Treasuring the Past, Empowering the Nation

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana.

If there is one thing that anyone can recall at an instant from our history textbooks, I believe it would be this quote that was repeatedly printed on the bottom of the textbook pages. Yet, only a few really internalise the meaning of this expression.

There has been a perceived ‘double standard’ among the society towards science subjects and non-sciences (or the so-called ‘arts’) subjects like Sejarah and Geography. Although Sejarah has been made an SPM must-pass subject – as an effort by the government to educate students in becoming good citizens – many still fail to recognise the importance of learning and understanding history. This is probably due to the approach taken in teaching the subject in schools.

Teaching History in Schools

Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dr. Khoo Kay Kim, our very own Tokoh Sejarawan Negara once said, “Teachers nowadays are not equipped with the knowledge on ways to teach and gauge students’ interest in the subject of History. They are also not given training like teachers in the past, as the country’s education system today prioritises examinations more than the understanding of the subject among younger generations.” Reflecting on my time as a student many years back, it is undeniable that students have been rather ‘pressured’ to memorise historical facts to pass their exams and most of the time are unable to express their opinions and thoughts based on their own observation and understanding of the subject. As a result, many students are struggling to develop critical thinking skills – an ability that is commonly picked up only by students who take the initiative to join debates, innovation competitions, etc. that encourage an in-depth comprehension of a certain issue.

The lack in sense of appreciation towards history since a younger age may have been one of the factors that contribute to the deficit in awareness and interest in heritage and archaeology in Malaysia. For instance, due to some development proposition, a grave relocation project was undertaken at the end of 2018 in Kelantan. Although the 200 graves were dug up and reburied properly according to the syara’ (Islamic law), some of the locals expressed their disappointment on the lack of effort in commemorating the grave site, on which members of the royal family, as well as important figures including Islamic scholars, were once laid to rest.

Scattered tombstones around the old grave relocation at Jalan Gajah Mati, Kota Bharu, Kelantan. Image via Astro Awani

Preserving Tangible and Intangible Heritage

The riverside of Melaka

A lot of organisations are taking the initiative in conserving national heritage and history to increase awareness among the public. Jabatan Warisan Negara has been organising a number of events, including an annual fair, Festival Kedah Tua since 2016 to raise awareness on the significance of Sungai Batu – a site of the oldest civilisation in Southeast Asia, Kedah Tua, that dated back to 788 BC. A seminar on Kedah Tua is also organised by the body, however, only a few are aware that it is opened to the public and not limited to academician. Prof Dato’ Dr. Mokhtar Saidin, the Director of Centre of Global Archaeological Research USM said, “It is a must for this site [Sungai Batu] to be visited (by the public), because this is the evidence that our ancient civilisation had possessed knowledge, skills, and technology that was very advanced of its time, and to instil a sense of proud and love for our country that has been blessed with amazing historical remains which can be seen with our own eyes.”

Melaka In Fact is another organisation that is working on gathering and preserving historical information on Melaka; the historical city of Malaysia that was enlisted as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. Other organisations that have been actively involved with cultural preservation include George Town World Heritage Centre and ThinkCity, whose works mainly concentrate on conserving intangible heritage and historical buildings in Penang.

Countering Ignorance, Fostering Patriotism

Nonetheless, the efforts made by these organisations are not enough – at the end of the day, history and heritage management relies hugely only public involvement and engagement to ensure its sustainability. For instance – in the case of Lenggong Valley, the oldest prehistoric site in Malaysia – although the authorities have been working diligently in creating management and sustainability plan for the archaeological site, the lack of sense of attachment and cultural appreciation among the locals is putting the prehistoric site in peril, with the risk of losing its World Heritage status and more importantly, its heritage significance.

Leftenan Komander (B) Mohamed Sharif Kalam, the man who was in charge of raising Jalur Gemilang on the momentous day of 31st August 1957, noted that some of the younger generations today have a lack of knowledge about national history (buta sejarah), which has led them to have an ‘empty freedom soul’ – they failed to appreciate our national history and the country’s independence. In a multi-cultural society, recognising history and heritage is also a significant feature in nation-building and nation development. Having said that, moving forward the general public should be made aware and more sensitive about appreciating national history and preserving heritage, regardless of whom the past belongs to – plus, if we are truly one nation, they are all our, one shared past that should receive the respect and recognition it ought to deserve.

Celebrations to uplift a sense of patriotic sentiment may be seasonal, but the spirit itself shouldn’t be.

In fact, patriotism isn’t supposed to be exclusively planted within celebration theme songs and national flags,

It should be cultivated within the self – and embraced incessantly.

About the Author

Hamizah Afandi is a heritage enthusiast with a BA in Archaeology and Anthropology, and a passionate content curator whose love for travelling never ceases.

Leftenan Mohamed Sharif Kalam raising the Malaya flag at Merdeka Stadium. Image via FMT

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