Burma’s General Ne Win–A Political Biography

November 26, 2015

Book Review

General Ne Win–A Political Biography

NeWin-200Robert H Taylor, General Ne Win: A Political Biography, (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2015)

Reviewed by Frank Milne

Ne Win, the dictator of Burma from 1962 to 1988, looms large in the nation’s modern history and memory. With historic free and fair elections – the first in 25 years – having just taken place, one wonders what he would think of the country today.

As he died while under house arrest in 2002, we can’t ask Ne Win about his nation’s political transformation. However, in Robert H Taylor’s General Ne Win, we are provided with an illuminating and important study of one of Burma’s most controversial political figures.

This excellent biography addresses Ne Win’s career and his place in Burmese political movements in the 20th century. It is a thoroughly researched account of the period. There is less information about his personal life and views outside politics, as he left no collection of papers, and contemporary accounts were mostly written by those who had fallen out with him.

I served in the Australian Embassy in Burma for two separate periods (1963–65 as Second Secretary and 1982-86 as Ambassador) which book-ended the Ne Win period. The earlier period was gloomy, as the economy was dislocated by wholesale nationalisation, political opponents were jailed, political parties banned, and the press strictly controlled. Burmese officials went to ground, and contact with foreigners was restricted.

I had one opportunity to meet Ne Win at a small lunch he gave for the Australian Foreign Minister Paul Hasluck in May 1965. His conversation over lunch was genial but general, though he did not conceal his low opinion of the Burmese people’s capacity for sustained effort, and the need for a firm government hand.

Ne Win was not simply a general who staged a coup d’état as a road to power and fortune. His lifelong commitment was to the unity of Burma and its independence from foreign political or economic control. In the 1930s, well before his military career, he was politically active in the nationalist association Dobama Asiayon pursuing independence from British colonial rule. He was one of the Thirty Comrades trained by the Japanese, to form the nucleus of the Japanese-controlled Burma Independence Army. This later became the Burma Defence Army, which in 1945 turned to the allied side against the Japanese.

In the internal upheavals before and after Independence in 1948, Ne Win, now one of the senior figures in the new Burmese army, played a major part in defending U Nu’s socialist government against ethnic insurgents, and Communist rebels.

Taylor’s book provides a rigorous account of the roller coaster ride that followed.

In 1949, now supreme commander of the armed forces, Ne Win was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Home and Defence Minister, but resigned his ministerial positions in 1950 to concentrate on the armed forces.  His brief cabinet experience gave him distaste for party politicians whom he regarded as preferring self-interest above the national interest. This jaundiced view of politicians was shared by his subordinates in the Army for the next 50 years.

In 1958 a split in the ruling party led to a constitutional crisis. This was resolved in 1959 by Ne Win taking charge as caretaker prime minister to restore order before new elections.  Ne Win ensured that the army remained politically neutral, but was not prepared to let the communists come to power, when it seemed that U Nu was prepared to make concessions to win their support. His nonpartisan and technocratic government provided a period of stability, but the 1960 elections won by U Nu’s Union Party did not provide a lasting solution.

Amid growing political unrest and dissension, and concerned for the future of the Union if U Nu were to grant greater autonomy to the ethnic minorities, Ne Win took power in a sudden and largely bloodless coup in March 1962. He did not follow the policy of his previous caretaker government, but embarked on a new socialist revolution and a one party system under his leadership – The Burmese Way to Socialism.

Though he was not a Marxist, and indeed was strongly opposed to the Burmese communists, he regarded Marxist methods as a useful means of establishing the control needed to get the easy-going Burmese people to become self-reliant, develop the country and protect their own culture. He was above all concerned to protect the integrity of the Union of Burma against foreign and domestic challenges.

By 1982 Ne Win had handed over the Presidency to San Yu, though he remained a controlling presence as Party Chairman. He no longer had any contact with foreign missions. The socialist revolution was then running out of steam, and its first rigours were somewhat relaxed, but the economy was at low ebb. The ethnic insurgency rumbled on in the background, though the communists, now confined to the northern border area, now longer posed a serious threat.

In the epilogue summing up Ne Win’s career, Taylor notes that the Ne Win revolution was not bloody but it was admittedly not cost-free. On the credit side he suggests that Ne Win did create a nation with the resilience from its own resources to withstand over 20 years of economic sanctions. He succeeded in his principal foreign policy aim of keeping Burma out of external entanglements and free of foreign political and economic influences, although at the expense of opportunities foregone.

