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Malaysian History for homeschoolers

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Retrieved on:
4th January 2017

Posted by DAVID BC TAN under: Books on 22 Feb 2011.

A homeschool dad once questioned why I kept insisting on acquainting our sons with Malaysian history: “There’s nothing but Parameswara and Hang Tuah. What’s that got to do with us?” Hmm. Interesting question. You can’t fault the cynics, what with controversies raging over blatant distortions in Malaysian history text books for secondary schools. Truth is, the version of selective history forced-fed on public school students since the late 70s didn’t do anyone any favours. No wonder so many of us have become jaded adults with no sense of collective identity and no appreciation for shared history or cultural value. And some people over at the Ministry of Education are wondering why Malaysians have such a dim view of  Malaysian history. But whose history, Mr Minister?

Textbooks are a bore anyway, so why let the powers-that-be spoil the fun when there are a number of excellent books on Malaysian history out there? We’re nowhere near the kinds of books Scholastic publishes for children – and I mean those gripping and engaging historical fiction that teach with multidimensional stories rich with ‘contextual clues’ as one writer puts it.  Here are a few books I introduced to our own homeschool, including several others I discovered too late for our boys.  These books are available at the local bookstores.

A Children’s History of Malaysia by prolific Malaysian horror meister Tunku Halim. First published in 2003, it’s history written as story for young children. There’s the usual suspects –  Parameswara, Puteri Gunung Ledang*, and oh, there’s Dr Mahathir too, even the Indonesian Konfrontasi. Odd that the cover is plain white (for a children’s book?) and shockingly, not a date or year in sight (well, he’s kept them all away in the Appendix). Author Tunku Halim admitted turning to beloved classics (like CS Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles) and contemporary children’s best sellers (JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series) for inspiration because he didn’t want to bore children. I think he has succeeded to a very large extent. He certainly learnt well because the book has more than a hint of CS Lewis’ tone of voice, which is not a bad thing. It’s really an excellent introduction to history, and what Tunku Halim has accomplished is no mean feat – all 278 pages of it. Recommended.

His second book of history titled History of Malaysia, A Children’s Encyclopedia, was probably influenced by the enormous popularity of that first history book. The hardcover book is very readable, lavishly illustrated and annotated (the author did his homework) and covers events dating from 7th Century Srivijaya Empire (ask yourself, how many history textbooks actually teach about this period?) to the formation of Malaysia in 1963. I spotted an error in the Chinese population in a table that places the number at less than a million (!) in 2004 though. It’s NOT a textbook, still I didn’t like the fact that subjects were arranged alphabetically instead of chronologically, but then the author did say it’s an encyclopedia. This is however compensated with a relatively comprehensive timeline in the back pages. If you write to the author ( – he actually names homeschoolers –  to purchase more than 10 books, he promises a very substantial discount!

Andrew Barber has done a wonderful job with Malaya, The Making of a Nation 1510-1957. Written in attractive prose by a person who has a flair for history and a story-teller’s gift, it’s a book that reads as well as it feels. It’s obviously written for non-academics, and this is probably why it doesn’t have the whiff of must and mildew. All the better I say! Well-designed, printed on stock paper, reasonably large print and generously illustrated too. Mr Barber is a former British diplomat who now lives and works in Malaysia. Only 132 pages – even children 12 years and above would find it a good read too.  As books on local history go,  the author deserves credit for his clear writing  style that avoids jargons and the abstract.

So when I chanced upon another book on Malaysia by the same author, I did not hesitate to buy it as well. The cover says, Malaysian Moments, a Pictorial Retrospective, and it has the same beautiful feel (attributed to designer Lileng Wong) and great photographs (Lileng and Kate Phillips). The book contains fascinating stories that do not normally feature in standard history books, but they should. There’s a story on the origin of Negaraku;  W Somerset Maugham and Anthony Burgess  are introduced in a chapter suitably titled The Expatriate in Malaysia: A Literary Genre ; and an interesting piece on Frank Swettenham’s 1906 Centennial Map of Malaya. These insightful essays first appeared in a magazine for expatriates so we’re told, and thankfully, it’s now compiled in a book for the rest of us. (I’ve since learnt that Mr Barber’s very first book in the series was Penang Under the East India Company 1786-1858. If you see it, I would be grateful if you let me know).

Where Monsoons Meet by Choo Foo Yoong, Lee Khek Mui and Low Swee Heong.  Here’s a book that takes an alternative look at Malaysian history. Alternative, because it does not tread  familiar ground but instead offers what the authors call ‘a people’s history.’ Readers might find it slightly subversive and will be taken aback at its Marxist-socialist slant, but that’s all the more reason to read it. First published over three decades ago, it was reprinted a few years back in time for Malaysia’s 50th birthday with a new foreword – ‘A comic history that’s no joke’ -by Amir Muhammad (read it here). It’s an unusual book presented in cartoon and comic format (in the style of the popular illustrated “….For Beginners” series) with sharp captions and wit that critique the officially sanctioned version of our history (in particular the British in Malaya). Which is why it is so appealing, because history should never be swallowed whole from a single point of view. The book is a gem and will allow for great conversations on perspectives in history, and an exercise in listening to all sides -even if it sounds uncomfortable!

This is getting to be a long post, and there are a few more books to introduce.  I’ll save them for Part Two. Meanwhile, if you have a recommendation, I’ll be happy to hear it.

*CORRECTION: I misquoted the legend told in the book. It’s the Three Magical Princes and the legend of Bukit Seguntang (updated 22 Feb 2011)

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