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Malaysia as History


Malaysia as History[1]
The Tenth James C. Jackson Memorial Lecture
30 September 1998

Virginia Matheson Hooker
Professor of Indonesian and Malay
Australian National University

It is a special honour to be invited to present a James Jackson Memorial Lecture and I would like to thank the Committee of the Malaysia Society for inviting me to present this, the tenth lecture.

Sadly I did not meet Prof Jackson myself, but through my colleagues, especially Professor Martin Rudner one of the Malaysia Society's founding fathers, and from my husband who knew him while he was at the University of Hull in the early 70s, I learned a great deal about him. All who knew him spoke of his charm, courtesy, and unfailing willingness to help students as well as colleagues. Although he died far too early, Professor Jackson left a long publication record. His wife, Suk-Han, was closely involved in his work and in nearly every one of his books he acknowledges her advice and refers to her affectionately as his 'severest critic'.

In the course of my own research into Borneo history I consulted his work Chinese in the West Borneo Goldfields published in 1970. [2] This is a brief but detailed study of a large Chinese community which is unique because of its engagement in wet-rice cultivation. As a predominantly rural, well-integrated and highly respected community, this study is of particular relevance in 1998, when the integration of the Chinese in Indonesia remains an issue of crucial importance for the future of the Republic. As well as describing the physical condition of the environment of this community, Professor Jackson stresses that he is equally concerned with the 'cultural ecology, ie the 'interaction between Chinese culture and its West Borneo milieu'. It is this interest in the socio-cultural features of the Chinese community and the historical depth which Professor Jackson gives his research which particularly impressed me and makes his work as a geographer extremely valuable to researchers in other disciplines.

Professor Jackson's interest in the historical dimensions of his material encouraged me to believe that a discussion of Malaysia's own concept of its history would be an appropriate topic for a lecture in his honour and I have given it the title 'Malaysia as History'. Ironically it has been those Malays who are concerned about the future of the country who express the most interest in its past. They express a need firstly to discover that past and then to use it for the benefit of present and future generations of Malays and Malaysians. Here are just three examples of their views about history.

The first was published in January 1954 in the editorial of a then new and popular Malay literary magazine Mastika. The editor notes that Malaya's history to that point had not been written by Malays. Henceforth, he wrote, history should be fashioned by 'us, ourselves.' He continued: 'We should want a history which is more radiant and glorious, more lustrous'. [3] This 'radiant' history, he urged, should become an inspiration for Malays and serve to support their struggle for Independence and improved social conditions.

The second is from Anwar Ibrahim (when he still held the position of Deputy Prime Minister) and was reported in The New Straits Times in November 1996 [4]: under the headline, 'Anwar: Vital for all to know the history of nation' (see Plate 1). The report reads:

The struggle towards developing a greater Malaysian civilisation required the people, especially the younger generation, to have knowledge and understanding of the country's history.

He said it would serve as a platform for Malaysians to move forward and to face challenges confidently...

However, a community could not look upon past greatness and achievements with too much pride if the people and country did not progress in today's world.


The third is from the recently published book The Way Forward by Malaysia's Prime Minister Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad. Launched in August 1998 by Baroness Thatcher it is a defence of the New Economic Policy and its successor the National Development Policy. The Prime Minister begins the final section of his book, which he calls 'The Cultural Dimension' with the following quotation from The Malay Annals - in brackets 'early 17 th century'.

...and Melaka became a great city. Strangers flocked thither...and from below the wind to above the wind Melaka became famous as a very great city... so much so that princes from all countries came to present themselves before [the] sultan..., who treated them with due respect bestowing upon them robes of honour and of the highest distinction together with rich presents of jewels, gold and silver. [5]


Dr Mahathir's 'Cultural Dimension' of the NEP is in fact an exposition of his belief that attitudinal change is possible for any society and that Malays and other bumiputeras (as he expresses it) need to change from a peasant outlook and acquire 'the culture of a modern commercial and industrial society'. [6] The Prime Minister's quotation from the Sejarah Melayu is presumably intended to prove that Melaka (and therefore the Malays) was at one time a city of power and influence and that Malaysia could recapture that glory if his development programs are successfully implemented. He is using a particular representation of the past to 'show the way forward'.

Examples of the 'use' of history are not, of course, confined to Malaysia. A study of how and why this is done has become the focus of investigation for many historians, particularly those associated with the 'New Historicism' movement. They try to analyse the way contemporary conditions influence how the past is represented. Recent studies of 19 th century British history, for example, argue that the explosion of historical writing in that century was stimulated by a sense of loss, of lacking a history which spoke to their present condition and the need to create one which did. As Stephen Bann, a 'new historicist' scholar explains: '19 th century man did not simply discover history: he needed to discover history, or, as it were, to remake history on his own terms.' [7]

The three Malaysian quotations I have just referred to indicate 'why' history is considered important in contemporary Malaysia - it is considered to be a source of pride and inspiration to the present so that Malaysians can move confidently into a challenging future. What I want to explore further is 'how' the Malaysian Government goes about presenting this past, and what points in that past are selected as being important and relevant to modern Malaysians.

