Field notes

Malaysians' new love for the old

It was early on a weekend morning but the community hall in Pekan Ampang was already full of people who had come from afar to listen to a talk on Kuala Lumpur's history.

Old and young, from different social classes, races and religions, it was the first visit for many of them to this old part of the city located about 10km from the city centre.

Who would have thought a talk on history could draw such a standing-room crowd?

But the turnout was not unusual at all. It's not unusual to find every seat taken - and early - at the many events held recently on various aspects of Malaysia's history.

From walks to talks, people are turning up to learn more about subjects as diverse as the Japanese Occupation in 1941-45 and Malaysia's national anthem. A recently published book on the origins of Kuala Lumpur street names was a hit.

Small private museums have even been set up by groups as diverse as tin-mining or clan associations, or just individuals, to tell their own story.

And as proof that history has come into its own, one of the more popular Facebook groups is the Malaysian Heritage and History Club, which has about 12,000 members, and counting.


There are many, many histories, and everyone has one. This is what we call history with a small 'h', as opposed to History with a big 'H'.

MS ELIZABETH CARDOSA, executive director of the Malaysian Heritage Board

Peopled by a motley set of history enthusiasts, it's a lively page with discussions ranging from heritage food to old railway lines.

"It's all about history, and we put aside politics and commercial stuff," said Mr Razak Bahrom, an active member of the group, who had woken up early that weekend to give the talk on KL's history to an appreciative audience in Pekan Ampang.

History has become cool in Malaysia.


It might be tempting to see this phenomenon as yet another symptom of Malaysia's political upheaval ever since the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition lost its dominance in the 2008 election, leading to a variety of challenges to its authority, including its one-time monopoly on the country's history.

No doubt, there is an element of a grassroots push-back against how Malaysia's official story had been streamlined into a sparse narrative, which some allege is crafted to provide justification for Malay political dominance.

Minority groups are now more actively telling their own stories to restate their community's place in the Malaysian narrative. This development is, in part, a manifestation of people seeking their own solutions to issues that they perceive to be important.

Mr Razak Bahrom, an active member of the Facebook group Malaysian Heritage and History Club, gave an informative talk on the history of Pekan Ampang, drawing a diverse crowd of Malaysians. - PHOTOS: CAROLYN HONG

Ms Elizabeth Cardosa, executive director of the Malaysian Heritage Board, said it was not unusual for historical events to be subjected to different interpretations by different communities at different times due to different circumstances.

The communists, for instance, have been seen as both traitors and nationalists by different groups who may have had different experiences or were motivated by different ideals.

But it would be too limiting to view this development through just political lenses. For sure, some groups do want their voices heard and their stories included in the national history.

But the upsurge of interest also has a lot to do with people just wanting to tell their own histories. It is also about the changes wrought by social media and how Malaysians are making use of the Internet to unearth long-lost nuggets of information and to publish their stories.

"There are many, many histories, and everyone has one. This is what we call history with a small 'h', as opposed to History with a big 'H'," said Ms Cardosa.

Malaysians of all stripes and races joined the walk through Pekan Ampang to learn the history of the place that might be torn down soon to make way for a proposed highway. This old temple was one of the stops. - PHOTOS: CAROLYN HONG

The Internet, she noted, has had a big hand in levelling the playing field, with no one having a monopoly on the Malaysian story. It has made it easier to access information, and social media has also created many more opportunities for people to tell their histories.

They can now record their story in many different ways and put it out there, with many of them using the Internet to share old photos and stories, or holding mini exhibitions and giving talks in the real world or, even more ambitiously, restoring family heritage buildings.

It was social media that was instrumental in connecting long-time enthusiasts like Mr Razak with other enthusiasts in the Malaysian Heritage and History Club Facebook group, giving them a much more visible presence.

"Many of us (on the Facebook group) have not even met each other, but the discussions are very interesting as there are so many specialists in different areas such as Malay buildings, Peranakan and other areas," said Mr Razak.