He was prepared to accept the cost of rejecting foreign loans or assistance that came with strings. He did not want Burma to be enrolled in either side in the cold war, with the risk of exposing the country to the sort of great power conflict which ravaged the countries of Indochina. He was equally suspicious of Chinese intentions and the potential for United States interference. He carried his policy of neutralism to the extent of abandoning the non-aligned movement when he considered it had abandoned its founding principles.

His economic policies were not successful. Taylor points out that many social indicators such as literacy, infant mortality and basic health care improved under Ne Win. However such improvement might well have been greater under a more pragmatic economic regime. Partly because of the insurgency, expenditure on the Armed Forces greatly exceeded the funds devoted to health and education. Whether a more flexible government might have been able to negotiate a better and less expensive settlement with the ethnic minorities without breaking up the Union is another question. But Ne Win normally preferred the stick to the carrot.

Taylor notes that by persisting in failed policies long after it became clear that they had failed, the government did less than it could have done to reverse Burma’s economic decline. He suggests that Ne Win knew the policy of Socialist autarchy had failed, but feared the alternative of re-engaging with the world economy, partly because those around him were averse to change and those he had to work with had been cut off from knowledge of the new ideas and new developments in economic theory and the sciences by the country’ self-imposed isolation.

He also feared that the Burmese people, despite cajoling and coercion, might not resist the temptations of a new foreign economic invasion. But a more productive economic policy would surely have been possible without harmful foreign entanglements, if the government had been prepared to listen to better advice.

Despite Ne Win’s genuinely patriotic intentions, the end result of his regime was to keep Burma in a time warp for over 40 years, from which it is only now starting to emerge. The consequences of his political career, make Taylor’s book a must read.

Frank Milne was Australian Ambassador to Burma from 1982-86.


Get Rid of JAKIM

November 9, 2015

Get Rid of JAKIM

by Anisah Shukry


G25Tawfik Ismail

There was a time in the country’s history when the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) did not exist, Putrajaya did not tell Malaysians how to practise their faith, and no one batted an eye when Muslims owned dogs.

And the former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman’s eldest son, Tawfik Ismail, wants those days back.

The main step is to dissolve Jakim, Tawfik said during an interview in conjunction with the release of “Drifting into Politics”, a collection of his late father’s writings during the nation’s formative years, edited by Tawfik and academic Ooi Kee Beng.

Jakim was created during Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s time and seems to serve no other purpose than to intervene in the personal lives of Malaysians, Tawfik told The Malaysian Insider when met at his house in Taman Tun Dr Ismail.

“I think Jakim should be abolished. I don’t think Jakim should exist. What is the government afraid of? You have 13 muftis with 13 different fatwas and 13 different ways of approaching it (religion).

“What is the purpose of Jakim? Halal certificates? That can go to the health ministries, trade ministry. What else does Jakim do? Print the Quran? We have a communications minister,” said the softspoken, yet candid, 64-year-old former MP.

Naysayers may argue that Jakim is needed to “protect” the sanctity of Islam, but Tawfik was quick to point out that the Agong, sultans, imams (Muslim scholars) and muftis already filled that void.

“Jakim is an advisory body to the government, but constitutionally it really has no role. Islam is the province of the sultan of the state, it has nothing to do with the government.”

So which areas of Muslim life should the government intervene in? Tawfik flat-out said nothing at all.

“National integration in this country is the biggest challenge. How do you integrate the nation if you are going around this route of looking for faults among Muslims?” he asked.

Tawfik Ismail questions the need for the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim), saying over the years the department has only been intruding into the private lives of Malaysian Muslims. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Kamal Ariffin, November 9, 2015.Tawfik Ismail questions the need for the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim), saying over the years the department has only been intruding into the private lives of Malaysian Muslims. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Kamal Ariffin, November 9, 2015.But, Tawfik clarified that his views on dismantling Jakim were his own, and that G25, the group of retired Malay top civil servants of which he is a member, did not share them.

G25 does, however, want Jakim to justify its existence as well as the hundreds of millions of ringgit it receives from the federal budget each year, which he said could have been funnelled to the Health or Education Ministry instead.

“I think there’s a subversion of the constitution by religious authorities at the state level where they are actually testing the limits that they can go in intruding on a person’s personal life,” he added.

Putrajaya had not always acted as the defender of the people’s faith, revealed Tawfik, who served as MP from 1986 to 1990. He said that during the time of Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, only a small religious department existed in the Prime Minister’s Department.

There was no minister of religious affairs, and no national outcry over the fact that his father, Tun Dr Ismail, owned a dog.”My dad had a Boxer, and, before that, an Alstatian,” recalled Tawfik.