In its presentation of 'history', that is, events and people from the past, the Malaysian Government wants to reach as many people as possible and it has selected mediums which are appropriate to that purpose. Official history is being presented in museum displays, tourist brochures, postcards and maps, and is evident in the choice of 'historical' names for streets and buildings and the 'history' curricula in schools. For this lecture I will mainly draw on museum displays, with only a few references to other sources.

The methodology developed by Stephen Bann for his study of 19 th century British history suggests a useful way of approaching this study. Bann was looking at how 'objects, texts and images all contribute to the materialization of the past' and he used three concepts 'framing,' 'focalizing' and 'filling' to organise his material. He uses 'framing' as a way of delimiting an area and establishing it as authentic in historical terms. 'Focalizing' is a way of identifying objects (or people!) who are of particular interest in an area and which contribute to the authenticity of the whole. Bann seems more vague about the concept of 'filling' but I interpret it as meaning adding detail to a framed area to invest it with more depth and increase its relevance to the present. [8] As an example of filling I would give school curricula which follow the frames established by the Government but insert into them more detailed material than can be conveyed in a public display such as a museum.

Let us explore the idea of 'frames'.

The largest, or super frames if you like, are the concept of 'history' and the concept of 'Malaysia'. The Government's concept of history, as expressed in its museums, is any event, person, or man-made artefact which provides evidence of Malay or Malaysian achievement in the past. Achievement is understood as 'the first' to do something or something which is recognised (or allegedly recognised) as impressive by contemporaries.

The second super-frame, the concept of 'Malaysia,' is of course very recent. As a political entity Malaysia was created in 1963 when the nation state brought together the Peninsular States and Sabah and Sarawak. This recent national entity is not a complete representation of the cultural and political history of the region which is usually regarded by scholars as including most of the Indonesian archipelago, particularly Sumatra and Java, and Kalimantan. But for the purposes of Malaysian national history the Government has framed 'Malaysia' as the territory occupied by its modern components. As we follow through the museum representations of Malaysian history we will see that these contemporary boundaries radically determine what is included as national history and what is not able to be included.

Let us begin by a visit to the Museum of National History, a building at the northern end of Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square, right in the heart of old Kuala Lumpur. When I visited it in mid August 1998 it was packed with tours of non-Malaysian Chinese whose guides shouted explanations at their groups (in Chinese). There were some Malay visitors, as well as tourists like myself, and I have no doubt that Malaysian schoolchildren are brought to this Museum as part of their history study. It is obvious that the Museum is also part of the promotion of Malaysia prepared for international visitors to the Commonwealth Games. It is therefore a significant representation of how Malaysia wants to represent its history not only to its citizens but also to foreign tourists.

The Museum displays have been assembled recently and are well designed and clearly described with captions in Malay and English. A series of arrows directs visitors around the renovated, two-storey colonial building. Without perhaps realising it consciously visitors to the Museum have already been positioned into the two super frames of 'Malaysia' and 'history' - after all they have come to the museum to be inducted into Malaysian history. But once inside the museum other frames become evident, that is, frames based on chronological periods, and it is the choice of what constitutes a frame that is very revealing about the Government's presentation of Malaysia as History.

The chronological frames are clearly established by signboards which announce each section. The first frame is called 'Natural Environment and Prehistoric Era' and it is 'filled' with a detailed display depicting the geological formations of the Peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak. The message is that this is a region of great antiquity. The next frame is 'Prehistory' with sub frames of Neolithic, Hoabhinian and Metal ages.

In these displays it is clear that the oldest evidence of human activity is found in the Nia caves of Sarawak (fossil remains of homo sapiens dated, we are told, 40 000 years ago). On the Peninsula, Kota Tampan in Perak has evidence of the oldest tool workshop in Southeast Asia (30 000 years ago) and from Tingkayu in Sabah there are examples of stone tools which date back 27 000 years. Still proving the antiquity of human habitation in the region is a display of remnants of oars found at Dengkil, Selangor (with a carbon date of 2640 plus or minus 100 BP) which provide the oldest evidence of watercraft in Malaysia. The Neolithic period is represented by numerous finds of pottery, bronze objects and Chinese ceramics from sites in Selangor and Sabah and Sarawak. Evidence of participation in the well-known Bronze Age Dong Son culture is provided by four bronze bells and five bronze drums said to date back to 5 th century BC. The purpose of the displays in this 'Prehistory frame' seems to be to prove that East and West Malaysia have been linked since prehistoric times and that there is evidence for ancient occupation of both sides of Malaysia and its participation in Dong Son civilisation, the most highly regarded prehistoric culture in Southeast Asia.

