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Taking Penang Studies seriously (PEM Editorial January 2011)

LIKE MOST new countries founded after colonialism’s fall, Malaysia lacks good historical studies about itself that are based on solid empirical data. No doubt, some do exist, but they tend to emerge at certain fixed levels. Either they are officially sanctioned hagiographies, academic works clothed in cautious terms, or memoirs by retirees who are unable to support their words with documents.

Now, this is a common phenomenon throughout most of Asia because the generation of leaders, bureaucrats and even scholars who emerged triumphant from the battles, negotiations and elections that were fought just before and aft er independence often thought it their duty to “keep the record simple”.

The history they agreed upon was meant to unite the country, and therefore they mistakenly thought diversity on that front would merely destroy whatever unity they had achieved or were building. National histories, they assumed, had to be clinical to be understood by the masses.


This usually meant lett ing their side of the story colour and overshadow other aspects. Historians will vouch that finding reliable material on which to base narrations of recent events and personalities is not an easy thing in Malaysia. For starters, we have quite an impressive range of legislations to keep documents away from the public eye. These include the ISA, the OSA, the UUCA and the PPPA, not to mention the many official and unofficial bodies – secular or not secular – that have learned that shutting fellow citizens up through threats is more effective than arguments.

This tradition – and it is by now quite a deep tradition – of sidestepping issues and relying on emotional arguments instead has been a bane for new generations who never learned to debate, not to mention how to lose a debate.

With the passing of Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu in November 2010, it became obvious to many that there is yet a lot to be revealed and discussed, not only where details of his lifelong struggles are concerned, but what those details tell us about the nature and limitations of Malaysian politics, at least in the early decades.

A half century aft er the country’s founding, it is time to break this tradition.

National history told through the long career of major actors like Tun Dr Lim, preferably based on original sources, is a promising approach. Another is to concentrate on sub-national histories.

These two, I think, are strongly interrelated.

The history of Penang is a case in point. Thorough and objective studies of the lives of people like Tun Dr Lim, Lim Kean Siew or Anwar Ibrahim, along with analyses of post-World War phenomena like the Penang Secession Movement or the significance of the diverse political parties active in Penang over the years will enrich our view of our past. And our future.

– Ooi Kee Beng, PEM editorial for January 2011


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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