He said all this changed after Dr Mahathir took over and his then deputy, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, tried to infuse their definition of “Islamic values” into every aspect of Malaysian life.

This was done to counter the growing influence of PAS, which had never been an issue during the early years of Independence, said Tawfik.

As a result, Malaysia today is now facing “Arabisation”, with society eschewing its Nusantara roots in favour of appropriating the culture of the Middle East, he said.

“We seem to be delighting in coming up with creative ways of ‘speaking’ Arabic in this country.”Tawfik said it was for this reason that Drifting Into Politics may not sit very well with Putrajaya.

“Certain things my father says here are quite interesting.For example, he said whenever Tunku had a meeting at his house with a group of people… occasionally one or two of them would go into the kitchen and have a drink of brandy and whisky, then come back and join in. He admits this.Yes, it’s an open secret, but it’s never been in writing by a leader,” chuckled Tawfik.

His father died in 1973 at the age of 57, after just three years of serving as deputy prime minister. November 4 was his 100th birth anniversary.

With such records in existence, no matter how it tried to Islamise Malaysia, Tawfik said, the government would never be able to rewrite history nor erase its roots. – November 9, 2015.

Thanks, Tawfik for Speaking up to Dr. Mahathir on my behalf

November 8, 2015

G25Tawfik Ismail

Tawfik Tun Dr. Ismail

COMMENT: Thanks, Tawfik for speaking up to Dr. Mahathir on my behalf. It is quite well known among my generation of Malaysians that your great father and my favorite politician, Tun Dr. Ismail B. Abdul Rahman, had a hand in the sacking of the 1969 UMNO Young Turks, also known as UMNO ultras, who included Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and Tun Musa Hitam  from the party. It took Tun Abdul Razak, Najib’s illustrious father and our Second Prime Minister, to reinstate them in UMNO.

I also know that because of this, Dr. Mahathir never gave you the opportunity to advance your political career. As a result, UMNO lost a budding leader gifted with guts and character. While he may be a man who bear grudges on his sleeves (for example he never forgot the Singapore taxi driver who insulted him), Tun Dr. Mahathir is someone who cannot accept anyone who does not pander to his whims and fancies, and who has the courage of conviction to speak up. So  I am not surprised that during the G25 meeting with him, he and you crossed swords again.

You are your father’s son and I am proud that you told him what you thought with no holds barred. Tun Dr. Mahathir distorted the original intentions of the New Economic Policy, destroyed the Constitution, and created UMNO crony capitalism. He also mentored Najib Tun Razak and laid the ground work for his rise to the premiership, perhaps out of gratitude to Tun Abdul Razak who brought him back to UMNO and paved the way for his own political advancement. Today, he has a change of heart and is hell bent to make that his pupil is thrown out of office. –Din Merican

Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and Tawfik Ismail Encounter at G25 Meeting

by Anisah Shukry

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin met the G25 Group of moderates and tried to seek help in their fight against Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, group member Tawfik Ismail has revealed.

The son of Malaysia’s Second Deputy Prime Minister Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman said the G25, however, took a non-partisan position and would not get involved in such a matter.

Tawfik said former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin had summoned G25 for a meeting in September and told them of his unhappiness with Najib’s leadership and how he had come to be in his current position.

“And then he asked us how we could help. We said, well, first of all, we don’t think we are inclined to take sides in politics. We’re non-partisan. And we told him we felt that he and Dr Mahathir were not the right people to fight Najib. He was a bit taken aback, asked me to explain. So I said, you know, for every dart that you throw at Najib, Najib throws two darts back,” said Tawfik, adding that the constant barbs between both sides would just confuse the public.

He said Muhyiddin was told that the ills should be taken up by the young, who were going to inherit the country, and mentioned as examples UMNO Youth Chief Khairy Jamaluddin, PKR Youth Chief Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad and DAP leader Liew Chin Tong.

“These are the young up-and-coming leaders who have a bigger stake in what happens in the future than Dr Mahathir, Muhyiddin and Najib,” said Tawfik.

G25 also told Muhyiddin that by taking sides, they would not be able to perform their role of bringing moderation back to Malaysia, as they would be alienating certain segments of society.

“That’s what we told Muhyiddin. We need to have contacts with all our grassroots and we cannot do it if we are partisan.It’s best for us to bring the current players back to the centre. Because if you can’t get rid of them, you might as well change them,” Tawfik said of the group’s conversation with Muhyiddin, who was dropped as deputy prime minister in a cabinet reshuffle in late July, after openly questioning Najib over alleged financial scandals in his brainchild 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) and the RM2.6 billion deposited into his bank accounts.