The next frame is 'Proto history' which a notice explains is generally considered to begin in the first century AD. It is in this frame that links are made between Malaysia and the wider world. Displays note that 1 st century Chinese sources mention settlements in the Bujang Valley (Kedah) and in Santubong (Sarawak). The captions inform visitors that trade relations existed between Malaysia and India and that the traders were Chinese, Indians, and Arabs. I quote: 'The early states practised a very prudent foreign policy by opening diplomatic relations with China as well as with Indian states such as Chola'. We note here several assumptions, firstly that 'Malaysia' existed at this time, secondly that there were 'states' and thirdly that these States took the initiative and 'opened' diplomatic relations' (and this is a very modern term) with both China and India. There is no mention of contact with other areas in the region such as Sumatra, Java, Burma, Thailand or the Philippines.

A further frame is called 'Megalithic Culture' and refers to locations of megaliths in the Peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak. We are told that although these sites seem to have been contemporary with the Bujang Valley where Hindu-Buddhist temples have been found, these people followed a different religion. The display notes: 'The situation shows the existence of a diversity of concurrent ways of life in Malaysia'.

The 'Hindu-Buddhist' frame features the 7 th or 8 th century temple remains (which are very scanty) in the Bujang valley, Kedah. The captions stress that the area was a centre for international trade and shipping passing through the Straits of Melaka.

The next frame is called 'Srivijayan Culture' and captions note that the Kedah temples resemble structures found in Sumatra and southern Siam which were once under the influence of Sriwijaya. This kingdom was a focus, it is explained, for traders from Egypt, Persia and China. The visitor can see that trade contacts are now very wide-ranging. Sriwijayan influence is also claimed for finds at Santubong, Sarawak. It is significant to note that neither the Peninsula nor Sarawak is said to have been ruled by Sriwijaya, rather that there are historical remains which show Sriwijaya's 'influence.'

'The Spread of Islam' is the title of the next frame which features a map with flashing lights tracking the routes of Islam through and across the Southeast Asian region. Associated with the map is a replica of the famous (in Malaysia) 'Trengganu Stone' which the caption notes can be dated as 1303 AD. It bears a Malay inscription written in Arabic script claimed to be 'the earliest of its kind'. I quote: 'it relates to the recognition of Islam as the State's official religion and the establishment of Islamic law'. The caption explains that Chinese sources record an organised state in the region by 12 th century at the latest which had conducted commercial relations with China since prehistoric times. The stone, we are told, shows the existence of Islamic government in this region and it is thought that Islam arrived there by way of China and Champa.

We have now completed our tour of the first floor of the Museum of National History and we go upstairs. On the wall of the verandah which leads into the display rooms on this floor is a massive bronze statue of Hang Tuah, with the Malay inscription, 'Hang Tuah seorang Pahlawan Melayu yang gagah, setia, pintar lagi berani di zaman pemerintah kesultanan Melayu Melaka dari tahun masehi 1400-1511' (Hang Tuah a Malay warrior from the Melaka Malay Sultanate 1400-1511 AD, who was bold, loyal, clever and courageous). Above him is the often quoted motto ' Tak Melayu hilang di dunia ' (Malays will not vanish from the earth).

The first frame on this second level of the museum is 'The History of Early Melaka 1403-1511' and there are no further references to Sabah and Sarawak until the 20 th century displays. The caption for medieval Melaka establishes the ideological foundation for the multi-ethnic modern Malaysian state as follows:

Through the determined efforts of its early rulers Melaka became a dominant power and created a Malay Empire. Melaka became an international port city and a magnet for traders from around the world. Some of these adapted to local conditions settled down and served the government which thus evolved into a cosmopolitan society. Government, power and the right to rule were the preserve of Malays. ... Foreigners in Melaka included Arabs, Gujeratis, Indians, Siamese, Chinese, Japanese, Cambodians, Persians, and Malay communities from throughout the archipelago.


Within this frame of 'Melaka' are sub-frames which illustrate different aspects of the Melaka sultanate: Melaka as a centre for the spread of Islam, Melaka as a cultural centre (works of literature including Sejarah Melayu , Hikayat Amir Hamzah and Muhammad Hanafiah but not Hikayat Hang Tuah ) and Melaka as a centre for administration and commerce. The impression is that Melaka was the centre of political, cultural and commercial life for the whole archipelago. The only ruler to be given particular attention is Sultan Mansur Shah (1459-1477) who is noted as being interested in Islam and who established law and order in the city. The Portuguese conquest of Melaka is represented by several paintings of European armour clad figures shooting at Malay warriors who are armed with swords and spears in a contest that is clearly unequal. Melaka's 'fall' is not given the same attention as its rise.

