakers, comic book writers and YouTubers – who deal in and with the past. They have become more important given the parlous condition of our state-dominated universities.
I’ve cobbled together a few names that I would recommend for anyone interested in South-East Asian history.
For starters, I’m a big fan of Filipino writer Ambeth Ocampo whose newspaper essays have brought the world of the republic’s independence heroes – Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio – to life. His writing is also a reminder that history can be fun. Being dull and boring serves no purpose whatsoever.
Thongchai Winichakul’s book Siam Mapped is a tour-de-force. He contrasts Western and Thai views on power, geography and culture as he hones in on a discussion of what it means to be “Thai” – especially in the kingdom’s murky borderlands.
As a student activist who survived the 1976 Thammasat University massacre, Thongchai also represents a leftist voice – a key perspective that’s been expunged, if not obliterated, from much of South-East Asia’s historical memory.
Thankfully, Singaporean academic Thum Ping Tjin (PJ Thum) looks set to redress this glaring imbalance with his regional journalism initiative, New Naratif. The fact that writer and comic book artist Sonny Liew is also involved (he wrote the ground-breaking anti-PAP screed, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye) means that this will be a venture to follow very closely.
Intriguingly, the most powerful historical writing from Indonesia has been in the form of fiction. The 1965 anti-communist killings silenced generations of historians, leaving the novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer with his Buru Quartet as the Republic’s conscience, not to mention a resolute defender of his country’s DNA.
Myanmar’s Thant Myint-U’s least well-known work, The Making Of Modern Burma is also his most important. This painstaking – and painful – account of the ultimately doomed Burmese attempts to maintain their freedom in the face of British colonial expansion is vital for anyone seeking to understand the country’s deep-rooted xenophobia. In Malaya, the British co-opted the traditional elite. In Myanmar, they wiped them out to catastrophic effect.
Professor Wang Gungwu’s memoir Home Is Not Here is poignant and deeply felt. It’s one of the best primers on what it means to be Chinese and South-East Asian as temporary “sojourners” in the 1930s and 1940s became residents and later, citizens.
I must include William J. Duiker’s Ho Chi Minh: A Life. The famed Vietnamese leader – he defeated the French, the Americans and the Chinese – led an astonishing life. He was the Scarlet Pimpernel of the 19th century, traversing the globe trailed by spies and double-agents. A patriot and nationalist first, Ho turned to communism only as a last resort.
Finally, I have to end with the YouTuber Michael Rogge whose channel (consisting of films from 1950s Hong Kong and Japan as well as his father’s footage from pre-War Indonesia) is a wonderful window to the past. Digital life has made film and video ubiquitous. Rogge’s channel (and there are many others) brings the past into the present with a rare immediacy.
As I said at the beginning, historians are the architects and guardians of our past.
As technology kicks in, visual storytelling will become an increasingly large component of that memory.