Council of Elders

The Malaysian Insider interviewed Tawfik in conjunction with the release of Drifting into Politics, a collection of writings by Dr Ismail himself and of which Tawfik is a co-editor with academic Ooi Kee Beng. It was also the 100th birth anniversary of Dr Ismail on November 4.

The G25 began as a group of 25 retired civil servants who late last year penned an open letter to the government appealing for a return to moderation and for rational dialogue on the position and application of Islam in laws and national policy.

The group has since grown in number and comments on issues involving race and religion while advocating moderation. Dr Mahathir, during the meeting with the G25 to discuss Islam and the constitution earlier this year, had tried to steer the topic to 1MDB and began attacking the government, said Tawfik.

“So I told him we’re here about Islam, not talk about politics. But he kept on insisting. Then I told him, if you get rid of Najib, who are you going to replace him with? And what makes you think he would be any better?

“He said, ‘well, you know, the person who succeeds him will be guided by a council of elders’,” said Tawfik.

However, Tawfik said he could not accept such an argument, as it would be undemocratic to have an unelected council of elders dictating the Prime Minister.

He said Dr Mahathir had also criticised Najib over the money that the Prime Minister allegedly lost.

“So I countered back, from the time you were prime minister to the time you retired, if I took all of your losses and counted it to present day values, I’m sure it will be more than what was lost in 1MDB.And then everybody around the table was stunned because they didn’t expect that confrontation,” said Tawfik, adding that the meeting ended with their argument.

The former UMNO lawmaker admitted that he did not hold Dr Mahathir in high regard and blamed the former Prime Minister and his policies for the current state Malaysia was in.He said Dr Mahathir had undone the work of Dr Ismail and Malaysia’s founding fathers in his desire to cling to power.

Racial issues only started when Dr Mahathir became increasingly concerned about “Malay rights” and began using the other races as a scapegoat to unite the Malays, said Tawfik.

Malaysia’s increasing “Islamisation” could also be traced back to Dr Mahathir’s attempts to counter the influence of PAS, he added.Ultimately, Dr Mahathir’s successors were only striking out on the path that he had carved himself, said Tawfik.

“Najib may be the son of (Tun) Abdul Razak, but, politically, he is the son of (Dr) Mahathir.”

Tun Dr. Ismail A. Rahman– A Malaysian Patriot

October 31, 2015

Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul Rahman and I

When both Dr. Ooi Kee Beng and Oxford-educated Tawfik IsmailDin Merican7a were working on the book titled The Reluctant Politician, I asked Tawfik what was it like to be the eldest son of Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul Rahman. At that time, I was being interviewed and subsequently quoted in the book.

I had been observing Tun Dr. Ismail since I was in the Foreign Service (1963-1965) when as Assistant Secretary (Political)  on the South East Asia desk reporting to  YM Raja Tan Sri Aznam Raja Ahmad. I used to accompany foreign leaders who paid courtesy calls on our Second Deputy Prime Minister at his Home Affairs Office in the Prime Minister’s complex in Jalan Dato Onn, Kuala Lumpur.

After he resigned from the Tunku’s cabinet, Tun Dr. Ismail practised medicine at Macpherson, Catterral, Khoo and Partners. He examined me and  signed my medical certificate that enabled me to further my studies in the United States in 1968 as a Bank Negara scholar.I remember saying to Tawfik that I wished I had kept a copy of that medical certificate.

As luck would have it, upon my return from Washington DC with a postgraduate degree in mid-1970, I became a frequent golfing companion of the Tun who was then President, Kelab Golf Negara Subang  by virtue of my being Chairman of the Club’s caddy committee in 1971.

What Tawfik told me confirmed my view of Tun Dr. Ismail.  The Tun was punctual, meticulous, competitive and strict. He was a man of few words yet friendly, kind and considerate.  Tawfik added that Tun Dr., Ismail was a model family man who found time for his wife, Toh Puan Norashikin and his children. He was particularly interested in their  education and upbringing, despite his busy schedule. It was obvious to me that Tawfik admired and loved his much respected father.

When Tun Dr. Ismail died in 1973, like many men and women of my generation, I was moved to tears. I felt that Malaysia had lost a leader who was a dedicated public servant of  dignity and integrity.–Din Merican

Tun Dr. Ismail A. Rahman– A Malaysian Patriot

by R B Bhattacharjee
Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul RahmanTun Dr. Ismail –A Man of Integrity

A hundred years ago on November 4, Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, the much respected second Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, was born. The public’s liking for him, according to numerous accounts of his life and times, was based on certain traits in his character that made him stand out as a public figure.