The next frame is entitled 'The Johor-Riau-Lingga Empire 1511-1824.' This dating is interesting because 1824 marks the signing of the Treaty of London between Britain and The Netherlands which established their spheres of influence in Southeast Asia and in practical terms divided the Archipelago into the colonial domains of British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. The Riau-Lingga kingdom, however, did not end in 1824 as the frame implies, but continued to be ruled by Malay-Bugis kings (in association with a Dutch Resident) until it was formally abolished in 1913. But this information is not included in National History Museum because Riau and Lingga are now part of the Republic of Indonesia not part of Malaysia. The captions in this frame note that after the Portuguese conquest the Melaka royal line was re-established in the southern part of the Peninsula in the vicinity of Johore. Without further detailed explanation it is stated that, 'When a Bugis was appointed Yamtuan Muda political and administrative power passed into the hands of the Bugis in 1722'. We are then told that 'The Bendahara was appointed ruler of Pahang and the Temenggong ruled over Johor and the Sultan took up residence at Pulau Bintan.' In this very concise manner the protracted Minangkabau challenge to the Johore throne and the infiltration by Bugis groups into the Johor royal line is neatly glossed over. [9]

The arrival of Europeans in the area is described by three frames entitled respectively, 'The Portuguese Era,' 'The Dutch Era' and 'The English Era'. They are concerned with the occupation of Melaka after the defeat of the Malay Sultanate in 1511 and information is not very detailed. However, the frame entitled 'The British in the Malay States 1786-1941' is a more expansive examination of the colonial presence. It is explained as follows:

In the beginning the British came merely for trade without any intention of interfering in matters of local politics or administration. However the unstable political situation in the Malay states, the wealth of economic resources and certain socio-economic and socio-political changes in Europe pushed the British to interfere after all in the politics and administration of the Malay states. As a consequence in 1826 Penang, Melaka, Singapore and the Dindings were brought together as the Straits Settlements headed by a government. Administration in Malaya began in 1874 with the Treaty of Pangkor. As a result a British Resident was appointed to help to manage the state's administration. British interference continued to expand to Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang under the pretext of maintaining order in these states which were ultimately united under one administration of the Federal Malay States. A British Resident was appointed to administer finances and other matters with the exception of Malay customs and the Islamic religion.


The British presence is described as 'interference' yet it is also described as being brought about by the 'unstable' political situation of the Malay states. The visitor is left with the impression that if the states had been better governed the British may not have 'interfered'. As if to 'concretise' the Pangkor Treaty of 1874, now accepted as the defining moment when British 'interference' began, the small round table on which the treaty was signed is on display. It also features in tourist brochures as the 'Pangkor Treaty Table'.

In a frame entitled 'The Unfederated Malay States' one of the consequences of British interference is depicted. This is in the form of a diorama showing the Perak leaders Raja Abdullah, the Dato' Maharaja Lela and other prominent dignatories discussing what action they should take against the British Resident J.W.W. Birch, who 'introduced a new administrative system which was in conflict with the traditional Malay system of values and administration.' As a result, the caption states, he was murdered. I quote: 'This incident served as an eye-opener to the British to be more sensitive and tolerant in handling Malay affairs'.

Two final frames conclude the displays on the colonial presence. Entitled 'Foreign Powers in Sarawak' and 'Foreign Powers in Sabah' they note briefly that the northwest coast of Borneo was ceded in perpetuity in 1876 by the Sultan of Sulu to Baron von Overbeck and Alfred Dent for an annual payment of $5000 and that Sarawak 'was given over to James Brooke in 1841'. There is no emphasis given to the role played in this transfer by the Sultan of Brunei.

We move now to the third and last section of the museum which begins with 'The Nationalism'. As part of a display of photographs of individuals who are singled out as 'nationalists' is the following statement:

Nationalism is a natural impulse in Malaysia. Independence had been lost when the Portuguese took Melaka in 1511 and when the British deprived Dato Dol Sayid Naning [10] of his rights in 1831. There are many examples of Malaysians struggling against the power of the British including the assassination of Birch, the rebellion of Tok Janggut in 1915 in Kelantan [11], the uprising of Mat Salleh in Sabah [12] and the struggle of many indigenous Sarawak leaders such as Rentap Linggi [13], Sudji Batin [14] and Rosly Dhobie. [15] They failed because of weaknesses on the part of the fighters. However even such failures reinforced the impulse of the various sections to combine into a single united front.


Within this frame of 'Nationalism', as in the frame 'Prehistory,' both East and West Malaysia are brought together. But just as the attempt to apply late 20 th century political ideals to Southeast Asian prehistory appears to be a forced anachronism, so too does the attempt to present local activists in Sabah and Sarawak as Malaysian freedom fighters. The individuals labelled as nationalists in Sabah and Sarawak (some of them from the 19 th century) could not have been struggling for an Independent Malaysia, an entity which did not exist until 1963. But as a frame in the narrative of national history it is an essential component if Malaysia, that artificial combination of the Peninsula and parts of Borneo, is to be seen to have any credibility as a political unit.

To move on: a sub-frame in the rise of nationalism is called 'The rise of Islam.' This explains that the Islamic reform movement in the Middle East, particularly Cairo, influenced events in Malaya through returning students who then established journals and magazines and led campaigns in religious schools. According to the captions the pan-Islamic ideals of these individuals led to a more comprehensive nationalist spirit which in turn led to the formation of Malay associations in every state. Likewise graduates from Sultan Idris Training College at Tanjong Malim played a major role by spreading nationalist consciousness to every corner through its graduates.

