KUALA LUMPUR, June 1 — Malaysia suffered a major loss with the death of eminent historian Professor Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim earlier this week.
Throughout his illustrious career, the Universiti Malaya academic was among the most influential historians in Malaysia, being one of those who had penned the Rukun Negara.
At the same time, he never shieded away from speaking his mind, at times courting controversy from certain parties for his bold views while during other times he tried to diffuse tense situations by educating the nation through the lens of history.
Below is a small sample of the late professor’s views and contributions:
1. Rukun Negara
The Rukun Negara (National Principles) is the Malaysian declaration of national philosophy instituted by royal proclamation on Merdeka Day, 1970, in reaction to a serious race riot known as the May 13 Incident which occurred in 1969.
The riots proved that Malaysian race-relations and stability at the time was fragile and the formulation of Rukun Negara under then-deputy prime minister Tun Abdul Razak was aimed at injecting harmony and unity among the various ethnic groups in the country.
As it is normally recited on a weekly basis in public schools, the Rukun Negara which Khoo helped authored is probably his most influential and popular work.
During an interview with Perdana Foundation in 2017, Khoo recalled how he was roped into the project by then-Minister with Special Functions (Information) Tun Ghazali Shafie.
“It was (Tun) Ghazalie Shafie’s idea. He was inspired by Indonesia’s Pancasila. There was a panel of us who were from all walks of life. Ghazalie put the idea to this panel (which) discussed (a) draft and recommended it to the National Operations Council,” he reportedly said.
Khoo said many of them were Universiti Malaya graduates and noted that if Indonesia could succeed with Pancasila, he was confident that Malaysia can succeed with Rukun Negara, believing that the people would come together with a national ideology being disseminated.
His only apparent regret regarding his greatest work was the fact that the Principles were never “properly explained” to school children as the education system is concerned with examinations and giving the right (textbook) answers.
2. No Malaysian is a ‘Pendatang’
Some politicians are fond of stirring up racial tension for their own benefit. One Umno leader that used to be in the headlines for his controversial and extreme antics was Datuk Seri Jamal Yunos.
It is no surprise then that the former Datuk Seri Najib Razak strongman would have once resorted to issuing racial-statements in order to protect or promote his regime’s status quo by calling non-Malays pendatang or immigrants.
Khoo corrected the historical fallacy made by Jamal by reminding the public that anyone who holds a Malaysian citizenship cannot be categorised as an immigrant.
During a public forum in 2015, Khoo said the phrase “Malaysian immigrant” is self-contradictory and faulted poor education for the perpetuation of the myth that has been the cause of racial flare-ups between the Malay majority and ethnic Chinese minority.
“Pendatang or immigrants is a term, someone who came from another country. Let’s say this country, and he is a citizen of another country, then he is an immigrant.
“But if he has been living here for a long time and applied for citizenship, then he is no longer a pendatang, he is a citizen. Pendatang is only for people who are not citizens,” he reiterated.
However, he noted that even the government had perpetuated this misunderstanding in its official forms out of all things.
“Our leaders made a mistake on forms, where you’re supposed to tick Malay, Chinese or Indian. Bangsa means nationality so if we are Malaysian, we should just write Malaysian.
“If we write Chinese on forms it indicates that we are citizens of China. Terms and words are different, terms only have a singular meaning,” he explained.
3. Hang Tuah is not a historical figure
One of his most controversial statements that raised a lot of eyebrows happened during a BFM interview in 2012 when Khoo pointed out that historically Hang Tuah, his legendary companions and the Chinese Princess Hang Li Po never existed.
In a later interview with Free Malaysia Today, the historian explained that the very well preserved Chinese Ming dynasty of the 16th century did not have any records mentioning any of them.
“History must be based on empirical records. Historians must only accept written records,” he said, adding that empirical records available here were at best “skanky”.
“There is no evidence in the Malaysian records.
“These are stories. Early Malaysian history is based on stories. We have had many stories. Only recently historians have taken the trouble to research the early Malaysian history period. A lot of stories accepted in the past cannot be proven,” he reportedly said.
However, after a backlash and questions by many other eminent Malaysians and historians Khoo explained to Malaysiakini that his intention was not to sideline Hang Tuah’s legend but he wanted official history to focus on relevant historical figures.
Instead of accepting Hang Tuah as a historical figure in textbooks, he argued that the Malacca Sultanate admiral should be acknowledged as a legendary figure instead.
He explained that his criticism on the matter was not directed at Hang Tuah but those that popularise the legend to the point that it has adversely affected real historical figures who have contributed to Malaysia’s development.
4. Malay communists were not freedom fighters
In 2011, when Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu was still in PAS, he had allegedly praised and defended some members of Parti Komunis Malaya (PKM) in the assault on the Bukit Kepong police station popularised by the 1981 Bukit Kepong movie directed and produced by Tan Sri Jins Shamsuddin.
In a report by Malaysiakini, Khoo refuted the claim during a forum on the origins of the Malay race in January 2012.
“Kepala otak! (What are they thinking!)” he reportedly exclaimed.
He said that while the communist did fight British rule, their aims were far from local autonomy.
“They wanted to create a world communist government, under the communist world order. All nations must be controlled by the communist party,” he reportedly said.
At the time, the global communist movement followed the model practiced in Europe which is the Marxist model emphasising on the working class — the proletariat.
He pointed out that within two weeks of the Japanese withdrawal at the end of World War 2, before the return of the British, the Communist here went on a killing spree, running amok and tried to create a communist-controlled state.
A communist state would not have empowered local self-rule but would have created a nation that kow-towed to global communist rule while diminishing the culture, religions and customs of the locals.
“They say that communists fought for the independence of Malaya. That is wrong. They did not know what communism meant. Normal people do not know,” he reportedly said.
5. Malaysia was never colonised
One of the oddest statements that ever came out of the professor’s mouth was his argument that Malaysia was never a British colony.
In a video in 2015, he pointed out that instead of outright colonisation, the British had signed treaties with nine of the Malay rulers to assist them in administration but the royal’s sovereignty was never lost.
In other words, instead of being a colony Tanah Melayu back then was a British protectorate.
“This is why they called them sovereign rulers. And this is why when we achieved independence in 1957, Tanah Melayu had nine rulers. That shocked those outside of Malaysia. In the whole world there is no nation with two rulers — Malaysia had nine,” he said.
Khoo explained that on August 31, 1957 it was the rulers who granted sovereignty to the people and not the British who granted them independence.