Growing up illiterate about world history
Published on: Sunday, November 21, 2021
By: Tan Gim Ean
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Evidence is clear that the Bujang Valley in Kedah was seat of the earliest Malay civilisation.
An inclusive History syllabus should build national identity and mould a universal man. Teaching students their country’s cultural and social heritage instils a sense of pride in them. Knowledge of what shaped neighbouring lands and those further afield broadens young minds, so when they eventually step out into the world, they can hold their own. 

To achieve this balance, our History syllabus needs to be mapped in concentric circles, starting with Malaysia at the centre, says Datuk V Nadarajan. Subsequent chapters can branch out to Southeast Asia and Asia, then the rest of the world. 

Sadly, textbooks today are missing this rounded focus, laments the former History teacher and the author of Bujang Valley: The Wonder that was Ancient Kedah. He thinks the syllabus is skewed towards selected chapters on Malaysia’s past, leaving out swathes of documented information on aspects important in the nation’s early years. 

“Historians cannot blank out what took place or highlight just parts of it. Ignoring facts backed by archaeological evidence and research or telling only one side of a story is like rewriting the past,” says Nadarajan,who taught History to secondary students for 10 years before leaving academia to study law in the UK and practise it. 

The focus of the first circle should be to know your country.”We should learn about traders and travellers who passed through old Malaya, early arrivals from India and China who helped open up the land, and the Malay, Chinese and Indian nationalists who fought against the British.” 

Then, know your neighbours, such as the Indus Valley Civilisation, said to be the earliest urban culture of the Indian subcontinent (about 2500 to 1700 BCE), and Shih Huang Ti,who built the Great Wall of China in the 3rd century BCE to consolidate his empire and keep out invaders. 

Finally, know the histories of the great ancient empires and the connection between them — the Romans, Greeks and other Europeans. Or, the Abbasid and Umayyad caliphates, two great Arab dynasties of the Muslim empire from 750 to 1258, and Babylon and Baghdad, lost cities with glorious pasts. 

“When I visited Europe, fellow tourists were shocked because I could sit in the coach and talk about French, German and Roman history. ‘Where did you learn all this?’ they asked. School! 

“Kids today know nothing about world history.The books they are teaching in school need to be changed. People have been saying that for years but nobody is looking into it.” 

A decade ago,amid growing cries for change, Nadarajan was one of those asked by a group of non-governmental organisations (NG0s) to appear before a 10-member committee set up by the Curriculum Development Centre (CDC) to review the History syllabus. The committee was chaired by a former deputy director-general of education. 

Nadarajan brought along the Forms One to Five textbooks. They were written by Al Azhar university graduates and not historians from Universiti Malaya (UM) or Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, he says. 

“Nothing came of that meeting. What has happened to the CDC committee set up by the education ministry to review our History syllabus 10 years ago?” 

His vehemence is as intense as the excitement he still remembers feeling in 1961, when his Form Four History teacher, Syed Abu Bakar Barakhbar, told the class an ancient Indian temple had been found in Merbok, 30km from Sungai Petani, his hometown in Kedah. 

“My friends and I cycled there. There was nothing to see, no structure, just jungle on top of a hill.There were people digging and stones everywhere. I was disappointed. It was only later that I realised the stone-pillar base of the temple was underground. The top, made of wood, was all gone.” 

Pieces of the small Hindu temple unearthed in Merbok dating back to circa the 7th century CE were reconstructed and marked as Candi No 8. By then, Nadarajan’s interest in Bujang Valley ran as deep as the archaeological ruins buried there. He read nothing but history books and graduated from UM with a bachelor of arts and a diploma in education. 

“My love is still for History,” says Nadarajan, 76, one of the seven speakers at the second Festival Kedah Tua 2021 (Oct 26 and 27) organised by the National Heritage Department. His talk is titled after his Bujang Valley book released in 2011. He has also produced a three-part video on the subject. 

The point he wants to make is: “Bujang Valley is the earliest Malay kingdom in Southeast Asia, not Melaka. It was a Hindu-Buddhist pre-Islamic civilisation.” 

Archaeological discoveries and research point to that. Behind the Bujang Valley Archaeological Museum in Merbok is Candi No 8 - the temple that was being dug up when Nadarajan went to look six decades ago, reconstructed in situ. 