The next frame is 'The Japanese Occupation' which is described as a period of depression in economic terms but in political terms as giving many nationalist activists a new sense of confidence. They realised that the power of the British was not omnipotent and the Japanese slogan 'Asia for the Asians' inspired Malays to take the destiny of their homeland into their own hands. One of the captions notes that 'the people and nationalist fighters formed an underground movement to oppose the power of the Japanese military and to help the Allied Forces'. Much else is left undescribed.

The Malayan Union proposal promoted by the British after the war is also described as a focus for nationalism. I quote: 'For the first time in history the Malays rose in one movement to fight against the formation, putting aside parochial sentiments relating to individual states, districts or clans'. The First Malay Congress held at the Sultan Sulaiman Club in March 1946 is described as the impetus which led to the formation of the United Malays National Organisation in May 1946.

The next frames are 'The Federation of Malaya' and 'The Emergency' leading to the 'Proclamation of Independence' which is marked by an impressive bronze bas relief of Tunku Abdul Rahman shouting 'Merdeka!' Next comes 'The Formation of Malaysia -Sarawak' and 'The Formation of Malaysia - Sabah' with a further frame entitled 'Confrontation'.

The post Independence period is divided into the terms of the four prime ministers who have governed Malaya/Malaysia since Independence. They are named according to the characteristic features of their terms in office. Thus Tunku Abdul Rahman is known as Bapak Kemerdekaan (Father of Independence), Tun Abdul Razak as Bapak Pembangunan (Father of Development), and Tun Hussein Onn as Bapak Perpaduan (Father of Solidarity).

We move to the final frame in this museum and when we compare it with others it is obvious that in comparative terms this is the frame which has been given most space - it represents the period of Dr Mahathir's term as Prime Minister and is a detailed representation of Malaysia's achievements under his leadership. The title of this final frame is 'The Magnificent Decade: The Vision of a Leader'. There is an elaborate display which depicts the industrial and technological progress achieved under the leadership of Dr Mahathir. One of the captions reads; 'Dr Mahathir Mohamad who will be remembered as the person who cares for the nation and the people - Malaysia in an era of political stability and rapid economic growth'.

Before leaving this Museum of National History let us summarise the main themes which the captions have been emphasising. Firstly that Malaysia exists as an identifiable unit based on evidence of a shared prehistory and shared nationalistic activities. Secondly, that this unit provides evidence of human habitation extending back 40 000 years, that is despite its recent political formation (1963) its actual history has a basis in the prehistoric period. Thirdly, that both East and West Malaysia have been engaged in international trade since the early centuries of the Christian era. The focus for this trade however, is in the area of the Straits of Melaka where Kedah and then the port of Melaka attracted foreign traders in large numbers. This engagement with international trade, we are told, resulted in the acceptance of diversity and the development of skills in diplomacy. Finally, the frames on nationalism emphasise that the history of nationalism in Malaysia extends back beyond the 20 th century and had its roots in the Portuguese conquest of Melaka which stimulated Malays to want to regain their independence. There is also a subtle sub-text associated with this theme, which is that sultans are not always reliable or capable rulers.


I would like now to take you away from Kuala Lumpur to Melaka. It is a one and a half-hour car trip down the new toll road, past huge new building projects like the Palace of the Golden Horses (where Queen Elizabeth stayed for the Commonwealth Games), the new sports stadium, the technology parks and the now abandoned giant housing projects. As we approach the turn off, the State of Melaka advertises itself on billboards: 'Melaka Historical City, Cultural State'. Here the super frame is not Malaysia as history but Melaka as history. We are in regional rather than national territory.

In Melaka, Historical City, there is not one, but eight major museums waiting for visitors, both local and international. They are administered by the Melaka Museums Corporation which has prepared an attractive brochure to assist visitors (See Plate 2). We will visit the Museum of History which is on the first floor of the 17 th century Dutch Town Hall, the Stadthuys. The motto beneath the description of this museum in the brochure states: 'History is the root of nationalism' (see Plate 3). This is a catchy motto, but it does not convey the essence of this museum which is not nationalism but 'Melaka-ism'. This is a museum concerned to convey the elements which have contributed to Melaka as it is today, a Chinese-Malay town which is built on the site of the greatest Malay sultanate and to be heir to a culture which incorporates a mixture of Portuguese, Dutch and English traditions.

As we enter the Stadthuys, hanging in the entrance lobby are four arresting paintings of Malaysia's Prime Ministers. These paintings match the final frames in the Kuala Lumpur Museum of National History by presenting post-Independence history as divided into the terms of each Prime Minister. The captions incorporated into the paintings serve as a mini history lesson and are worth noting.