These qualities included a non-racial outlook, a tough but fair approach towards the rules, and a principled stand on issues affecting the nation’s future.

As former Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah said in an interview with the New Straits Times daily on Dr Ismail’s role following the May 13, 1969 racial riots:

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah“The Chinese did not have much confidence in (second Prime Minister Tun Abdul) Razak (Hussein), but they did in Ismail. Razak was always associated with Malay and rural affairs, et cetera. Ismail was a principled man – and was seen that way by the different races. He was the Rock of Gibraltar. Once he decided on something you could be sure that he had gone through the relevant details and studied them. What is confidence unless it is based on the people’s belief in the leader?”

Indeed, Dr Ismail’s steadfast character and penchant for correctness was such that Razak seldom disagreed with him, including when the country was run by the National Operations Council during the Emergency rule following the 1969 riots.

Former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was quoted in the New Straits Times article as recalling that Razak often took pains to accommodate Dr Ismail’s views, extending meetings whenever there was a clash of opinions so as to satisfy Dr Ismail.

The independence of mind that Dr Ismail displayed allowed him to articulate a moderate vision of nationhood that was reassuring to the different races in the country, while retaining the special position of the Malays as a central pillar.

That vision was evident, for instance, in a statement that Dr Ismail issued as the Home Minister in the heated period before the riots broke out. Ultra Malay leaders including Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tun Musa Hitam had called for Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s resignation in favour of a leader who would restore “Malay sovereignty”.

The Tunku responded by forcing Dr Mahathir and Musa out of Umno, at which Dr Ismail issued a statement that: “These ultras believe in the wild and fantastic theory of absolute dominion by one race over the other communities, regardless of the Constitution… Polarisation has taken place in Malaysian politics and the extreme racialists among the ruling party are making a desperate bid to topple the present leadership.”

The moderation that Dr Ismail espoused strikes an especially meaningful chord in the current times, when inter-racial harmony is repeatedly being tested by inflammatory statements from right wing groups.

Dr Ismail’s views on the multi-racial nature of Malaysia’s politics are a far cry from the intolerant and extremist opinions being aired today. They tell us that the inclusive vision of our founding fathers has been supplanted by a narrow, regressive version of what Malaysian stands for.

Contrast Dr Ismail’s views with the oft-repeated call to extend the New Economic Policy (NEP) on the grounds that the Bumiputeras are still unable to compete on a level playing field.

An avid golfer, Dr Ismail likened the NEP to a handicap for the Malays which “will enable them to be good players, as in golf, and in time the handicap will be removed,” he was quoted as saying, in a retrospective article on his contributions to the nation, carried in the Sun daily.

“The Malays must not think of these privileges as permanent: for then, they will not put effort into their tasks. In fact, it is an insult for the Malays to be getting these privileges,” he said.

Dr Ismail’s courage in laying bare the reality behind affirmative action makes him a rare commodity in a field where development policy has been misdirected for political advantage.

It is time that we draw strength from Dr Ismail’s honesty to realign our efforts towards the original goals of the NEP, namely the eradication of poverty and restructuring of society, weaning the able off its life support system.

tawfikOxford educated Tawfik Ismail

Even concerning the question of the special position of the Malays, which was a core issue in the Independence negotiations, Dr Ismail is quoted in his biography ‘The Reluctant Politician’ (2007) as having written that “the leaders of the Alliance realised the practical necessity of giving the Malays a handicap if they were to compete on equal terms with the other races. The only point of controversy was the duration of the ‘special position’ – should there be a time limit or should it be permanent?

“I made a suggestion which was accepted, that the question be left to the Malays themselves, because I felt that as more and more Malays became educated and gained self-confidence, they themselves would do away with this ‘special position’ because in itself this ‘special position’ is a slur on the ability of the Malays and only to be tolerated because it is necessary as a temporary measure to ensure their survival in modern competitive world: a world to which only those in the urban areas had been exposed.”

Expressing concern over racial polarisation in the country, he once asked:

“Why did we fight for Merdeka? So that the different races can be divided? That can’t be the way, right? That can’t be why all these great Malay and UMNO leaders fought for this… Something is wrong…

“I hope the new discussions will start. Why are we building Malaysia? What Malaysia are we building? What kind of symbol is Malaysia supposed to be?”