They have since taken these discussions into the real world with regular events, including a well-received "People's Merdeka" heritage festival in September which saw exhibitions and talks on diverse topics such as the history of Kelantan state and the Peranakan community.

Social media has also enabled heritage activism to flourish, with other Facebook groups such as Rakan KL and Rakan Mantin being set up to rally support for the preservation of the old parts of the country. Rakan is Malay for friend, and Mantin here refers to the Hakka village of Mantin in Negeri Sembilan state.

To be sure, other major developments also had a hand in sparking this renewed interest, notably the listing of George Town and Malacca as Unesco World Heritage sites in 2008, which drove a tourism-led revival of interest in history.

The roaring success of the annual George Town Festival encouraged others to pursue the same heritage tourism path, including Ipoh, which held a similar heritage- themed festival last month.


Ms Cardosa said it has been a liberating experience for people to be able to tell the stories that they felt were important, but added that this has to be done responsibly.

There have been occasions when historical facts have become distorted out of an overzealous desire to score political points.

Ms Maganjeet Kaur, co-author of the popular book Kuala Lumpur Street Names, said one notable example revolved around Hang Tuah, a legendary warrior from Malacca's glory days. There were claims that this Malay folklore hero was actually an ethnic Chinese. There is absolutely no proof of this assertion but, for some, it was too politically tempting to resist.

"It's okay to want to find out the 'truth', but don't make up your own version of it," said Ms Kaur.

On the whole, though, this renewed interest in history has had a positive impact, leading to a much more vibrant cultural scene in Malaysia's urban centres, particularly Kuala Lumpur.

Weekend entertainment now doesn't always have to be movie and malls as there are often talks, performances, walks and other events being held and, as a bonus, many are free.

More importantly, in many cases, the debates online have demonstrated a certain level of maturity even on delicate issues like migration or religion. This does indicate that rational discussion can be possible if politics is kept out of the picture.

And people can have fun as they figure out what Malaysia means to them at a time when the social fabric is being severely frayed by racial and religious animosity.

One of the more popular events this year has been a series of talks by composer and author Saidah Rastam on the origins of Malaysia's national anthem. Often speaking to packed venues, she gave talks around the country on this topic, which very few know much about, and even got the audience to sing some patriotic songs.

Sometimes, tears would be shed as attendees were reminded of their deep connection to Malaysia in the midst of the ongoing troubles with racial and religious squabbles.

Ms Saidah was quoted as saying at a recent press conference on the topic that "everyone has their own relationship with their country, which is different from their relationship with their politicians".

In these stories, people seek the threads to mend the fraying social fabric, whether it be the story of their national anthem, or a story of how multi-ethnicity once flourished in this land.

Those who attended Ms Saidah's talks were Malaysians of all stripes and sizes, races and religions, social classes and ages.

It was the same scene at Pekan Ampang that morning when Mr Razak gave his talk on KL's history. A similarly diverse and large crowd of Malaysians turned up to learn about this part of their history (with a small 'h') that had not featured large in their textbooks.

Pekan Ampang is one of the oldest developments in KL where early Chinese migrants collaborated with Malay chieftains to set up tin mines. This area, evocative with its old buildings, tells the stories of KL's beginnings, of migration and early ethnic relations.

Some of the oldest shophouses there may soon be torn down for a proposed highway, spurring new interest in this old part of the city that holds so much of Malaysians' shared history.

On that Saturday morning, Malaysians of all races walked together through Pekan Ampang to explore its sights, which included a Chinese temple hazy with incense.

Ms Cardosa said it was a great thing that so many stories inspired by individuals were being told because that was when boundaries came down.

"It makes for a very rich story tapestry, and gives people a sense of pride that they can take ownership of their own story," she said.

"If people can recognise the richness of our society, we can hopefully make better decisions down the line that help us to appreciate our diversity."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2015, with the headline 'Malaysians' new love for the old'. Print Edition | Subscribe