Three other candis found elsewhere have also been reconstructed behind the museum, part of a sprawling historical complex that houses artefacts dating back to 1st century CE found in the valley — from candis and statues to stoneware, copper vessels, ceramics, beads, knives, coins and inscriptions. 

Concrete evidence like these lend weight to what scholars say about Bujang Valley being the foremost entrepot and trading centre of Southeast Asia in ancient times. Situated midway along the Maritime Silk Route, it was a trading emporium visited by Indian, Chinese, Arab and Southeast Asian traders. 

The latest findings at Sungai Batu, about lokm from the museum,were iron-smelting furnaces, iron slags and tuyeres, a clay air-blower used in the industry. This has given rise to claims that Malays were making iron at the site, which dates to 110 CE. 

“If that were so, where did they get the technology from?” Nadarajan asks. “Where is the evidence that Malays were advanced to that level? Other countries have proof of early civilisations, such as castles and buildings. Here, there is nothing, no proof. 

“The technology came from India, according to international archaeologists who attended the Bujang Valley seminar organised in 2016 by the Archaeology Department of Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the National Heritage Department.They also said the religious site at Sungai Batu is the base of a Buddhist stupa. 

“There is no doubt local people were involved in the iron-smelting. The Indians came as traders and brought their customs, practices and religions. The earliest to arrive were the Hindus, then the Buddhists. Buddhism in Southeast Asia came from India. 

On Oct 14, National Heritage Department commissioner Mohd Azmi Mohd Yusof told reporters on an archaeology exploration trip in Perlis that skeletal fragments found in Bukit Keteri are estimated to be between 5,000 and 10,000 years old. He also said ancient cave drawings of cows, apes, snakes, elephants and humans found in Gua Semadong are believed to contain Hindu-Buddhist influences dating back to the fifth and 10th centuries. 

“Our heritage is Hindu, Buddhist and now Islam,” Nadarajan says. “Islam came to Malaysia only in the 13th century. 

“Look at Angkor Wat — the Cambodians built it, but they were Hindus at that time. Later, they became Buddhists. The same for Borobudur — the Javanese who built it were Buddhists then. Why should we hide the fact that before the Malays became Muslims, they were Hindus and Buddhists?” 

Nadarajan knows he could be a voice crying in the wilderness. But an incident in 2013 assures him lone voices do get heard. What is wanting is action. 

That year, a housing developer clearing land in Sungai Batu bought from the state demolished Candi No 11, the second biggest in Bujang Valley.The stone edifice was believed to be more than 1,000 years old and had been reconstructed from 1974 to 1978 by UM and the Museum Department. 

“The candi was big, 32ft by 68ft — no one could have missed it.The developer bulldozed it, used a tractor to push the pieces into a hole and buried them. I had a law firm in Kuala Lumpur then and rushed up. I almost fainted — there was nothing left, not a brick or stone.” 

Phone calls to two history professors and a Kedah state executive council member were in vain. Then Nadarajan contacted the newspapers and news broke out in print and on social media, radio and TV that an ancient heritage site had been destroyed. 

The police hauled in the developer’s manager,who claimed the land was all jungle. “Luckily I had photos of Candi No 11 in my book and showed him what he had broken. `There were only a few stones,’ he claimed. `We will see you in court,’ I told him,” recounts Nadarajan, chairman of Bujang Valley Study Circle, an NGO formed two decades ago. 

A state exco member contacted him and asked what they could do. “Make a statement saying the candi will be rebuilt at the expense of the developer,” he suggested. The then menteri besar Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir issued a press statement to that effect, but until today, nothing has been done. The property is fully developed and the site of the candi has been left empty. 

“We could have rebuilt it because the Museum Department had all the drawings and pictures of the candi during the reconstruction. And we knew where all the stones were buried?’ 

Going back to his favourite subject, Nadarajan is adamant “we should have a world history syllabus that can create a Malaysian identity and a universal man”. 

“My great History teacher taught us The Cultural Background of the Peoples of Malaya. He started with Hinduism, then Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism. So, all of us knew about Socrates, Aristotle, the teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Guru Nanak and the Quran. 

“History is the study of the past to understand the present and make a better future. We can use History to foster national unity. But our textbooks have been changed so much, the different races do not know each other or the world.” – This appeared in the edge

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