Midnight Thoughts #18: A Reflection on ‘Pelajar Bukan Melayu Kurang Minat Sejarah'

Image: Harian Metro

SPM results were released yesterday and to all students who passed the examination with flying colours, congratulations. To others who were disappointed at their results, the road is long and it is definitely not the apocalypse.

What caught the eyes of the public though, is a news article published by Harian Metro with the provocative headline 'Pelajar bukan Melayu kurang minat sejarah' (Lack of interest in history among non-Malay students). During the press conference, the Federal Territory Education Department director Maznah Abu Bakar told the media that the average grade of the history subject in Kuala Lumpur dropped from 5.02 (2018) to 4.83 (2019) and the reason is that non-Malay students are less interested in history. 

Many are puzzled by it, especially when the statement came from the education department director. Some questioned whether Harian Metro's headline intends to stoke racial sentiments. I thought there are multiple layers we can look into it and as a history student myself, why not write something about it. 

Firstly, the claim seemed rather odd because as far as I know, national examinations were graded on a curve, meaning that grades of the students will be adjusted based on a curve. Therefore, to say that the average grade dropped and immediately relates it to the lack of interest on the subject is just weird. It could very well be many have scored a really high mark that they have to lower it down to suit the bell curve. Also, did the grading analysis done according to ethnic groups as well?

Image: ThoughCo.

But let just assume that they did not follow a so-called graph and the average did drop, how can one relate both together? First and foremost, an examination is not a perfect ruler to determine the student's understanding of the subject, let alone their interest. There are so many factors that will affect a student's performance during an exam. Moreover, teachers, examiners who review the papers will undoubtedly affect the grading of the paper as well. 

Since we have addressed how grades should not be a mechanism to measure one's comprehension and interest on a certain subject due to the marking system and many other factors as well, now let's address the Harian Metro's headline, are we, the non-Malays, not interested in history. 

Now, let's say we are indeed non-interested. And let's justify it by saying the numbers of History graduates among non-Malays are far lower than Malay students, even after adjusted by racial composition. So why is that the case?
Image: Pixaby

Again, a range of factors e.g.: teaching methods, teaching personalities, lack of visuals and pictures in the textbooks, repeating the same chapters twice in five years. As a friend pointed out, language proficiency might be an issue as well. More importantly for me though, the lack of representation in our textbooks. I said it once and I will say it again, our national history textbook is very, very very Malay-centric, at least during my time as a secondary student. I only learn Sabah and Sarawak contemporary history, Chinese and Indian history, all of which are very important in my point of view, in university. 

The lack of representation, a skewed and biased official history made students bored with national history. It is indeed fortunate that our textbooks get an update recently because who the freaking hell are interested in learning 10 pages of UMNO history. Besides, this may sound controversial but we really have zero reasons to learn 5, 6 chapters of Islamic history, and then relearn it at Form 6. The way our textbook is being structured kills our interest in learning history. 

Also, to address why history graduates are lower, history courses are just not popular and you won't get much money out of it, and that's the reality. Parents would refrain their children to major such courses, to a larger extent, social sciences subjects because the money is simply not there. 

But, are the non-Malays not interested in history? 

Image: Greenpeace

The number of people that play the popular game Assassins Creed, the many men and women watch historical dramas or movies like The Crown, The People v. O.J. Simpson, Chernobyl, and the Irishmen would immediately disapprove this statement completely. A catch-all statement will do nothing to address the problem. In fact, it could be very well that many young people, not just the non-Malays are dissuaded to learn our history, but they would choose other mediums to learn it, be it games, movies, and dramas. If so, why not? And that is where our education ministry or department can nurture the young in appreciating history as a whole. Instead of relying on classrooms and textbooks, explore other mediums that will spark students' interests. 

Fun fact: In The Crown, the Malaysia Agong and the queen can be seen in one of the scenes. Image: Amazon UK.

If we are going to stick to classrooms, look at textbooks from international schools and its syllabus. I have the privilege to pick one up and I love it instantly.

Now, back to the headline. I would like to highlight the two kinds of reactions prompted by the headline. First, the progressive camp. It's important to acknowledge the fact that our official history is biased, but NOT ALL are biased. There's a reason why it's called Alam Melayu (Malay Kingdom) and our governments, past and present, are not responsible for this. Then, you have people blow everything out of proportion. 

However, I did not blame her entirely because if the state is honest about our own history, will there be such strong animosity on our official history? Being dishonest has serious implication because any newfound evidence that will reconstruct our historical narratives will be seen as 'Malaywashing'. 

Is Hang Tuah for real? Image: New Straits Times.

 A fairly good example will be Hang Tuah. Sources in the past predicted Hang Tuah could be Chinese. However, the lack of evidence unable to prove it (many have disputed the theory as well) and because of how the government in the past Malaywashed certain parts of our national history, many Chinese or non-Malays to a larger context could not accept when historians here try to 'erase' Hang Tuah from textbooks. In truth, there is no way to even have a 100% claim that Hang Tuah exist. And again, the theory that Hang Tuah does not exist is heavily debated on the academic circle as well. This is what social scientists or historians do, you search for evidence to back up your theory or dispute theory of others.

Then, the neocons camp. You will see comments like this. 

Image: Facebook

Just to quickly address these comments, we are Malaysians and we definitely want to learn more about our own history, but the lack of representation fails to give us the whole picture of Malaysia's history. And no, most of us today won't support the MCP or Malayan Communist Party but did learn communism as an ideology in universities and colleges. Frankly, those who commented communist probably don't even know what is communism, just like secularism and liberalism, which are tarnished by our state actors and religious figures. 
And this is what a bad headline could do. You construct a narrative and you sway the opinions of the people. Sure, Harian Metro may claim they do honest reporting, but they did not hold Maznah Abu Bakar accountable and press for clarification. The headline generated hits and reactions but further polarized opinions of the public.

Fortunately, many can smell the bullshit miles away with the headline. People are asking 'what kind of mechanism used to make such claims’. One asked if Malays students score below average in Maths, does it mean they are not interested in Maths as well. Another said Malays and non-Malays both are not interested, citing one or two reasons I mentioned above.  

In short, 

Be a good education director 
Be a good media 
And learn your history, because history is fun.  
And yes, all Malaysians, can be interested in history. 


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