Friday Jottings: History is written by victors and usurpers

RECENT events in Malaysia somehow seems to debunk the cliché, oft-attributed to Churchill, that “history is written by victors”.

It was in fact, once pointed out, that the cliché failed to attest independent Malaya and the British version of history lingered long after the formation of Malaya.

Until the late 1970s, Malaysian schoolchildren were still subscribing to the idea that the likes of Mat Kilau, Datuk Bahaman, Maharaja Lela, Tok Janggut, Rosli Dhoby and their contemporaries were rebels and traitors as presented in their history syllabus.

Only at the turn of the decade that these Malay warriors were transformed into nationalists albeit persisting debate as to their motives in their insurgence — economics or patriotism.

Economics is used to negate the value of their struggle based on the fact that they supposedly began their uprising against the colonisers because they were deprived of their right to collect taxes and such.

And with that, their patriotism is diluted, if not disputed.

Of course, the need to diminish the stature of these nationalists are no more the tasks carried out by the Brits or that of the non-Malays, it involved some self-styled Malay intellects or historians.

In other words, what these intellects want is a degree of purity in the cause of the insurgency, akin to that of a peasant uprising and only then should the participants be acknowledged and accepted as a true-blue patriots or nationalists.

It actually stemmed from the lack of self-worth and inability to put context in assessing history.

If economic considerations among the nationalists made them less patriotic, then modern-day context of opposing neo-colonialism which the main weapon is economics, should not be a national agenda.

Further to that, regardless of what sparked the uprising, personal sense of loss or a sudden sense of liberation, an insurgence against colonisers, regardless the reason and whom, should be celebrated and cherished.

But the affliction is not confined to the Malays but others as well, hence the attempt to dilute the nationalistic worth of the sepoys in the 1857 Indian mutiny.

Heroes were made the world over of individuals defending their personal space. In other parts, a trivial spark may have finally broken the camel’s back after a trail of suppressed anger from a deluge of prior colonial oppressions.

Bottom line, it doesn’t matter who and why the revolution was effected, as long as it was targeted at the oppressors, in this case — the colonisers — there shouldn’t be any attempt to dilute the nationalism or patriotic fervour.

Interestingly, two books on Si Bongkok (the Hunchback) of Tanjung Puteri, both written by Malays, historians or otherwise, are directly opposed in their narratives of the personality.

The first, written, of course in the 70s, placed Si Bongkok as a pirate, plunderer, murderer and rapist.

The second book, written just over a decade ago, regaled Si Bongkok as a Malay nationalist of incomparable courage and sense of patriotism.

The second book however revealed that the reason for Si Bongkok being maligned was due, not only his fierce opposition of the British colonisers but also for his efforts to re-instate the true heir of the Johor Sultanate whose throne was usurped by the Temenggong family (a nobility that held senior position in the ancient palace’s administrative structure).

The Temenggong, now already the self-styled Ruler, collaborated with the British to demonise Si Bongkok and that demonisation stayed on long after the British had left and the Temenggong’s family grip on the throne is beyond tight.

Interestingly, the fate of Si Bongkok is actually not much different than that of Mat Kilau, Maharaja Lela, Datuk Sagor, Tok Gajah and the other nationalists who rose to the occasion to challenge the present of the colonisers in the Malay land.

Their uprising started with the “blessings” of the palace and when they began losing the battle, the rest of the backers turned their backs on them, ensuring that they would in the end lose the war.

Hence the need to demonise them so as the longevity of those on the throne goes unchallenged and with the blessing of the colonial masters.

This narrative is not confined to a feudal past. Contemporary history showed how similar strategies were adopted by the British colonisers who wanted to continue their grip on their colonies, the Malay peninsula included.

The Malay Rulers signed the Malayan Union under threat of losing their thrones if they chose otherwise.

That led to the uprising from among the rest of the Malays whose opposition to the Malayan Union stemmed from the awareness of their Rulers being turned into nothing more than the Chief Kadhi (concerned only with the administration of Islam and Malay customs) which effectively transformed the British from being mere colonisers to the legitimate ruler of the land.

History, as it is said, has a way of repeating itself.

A sense of helplessness prevails among the bigger body of the Malay populace who are aware that their lot is in peril.

The political leadership is in a mess as even a convicted plunderer is unashamedly celebrated and idolised by political players who are adept at usurping power.

Not much different than Si Bongkok’s fate, those opposed to the usurpers are the painted as traitors and enemy to the Malay survival.

Alongside their regaled collaborators, they hope to rewrite history.


Shamsul Akmar is the Editor of The Malaysian Reserve.