It is telling that over 40 years after Dr Ismail’s passing, the questions that he had posed then continue to trouble us. It is left for the people today to draw inspiration from Dr Ismail’s clarity of vision about the relations among Malaysia’s diverse communities in order to forge a common future.

His untimely death at 58 has truly made him “the best Prime Minister Malaysia never had”.

On Teaching Malaysian History

October 30, 2015

Those interested in reading more about History as a Subject, Philosophy and Discipline ought to read this: 


On Teaching Malaysian History

by Azly Rahman


There is a nagging debate emerging: either to teach Social Contract or Malaysian History. I feel that the framers of the debate are getting confused and asking the wrong questions about how to teach History. Here are my thoughts on what actually History teachers need to do:

EH CarrThose who think that we cannot question historical facts, have not learned the philosophy of History nor been introduced to more exciting strategies of creative and critical thinking and also futuristic thinking.

Teachers and university educators who preach ‘official histories’ need to be introduced to the varieties of teaching strategies of teaching History as well as the spectrum of views on what History, from the perspective of history and class and cognitive consciousness, can be.

On Civic lessons and healthy democracy

A skilled teacher/university educator will humbly entertain any question on History. The more we question ‘historical facts’ the sharper our thinking will become. The more we question the origin of things, the better we will play our role as creators of history as well as masters of our own destiny. The more we delve into the most challenging questions in History, the healthier our sense of well-beingness of own democracy will be.

A healthy democracy is one that teaches each and every child what ‘politics’ mean. In our History class, it teaches the meaning of justice and fairness and of the use and abuse of power. It teaches the process and possibilities of democracy and not of democracy as a product created by the elite few that come from dynasties. It teaches them how to become active and reflective citizens.

A good History lesson does not teach children to memorise facts that are suspect, or historical facts that are oxymoronic, or of dead people and dead places and who controls this or that territory, or which kingdom gets overthrown by this or that usurping prince.

It teaches them to question those facts and to put those individuals on trial. It puts Christopher Columbus on trial for murdering thousands of Arawak Indians in the process of being canonised as the ‘founder’ of America.

A good History lesson does not teach the idea that Parameswara, who fled his kingdom in an unsuccessful coup attempt in Palembang, and next killed Temagi in the then Singapura, and next hunted down by the Thais, and next landed under a Malacca tree – is a hero. It teaches children to be vigilant against rulers who are murderers and plunderers and slave-owners.

The story of a glorified Parameswara as a founder is a bad history lesson – how can we still glorify a ‘historical fact’ of an usurper and a murderer as a founder of Malacca? It is like glorifying the history of Manhattan island, New York City – worth 24 dollars in real estate value and became a haven for smugglers, pirates, and bootleggers.

A good history lesson makes history that come alive by allowing children to play the role of makers of their own history. It allows children to put Parameswara on trial for murder and revolt. It teaches children to question the founding of Malacca and the intention of the author/court-propagandist Tun Sri Lanang who wrote it.

A good History class is one that teaches children to revise, debunk and deconstruct history as a tool of mass deception. It challenges students to look at history in radically different ways to make history come alive, subjective, and ever revisionist.

The people’s history of the land

Khoo Kay KimA good History class teaches children the people’s history of the land – of those who died building monuments, istanas, factories, bridges, tunnels, or in wars between the greedy sultans and traditional rulers of the region. These are the unsung heroes of history that our children ought to be taught to honour.

A good History lesson teaches children not other people’s history but of their own – beginning with one’s personal history, next to one’s family, and one’s people – all within the framework of history that does not alienate and marginalise human beings.

The way we still teach History and Social Studies reflects why we Malaysians cannot yet evolve from the consciousness of ‘waiting for the messiahs/saviors/matrieya/al-Mahdi/ Perdana Menteri’ to the consciousness of understanding the Self as the true ruler of the Kingdom within.

Already our land is littered with names after names of individuals who wield dynastic power since modern time immemorial – names of those deserving or not. These names are inscribed on road signs, billboards, lorongs in kampongs, landmark buildings, corporate towers, stadiums, schools, higher education institutions, and deep in the consciousness of the people through media control of the human mind.

We become colonised by these names, signs, and symbols. The mind becomes paralysed being colonised by these concepts, signs, and symbolism that govern the daily economic, social, and political existence of the people that are being made objects of other people’s history.

Let us teach our children that they too can become the next Prime Minister. Teach our teachers how to creatively teach Civics and History and to acquire the art and science of Revisionist Civics, Counter-factual History, and Radical and Transformational Leadership.

Our political conversations will then be more meaningful and our road to democracy will be more enjoyable.