The first is entitled ' Detik Permulaan 1957-1970' (Point of Origin), Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al Haj ibni al-Marhum Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah 1903-1990, First Malaysian Prime Minister (see Plate 4). A summary of the caption for this portrait reads:

His shout of 'Merdeka' echoed throughout the nation on 31 August 1957. The nation was no longer a colony and Parliamentary Democracy was begun when he installed the first Agong as King. The three major races were represented by political parties which has remained the basis of unity until now. On 16 September 1963 Malaysia was formed and a development plan inaugurated for the welfare of the people.

The second portrait is entitled ' Era Pelaksanaan Strategi Pembangunan 1970-1976' (The era of implementing the development strategy), Tun Abdul Razak Dato Hussein 1922-1976, (see Plate 5). A summary of this caption reads:

He introduced the basis for a new economic plan to eradicate poverty and raise the economic level of the people introducing FELDA and other development programs to advance the nation and guarantee unity. He laid the foundations for solidarity and unity.

The third is ' Zaman Perpaduan Negara 1976-1981' (The Era of Solidarity of the Nation), Tun Hussein Onn (1922-1990) (see Plate 6). According to the caption he continued the work of Tun Abdul Razak by strengthening economic, political and social stability. Unity and racial integration became part of the national development agenda. Under his leadership the nation increased in political maturity and international diplomacy was emphasised.

The fourth and final portrait is ' Era Pembangunan Perindustrian dan Globalisasi (1981 sampai sekarang ). (The era of Development, Industrialisation and Globalisation, 1981 until the present) Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad (1925- ) (see Plate 7). The caption explains that he became Prime Minister 16 July 1981 and directed national politics, economy and society towards a new era of globalisation, industrialisation and technology. His vision for Malaysia is very exact: look east. National car, invest in industry to boost national economy. Dr Mahathir has become a model for developing nations especially in the third world and under his leadership the nation faces the 21 st century with confidence.

These four portraits summarise the official view of Malaysia's achievements since Independence. The themes of unity, diplomacy, economic achievement and nationalism match those of the National History Museum in Kuala Lumpur. However, they stress racial harmony in a way not evident in the National History narrative. Situated in a city with a longstanding multi ethnic population, the Melaka museum reflects this racial diversity in its selection of displays.

The Museum's version of the founding of the city of Melaka is very detailed and is presented through a series of paintings and dioramas. The hero is Parameswara who almost immediately after choosing Melaka as a site for a settlement is visited in 1403 by Yin Ching an envoy from the Emperor of China. He assists Parameswara to plan 'right strategies' for Melaka and establishes a 'positive political relationship between Melaka and China'. None of these details appears in the Museum of National History. Yin Ching's visit is followed by several others by the Sino-Arab Admiral Ma San Po who arranges for Parameswara to visit China in 1411. The narrative in the captions notes that the work of this Admiral has not been given due prominence but that the Chinese community revere him as the deity Sam Po Kong. The dioramas make other references to continuing links between China and Melaka, all beneficial for the Malays.

During the reign of the next Sultan the Indian merchant Mani Purindan arrives from Kalinga with seven cargo vessels. He settles permanently in Melaka, marries the daughter of the Bendahara and their descendants achieve high status in the Melaka sultanate. Thus we are told of the origin of the Indian community in Melaka.

The dioramas which relate the fall of Melaka prepare the scene by narrating episodes showing the ruler's lack of judgment. One caption states bluntly; 'capable rulers were removed according to the whim of the king' and became the main reason for the fall of the Melaka Malay Kingdom.

It is not necessary here to continue describing the presentation of 'history' in this excellent Museum. I wish only to stress that the frames chosen as boundaries for segments of history are the same as the National Museum - that is, Portuguese Era, Dutch, English, Federated and Unfederated Malay States, Japanese Occupation etc. As you would expect, however, the content within the frames differs by reflecting local rather than national interests. The contribution of non-Malay communities to the religious, political and educational life of Melaka and district is emphasised. One example is the inclusion of the history of several Christian schools and the formation of the Melaka Chinese Traders Association under Tun Tan Cheng Loke which later became the Melaka MCA.

The displays end, as do those in the Museum of National History, with an acknowledgment of the present Prime Minister. In Melaka the final exhibit is an enlarged version of a poem by Dr Mahathir, dated 4 May 1996 and entitled ' Kegemerlangan berulang kembali/ Perjuangan yang belum selesai' (Glory will return again/ the struggle is never ending).

I would like to conclude with some examples of Malaysia as history outside museums. When we look for representations of history in the public domain the majority of references are to the Melaka frame. It stands for the 'radiant' history which early nationalists called for and it has left visible traces such as buildings and tombs which are regarded as concrete evidence of that greatness.

One of the most obvious and readily available representations of Malaysian history appears in the form of postcards and here too the Melaka frame is predominant. The example in Plate 8 shows the gate to the Portuguese fort on the only hill in Melaka town. The inscription on the card reads: 'Erected in the 16 th century by the Portuguese, the entrance to A Famosa has come to symbolise Melaka and is the only substantial structure of this ancient fort still in existence'. Ironically the greatness of Melaka is represented by the ruins of its conqueror.

