Saturday, November 24, 2007

Is there such a thing as an objective past?

Today, for benefit of its readers who might want to stretch their legs a little, The Star, featured the historic Tok Janggut Trail in Kelantan, a state in northeastern peninsula Malaysia. Tok Janggut (which the writer of the article translates as ‘The Bearded One’, although One seems a pale version of Tok, an honorific accorded to those of who are particularly wise and respected, and who are no longer young punk warriors) was a local warlord who led a rebellion against the British colonizers around the turn of the 20th century.

The meaning and significance of his act is shrouded is some controversy, as the title of the book written by an expert (who is quoted in the article) shows: Tok Janggut: Revolutionary or Traitor?

A monument to
remember Tok Janggut by.
(Picture copyright: The Star.)

But what struck me about the article was the way in which history is again being spun in the service of the present. Here’s how the writer, reflecting the State-determined standard accounts of history of today, puts it:

“Arguably the first person to revolt against the British in the Malay Peninsula back in the early 1900s, Tok Janggut did in a way anticipate Aug 31, 1957.”

But a close inspection of the details suggests that linking together Tok Janggut’s rebellion to Malaysia’s independence from Britain requires some suspension of critical thinking.

Tok Janggut’s beef was as much against the British as it was against the Sultan of the day, and rested on local issues like taxes and local autonomy. His rebellion could be seen as part of a long tradition of maintaining a balance of power between the ruler and the local lords. The ruler, rarely all-powerful unless he was especially charismatic, won the support of local chiefs by promising them titles and legitimacy, while extracting taxes (in goods and manpower) from them. Levy too high a tax, and the chiefs revolted.

So the jury is still out on whether he is a modern anti-colonialist hero, or a local warlord seeking to exploit a weak Sultan.

Also, the Malaysian (or more accurately, Malayan) parties involved in the negotiation for independence, hardly resembled the violent and radical Tok Janggut. The British identified and chose to negotiate with a group of conservative elites (quite a few of them who had studied in England), and who were amenable to the Queen’s interest after the Union Jack had been lowered.

Ah, the devil is in the details…


z said...

cool story! your dissertation's going to be great!

Aromatic Beans said...

... if it's not stillborn!!! Anyway, the archaeology to date has been most intriguing, so I know I can't blame the material, sigh!

Big Boys Oven said...

looks delicous thie poh much is it?

Aromatic Beans said...

The poon choy from the post above? It comes with a large plate of stir-fried veg (depending on what they have that day), and together it's $240, or $220 - I forget which - but around the $200+ mark.