In the fourth session of the Wacana Warisan Series (WWS) webinar, Dr. Azhar Ibrahim delivered a presentation on Buku-Buku Sejarah Kita: Yang Popular dan Yang Populis (Our History Books: The Popular and The Populist). According to Dr. Azhar, this is one topic that resonates well with the community due to our strong attachment and a keen interest in reading history books. He shared with all participants who tuned in to the webinar via Zoom and FB Live, a collection of history books, both popular and populist, which are readily available and accessible in the public domain.
Saturday, 10 April 2021 – In the fourth Wacana Warisan Series (WWS) lecture, Dr. Azhar Ibrahim, an academic from the Department of Malay Studies, at the National University of Singapore and Vice-Chairman of the Malay Heritage Foundation (MHF) Board, delved into the topic of Our History Books: The Popular & The Populist. This session was delivered in Malay.
Dr. Azhar started the webinar by sharing a quote from Renato Constantino, a Filipino historian and scholar who taught us to re-examine our colonial history, rectify it, and learn from that past. He was an articulate advocate of the importance of the correct understanding of the Philippines’ past in order to have insight into the problems today. Dr. Azhar also shared a quote from Milan Kundera, a Czech writer who went into exile in France in 1975, becoming a naturalised French citizen in 1981. According to Kundera, the first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory and getting someone to write new books, manufacture new culture and invent a new history. This is what he referred to as historical amnesia and before long, that nation will begin to forget what it and what it was. Dr. Azhar shared the importance of history – to understand and reach deeper into the past, in addition to being a guide and hope for the future. This is to ensure that we can truly learn from history and avoid repeating those past mistakes.
Next, he touched on the need to always review history. In the discussion, Dr. Azhar said that the definition of history is given a broader scope than what is readily applicable – covering political, cultural, literary, economic, and other histories. By defining history, it creates a platform in defining who we are, as well as our future and direction. He added that historical awareness is the most important foundation of awareness in society, in the face of change and resilience. Only by going through a review of who are the definers and modifiers of history, can we then identify the dominant group and the marginal ones. Each of them strives to present its ideas as the most updated and accepted ones.
Dr. Azhar mentioned that an ideal history usually possesses three characteristics. Firstly, history has a side of bias with a universal, moral-ethical assessment, because having this as a concern will have an effect on both the fate and direction of humanity and also its well-being. Secondly, a history that is not elitist or tends to favour only one group and its interests while the others are being silenced and marginalised. Lastly, Dr. Azhar revealed that an inclusive history that can embrace and represent all groups and interests is the most ideal one – something worth pondering over, and note the silencing or belittling of any other groups.
Dr. Azhar discussed that the euphoria in heritage making itself can demonstrate to us some dimensions which are counter-productive and deemed unnecessary. One such instance is a celebration without cerebral, which according to him, there is a serious lack of effort in reflecting and researching on the heritage artifact/item which has been recognised. Dr. Azhar also touched on elitism in selection and preference during his webinar.
What is the significance of literary heritage? “Our literary traditions speak volumes of our cultural achievements, and even as a good measure of our humanity, or its lack thereof,” said Dr. Azhar. He delved further into the reasons for neglect and relegation and how they can be exacerbated by eight factors. One of which is our attitude towards literature generally, seeing literature as “artistic” business or preoccupation, having a little link to the mainstream cultural and social life. Appreciation for manuscripts is tied to literature and without the interest of the latter, there is no space for recognition, unfortunately.
Dr. Azhar further discussed the various school of thoughts when dealing with the narratives of history. They are namely feudalist, orientalist, nationalist, socialist, Islamist and populist. In our populist context, we see this political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. Populism, in it is most democratic form, seeks to defend interests and maximise the power of ordinary citizens, through reform rather than revolution.
However, this may not be true at all! According to Dr. Azhar, some are no longer shy towards adopting racist and fascist stances in an effort to uphold the name, dignity and rights of their respective groups. He added that populist movements can often be seen as too ‘right-wing’ and being too ethnocentrism (some say cultural ignorance). In its contemporary understanding, however, populism is most often associated with an authoritarian form of politics. Populist politics, following this definition, revolves around a charismatic leader who appeals to and claims to embody the will of the people in order to consolidate his own power
Dr. Azhar mentioned Buyong Adil (his full name was Haji Yusof bin Adil) as one of the prominent figures in Malay historiography. He was a skillful historian capable of reconciling the primary and secondary sources. This was evident through his writings whereby he analysed Johore Annals, the official reports of Dutch East India Company and he also relied on History of Johore (1365-1800) by R.O Winsted and The Dutch East India Company and the Straits of Malacca by D. Lewis. He also tried to use the local sources on Malay history as well, including Malay Annals by Tun Seri Lanang, Hikayat Abdullah by Abdullah Munshi (Sharif, 2012). Historical writing becomes a battleground and platform for ideas from various groups who want to push forward or advance their agendas.
Summing up his lecture, Dr. Azhar concluded that forgetting history is as damaging as being forgotten by history. At a time when the dominant individual or group is rejecting and denying the role of others in history, we are called upon to boldly speak and point out that such history is prejudicial and regressive. It is the responsibility of those of us who are interested and concerned about historical thought, to ensure that it is geared towards becoming more humanist, people-centric, emancipatory, pluralist and inclusive. We should ask ourselves this – What is to be done? Dr. Azhar then went on to address several questions from the virtual audience who tuned in via both Zoom and FB Live. More than 30 virtual audiences tuned in to the video webinar via both platforms.
WWS, one of MHF’s flagship programmes, is a series of lectures that aims to encourage the development of new and alternative approaches to the understanding of Malay history, economy, politics, society, and culture. Beyond the clichés and convenient mainstream narratives, lie many lesser-known facets about the Malay community in Singapore. It is a year-long programme (each lecture runs on a monthly basis), comprising 12 sessions from January to December 2021. Participants who attend at least 10 sessions will be given a Certificate of Attendance. WWS lectures will mostly be delivered in Malay.