The Melaka frame is evoked even on grocery items such as this packaged Dodol cake (see Plate 9). This inscription is a little longer and reads: 'A FAMOSA. The Portuguese fort, built in the early 16 th century, became on e of the greatest fortresses in the East. It was rebuilt by the Dutch in 1670 and subsequently fell to the British in 1807. All that remains today is the Santiago Gate which bears the crest of the Dutch East India Co'.

The desire and need to find further material evidence of ancient Melaka is apparently never-ending. While I was in Malaysia in 1998 this article appeared in Utusan Malaysia (see Plate 10). No doubt similar pieces appear regularly but I happened to see this one which describes a claim that an old grave and some depressions in a rock at Tanjung Tuan in Melaka are the grave of Parameswara and the footsteps of Hang Tuah. The Director of the National Museum responded with a press conference to say he doubted whether they were significant finds but he took the claims sufficiently seriously to ask the archaeology unit to investigate.

Within the Melaka frame the most intense focus is reserved for a figure which has become a symbol for a whole cluster of images and values. This is of course Hang Tuah, who stands for the whole Melaka era, for the greatness of individual effort and loyalty, for Malay strength and wisdom, and as statement that the Malay race will never be lost ' Tak akan Melayu hilang di dunia' .[16] In the minds of most Malaysians Hang Tuah cannot be thought of without his alter ego Hang Jebat because together they represent complexities of the concept of loyalty. Hang Tuah sacrificed his personal loyalty to serve his master while Hang Jebat sacrificed his career to serve his friend. The overt celebration of Hang Tuah is also a tribute to Hang Jebat.

There is an unquenchable thirst to identify material evidence of Hang Tuah's existence. Plate 11 shows a postcard picture of Hang Tuah's grave described in the following terms: ' Makam Hang Tuah di Tg Keling Melaka - Hang Tuah mausoleum in Tg Kling...'. The existence of a grave for Hang Tuah is actually not in accord with the traditional story of the hero which concludes by saying Hang Tuah did not die but went inland from Melaka and is waiting there to return at any time should he be needed to protect the Malays.

Hang Tuah is remembered in countless street names, and his companions especially Hang Jebat give their names also to streets, bus lines and small businesses. One of the new LRT stations in Kuala Lumpur is named Hang Tuah (see Plate 12).

But perhaps his most successful mutation is into a film and cartoon star. [17] The most recent film adapatation to my knowledge was the very successful production called 'Tuah' screened in Malaysia in 1989. It won a special award at the 1989 Asian Pacific Film Festival as the 'best film depicting a fresh interpretation of legendary heroic character in Malay history'. Through flashbacks and flashforwards it gave Hang Tuah the ability to move through time and help Malays in the present. The scenes showing him in 15 th century Melaka were history lessons for the audience about the Melaka Malay sultanate. Late in 1997 the adventures of Hang Tuah and his comrades became the basis of an animated TV series shown in 13 episodes. A newspaper report (see Plate 13) indicates that the main concern of the producers was copyright piracy and for that reason they were refusing to make the program available to the public in video form.

But the piece de resistance is an extremely sophisticated animated film called ' Silat Legenda ' lauched with great fanfare at Putra World Trade Centre in August 1998 by the Prime Minister himself (see Plate 14). It is billed as the first Malaysian two dimensional animated film and also the first to use the Dolby Digital Surround. It has its own website and its own soundtrack album. The script is set in the frame now familiar to us, the Melaka frame and it opens in 15 th century Melaka focussing on Hang Tuah and his warrior comrades who possess magic weapons. The frame is linked to 21 st century Melaka through a group of Malaysian children who use a computer to try and capture the weapons of the 15 th century heroes. The sub-title of the film ' Satukan Kuasa Satukan Tenaga' (Unite in Strength Unite in Power) links the glorious past signified by the Melaka frame with the sub-text of the modern nation state of Malaysia. It is the message of unity and strength which is also emphasised in the captions describing the achievements of Malaysia's first four Prime Ministers.

This then is the essence of 'Malaysia as History'. In museums, ministerial statements, street names, films and cartoons, the official concern is to show Malaysia emerging from a glorious past and empowered by the dedication of its peoples (represented most graphically by Hang Tuah) working for a unified modern nation state. 'Unity' is the compelling keyword. But the past emerges differently in different venues and here it is instructive to return to the concerns of Professor Jackson. His last published works indicate that he was keenly interested in analysing the contemporary business and retail organisation of commercial life in Malaysia. The current energetic project to package and sell Malaysia as history may well have engaged his attention. He would have been quick to note the subtle differences of emphasis between the nationalist enterprise of the Kuala Lumpur museum and the regional and local concerns of the Melaka museum. Like Prime Minister Mahathir they each use the frame of 15 th century Melaka to provide evidence of a 'radiant' past for Malaysia. But the museum in Melaka, reflects local as well as national interests and depicts the period of Melakan greatness as one in which its leaders looked outwards and engaged in international trade, encouraged a multi-ethnic population to settle and prosper, and forged links with the surrounding local rulers. Its dioramas depict scenes showing the wisdom and the folly of the sultans of Melaka and indicate that the seeds of Melaka's defeat by the Portuguese were sown by the rulers themselves in their neglect of wise counsel and pursuit of personal indulgence. These elements are not present in the Kuala Lumpur displays.