Howard Zinn

“Man makes history,” said the great historian E.H. Carr. It is the “people’s history” as American historian Howard Zinn would say, that ought to be honoured.

‘Questioning History’

History is that field of study/enterprise so powerful a mental glue that can integrate or disintegrate a nation. It becomes crucial what perspective of history we use in crafting its ancillary called Citizenship Studies/Kenegaraan. We must begin to reconceptualise the way we approach teaching it.

Instead of asking the question whether to teach Social Contract or Malaysian History, it is best to consider the following questions we may begin to ask ourselves concerning history:

Whose history is of most supreme?

What kind of history is most meaningful to the individual?

Who writes history?

From what point of view is history written?

When do history textbooks get revised?

How does history contribute to lethal ethnocentrism?

Under what circumstances do historians lie?

Is there such a thing as ‘historical facts’ when historical accounts themselves are biases reconstructed based on selective memory and written by those who own the pen?

Who gets marginalised in the process of historicising?

When will ‘history’ become ‘her-story’?

What images of women, immigrants, minorities, natives are presented in history textbooks?

In a multiracial and pluralistic society, how is a national history textbook written?

Must history continue to glorify individuals, despots, autocrats, dictators, symbols of slavery and oppression, buildings, etc?

How do we teach children to write their own histories so that they may become makers of history instead of being fed with other people’s history?

How do we make history lessons come alive?

These are my thoughts and my questions on how to teach History. Let us even re-evaluate the lies our History teachers told us and continue to tell us.

DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Baru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in the fields of Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies and Communication.

Recalling Watergate–a Nixonian Nightmare

October 29, 2015

COMMENT: I do not know what Azrul’s motivation is for writing about the Watergate Affair and the roles of award winning journalists, Bob Woodward and  Carl Bernstein in the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Azrul forgot to give due credit to the steadfast  and respected owner of The Washington Post Katherine Graham,  Managing Editor Howard Simons, and Editor-in-Chief Benjamin C. Bradlee (picture below) without whom there would probably be no Watergate. 

The Washington Post Watergate Team w Managing Editor Howard SimonsIf Azrul thinks that Malaysian journalists can do a Woodward-Bernstein to bring about the resignation of Najib as our Prime Minister, he is either very naive or overrating the role of investigative journalism in keeping our politicians in check. Even Sarawak Report with a smoking gun evidence on the Rm 2.6 billion donation in the Prime Minister’s bank account failed to force Najib to leave office. How do we deal with someone who has no conscience or sense of common decency?

The Malaysian Prime Minister wants to hang on to power and will not relent, unless UMNO decides to throw him out and that, as we know, is highly unlikely. All Division chiefs and UMNO grassroots are in his payroll, having been given millions and BR1M money. Even my good friend, Shahrir Samad, of all people, is beneficiary of Najib’s generosity.

We also know that we cannot expect our mainstream media which includes the Malay Mail, and the Sun Daily, The New Straits Times, The Star and others to get within a whisker of any attempt to mobilise public pressure against Najib and his cohort. Furthermore, our media are not blessed with the likes of Graham, Simons, and Bradlee who could withstand the relentless pressure they got from a powerful President Richard Nixon and his White staff.

Malaysia is not the United States. That is obvious. In the US, the media is free and independent. The Senate acts a powerful countervailing power to the US President. And the American public were taught at an early age to respect the US constitution and the Rule of Law and will not condone acts of abuse of power and corruption.Public institutions serve the American people and will not hesitate to act against those who break the law, irrespective of their status and stature. Their Constitution is the supreme law .

Our Parliament, on the other hand, is  a lame duck legislature which should be abolished to save taxpayers money. Our public officials like the Attorney-General, the Inspector-General of Police, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Chief Commissioner, and the Governor of Malaysia’s central bank are not able to enforce the law since they report to the Prime Minister, and serve at his pleasure. The Judiciary which is supposed to be our  last bastion of  justice is subservient to the powerful Executive Branch (and for that we must be eternally grateful to our most outstanding Prime Minister No. 4). We are saddled with institutions that are decrepit and dysfunctional.Our democracy is an abject failure and our confidence and trust in our government is at its lowest point in our 58 year history.–Din Merican

Recalling Watergate–a Nixonian Nightmare

by Azrul Mohd Khalib


This is the title of a 1976 movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Focusing on the intrepid Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who wrote the best-selling book of the same title that the film adaptation is based on, the movie is a political thriller centred on the real life events of the Watergate conspiracy.

