YEARS ago, when lawyer
G.A. David Dass taught at Universiti Institut Teknologi
Mara, he would be approached by students who would evince
surprise that he was genuinely interested in teaching them
and had no motives other than ensuring they understood the
He ventures that
this was because they had been "conditioned into believing
that non-Malays were not to be trusted and that our presence
in Malaysia meant that they were taking something away from
Dass believes that most non-Malay lecturers at UiTM have had
similar experiences, in an example of how Malaysian history
and how it is taught in schools -- and how it can be
manipulated by politicians -- can graft lasting impressions
on young minds that determine how they relate to others of a
For years, Dass says, the non-Malay history in Malaysia had
been framed by an ethnocentric elite as a story of how the
Malays had "lost out", "been dispossessed" and "subjugated"
by "bangsa asing" or "foreign races".
This narrative presumes that Malaya was "conquered" (dijajah)
by Europeans eager to exploit its natural riches.
Control over who came into the land was
out of Malay hands, and the penjajah allowed bangsa asing to
enter and build their tin mines and rubber estates, while
the Malays watched by the wayside in their villages.
Such a telling of history is warped, erroneous and, when it
comes to the Indian experience in pre-independence Malaya,
It overlooks the contribution of Indians to local customs,
culture, arts and governance. It ignores the fact that for
80 per cent of the Indians who came to Malaya in the 19th
and early 20th centuries, their lives were shackled in
deprivation and hard labour.
"How did thousands of mostly Tamil indentured labourers, who
were paid pitiful wages and who toiled under the most
back-breaking circumstances to open up plantations and build
roads, dispossess the Malays?" asks Dass, who co-authored
the book Malaysian Indians: Looking Forward.
Though the history of Indian contact with the peoples of
Peninsular Malaysia between the 1st and 11th centuries is
mentioned in school textbooks, its influence on Malay
culture has been played down.
It is almost as if it is an embarrassment, says U.K. Menon,
deputy vice-chancellor of Wawasan Open University, to
acknowledge the extensive traces Indians left on local
pre-Islamic culture which can still be seen.
In The Malaysian Indians: History, Problems and Future, the
late Muzafar Desmond Tate wrote of how Brahmin priests and
Buddhist missionaries gave Malay chieftains the
organisational system that would transform them into the
kings of today.
But, Muzafar stressed, the early Indians' influence was not
manifested in force of arms or large-scale migration.
When it comes to the later migration of Tamils, Telugus,
Malayalees, Sikhs and Bengalis, there is a begrudging
acceptance of their presence, notes Dass.
"They were not a colonising force to subjugate or rob the
Malays. Many lives were lost in opening up these plantations
and towns, and these Indians were indentured to the
Europeans who brought them in. The point is to recognise
each community's sacrifices that went into this great
"Our founding fathers knew this was integral to
His co-author, Jayanath Appudurai, says that the problem
with how history is taught today is that it is seen through
the lens of only one community.
"But the record shows that the peninsula was in a strategic
position that attracted everyone from different regions of
the world to converge and set up their own settlements
To acknowledge the various influences that went into
creating what is now Malaysia is not to prop up one race or
culture over another, Jayanath says. "It is not about the
Indians being superior to the Malays or the Chinese being
better than everyone else. It is about recognising the
multi-ethnicity that has always been and continues to be
present in the peninsula.
"It is about seeing Malaysia as a nation, not of a single
ethnicity, but one of shared membership among many." -- SM