The presentation of the past is clearly regarded as an enterprise of major importance in the Malaysian Government's nation-building program and the contribution of local and state museums to the super-frame of 'Malaysia' is a crucial factor in projecting a more dynamic and realistic picture of the concerns of contemporary Malaysians. Professor Jackson's attention to 'cultural ecology,' the interaction between culture and its local milieu, suggests a profitable model for presenting 'Malaysia as History'. If the national vision for the future were to be more informed by the understanding of the past exemplified by local interpretations of local history, then the 'struggle towards developing a greater Malaysian civilisation' as urged by Anwar Ibrahim would indeed 'serve as a platform for Malaysians to move forward and to face challenges confidently'.



[1] This lecture covers material which will be developed further in my forthcoming Malaysia: A Short History to be published by Allen & Unwin. I am grateful for assistance and advice from Adi Haji Taha (Director, Museums Division, Department of Museums and Antiquities, Kuala Lumpur); Harry Aveling; Professor Amarjit Kaur; Professor M.B. Hooker; Alastair Morrison; Mohd Mokhtar Abu Hasan; and Staff of the Museums of History and Ethnography, Melaka.

[2] James C. Jackson, Chinese in the West Borneo Goldfields: A Study in Cultural Geography , University of Hull, Occasional Papers in Geography No. 15, University of Hull Publications, 1970 .

[3] Mastika, Editorial 'Surat dari Pengarang', p.3, January 1954. 'Kita mestilah menghendaki sejarah yang lebih cemerlang gemilang, yang lebih terang benderang.'

[4] New Straits Times , November 27 1996, p.2 .

[5] Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad, The Way Forward , London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998, p.109.

[6] The Way Forward , p.133.

[7] Stephen Bann, 'The Sense of the Past: Image, Text, and Object in the Formation of Historical Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century Britain', in The New Historicism , ed. H. Aram Veeser, New York London: Routledge, 1989, p.103.

[8] Bann, op cit , pp.104-106.

[9] For further details on this period see the indigenous history Tuhfat al-Nafis , by Raja Ali Haji annotated and translated by Virginia Matheson and Barbara Watson Andaya as The Precious Gift , Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1982.

[10] Dol Sayid (Penghulu Abdul Sayid) was the traditional ruler of Naning a semi-independent region near Melaka which remained outside the direct control of each of the colonial powers who occupied Melaka. Refusing to submit to taxation levies demanded by the British administration of Melaka, Dol Sayid resisted a British force sent against him in 1831. After drawn out skirmishes he was defeated and forced to surrender, see P.J. Begbie, The Malayan Peninsula , Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1967(originally published 1834), Chapters V and VI.

[11] Professor Cheah Boon Kheng is currently investigating folk accounts of this 'rebellion' which offer evidence for alternative readings of Tok Janggut's 'rebellion' against the collection of land tax.

[12] A charismatic leader with Sulu connections who raided along Borneo's northeast coast and attacked posts of the British North Borneo Chartered Company between 1895 and 1900. For a fuller description of his influence and activities see Ian Black, A Gambling Style of Government: The Establishment of the Chartered Company's Rule in Sabah, 1878-1915 , Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1983.

[13] Rentap was 'the most fabled Iban rebel in Sarawak history' who was active against the Brookes during the 1850s. Details of his campaigns are given in Robert Pringle, Rajahs and Rebels: the Ibans of Sarawak under Brooke Rule, 1841-1941 , Ithaca New York: Cornell University Press, p.91 and 107-110.

[14] This is most probably the Iban warrior Bantin who led the Iban of the upper Batang Lupar against the Brookes in the 1880s-90s. He was described as 'the most feared warrior' of his day and his activities are described in Pringle, op.cit., pp.220-246.

[15] A very youthful member of Rukun Tigabelas, a radical Sarawak anti-cessionist group, he assassinated the Governor of Sarawak in December 1949. He was found guilty and despite his youth hanged by the British administration in March 1950, see R.H.W. Reece, The Name of Brooke: The End of White Rajah Rule in Sarawak , Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1982, pp.276-7.

[16] An interesting study of Hang Tuah as Melaka icon and a discussion of the famous statement attributed to him is given by Rehman Rashid in his A Malaysian Journey , Selangor Darul Ehsan: Rehman Rashid, 1997 (5 th Printing), Chapter 14.

[17] Even before these cartoon and film representations, Hang Tuah was the subject of Malay novels and plays. For further details see Helen Musa, 'Hang Jebat Visits Kuala Lumpur; Villain as Hero in Modern Malaysian Drama', Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs , Vol. 23 (1989), pp.35-48.


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