A scandal which began with a burglary and ultimately resulted in the resignation of US President Richard Nixon just two years after his incredibly successful re-election.

If you haven’t read the book or watched the movie, maybe it’s time that you did. Might sound awfully familiar.

In the wee morning hours of June 17, 1972, five burglars were arrested for breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) located in the Washington DC Watergate office complex. Their intent: to wiretap phones and copy confidential documents belonging to the DNC.

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First pursued by The Washington Post as a mere story of curiosity, it was later revealed that some of the suspects had been involved with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), had the number of a White House staffer who was also a member of President Nixon’s re-election campaign, and carried thousands in cash on their persons. These were obviously not your average burglars.

During the course of the investigation, Bernstein and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) eventually traced the money back to the re-election funds making a direct link between the burglary and the campaign. The records of transactions and the normal business practices involving the deposit checks and withdrawal of funds via cashier’s checks and money orders, made it possible to follow the money trail.

As increasingly revealing and damning new information and linkages were made public through Woodrow and Bernstein’s investigative reporting, it became clear to a growing number of people that a conspiracy was afoot which had possible ties all the way up to the presidency.

Whether Nixon was actually involved in the actual espionage efforts of the campaign is uncertain. He initially categorically denied any White House or his administration’s involvement in the burglary. But what is known is that he and his senior aides undertook measures and initiated efforts to cover up what had happened. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in “hush money” were raised for the five burglars. Evidence was destroyed.

There was even a plan to get the CIA to tell the FBI to back off from the investigation. Something so serious as to be an obstruction of justice and an abuse of presidential power.

Subsequent investigative reporting by The Post revealed the existence of a secret fund controlled by a former Attorney General (AG) which supported an information gathering campaign on the Democrats. A massive effort of political spying and sabotage was also being conducted by Nixon’s senior aides on behalf of the re-election campaign. It was clear that a conspiracy existed which reached high into the Justice Department, CIA and the White House.

However, it is interesting to note that despite all of that being exposed to the public, most of the media generally ignored the story and American voters re-elected Nixon in one of the largest landslides in American political history.

The White House denounced The Post’s coverage of the scandal as misleading and biased while maintaining a climate of intimidation, threats and harassment against the media outlet.

The months following Nixon’s re-election saw the trial of the Watergate burglars, the setting-up of a Senate select committee to investigate the incident and the appearance of a new conspiracy — a cover-up of the original cover-up.

Several of Nixon’s most senior White House aides, including the chief of staff and chief domestic policy adviser, were eventually implicated and faced prosecution for perjury and obstruction of justice. They resigned in an attempt to fall on their swords and protect the presidency, and were later indicted, convicted and sentenced to prison. The White House counsel was fired and the AG resigned.

The summer of 1973 saw the whole affair being investigated by two entities, a special independent prosecutor appointed by the new AG and the Senate Watergate Committee. During the course of their investigations, it was revealed that Nixon had installed a secret recording system which taped all phone calls and conversations in the Oval Office.

Persistent efforts to obtain the tape recordings resulted in the President demanding that the special prosecutor be fired, the new A-G and his deputy resigning in protest, and the the position of the special prosecutor eliminated.

By the time Nixon uttered the infamous phrase, “I am not a crook” in a televised press conference, his credibility with the American public was such that very few believed him. At that point almost two dozen individuals had criminal proceedings against them, been indicted or had pleaded guilty to offences related to Watergate. Despite that and an increasing volume of calls for impeachment, Nixon rejected accusations of wrongdoing and vowed to stay in office.

By mid-1974, with many of his senior aides and White House staffers facing criminal charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury, Nixon’s leading role in the entire conspiracy could no longer be disputed. Despite a Supreme Court decision to give up all the Oval Office recordings, he continued to delay.

By the end of July, the US House of Representatives had decided to vote on articles of impeachment against Nixon for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, criminal cover-up and violations of the US Constitution. The release of the remaining tapes not long after containing a conversation of what has been termed as the “Smoking Gun” provided undeniable evidence of the President’s complicity in the Watergate crimes.

Nixon’s fate was sealed. He faced certain impeachment by the US Senate. On August 8, 1974, after his role in the conspiracy finally came to light, Nixon announced his resignation as President of the United States. His successor, Gerald Ford was sworn in the very next day. A month later he pardoned Nixon for all the crimes he “committed or may have committed” while in office and ended the investigations.

The Watergate conspiracy resulted in 69 government officials being charged and 48 being found guilty.

It is important to note that till the last days of his life, Nixon never admitted to any criminal wrongdoing, only using poor judgement. It took two years before he was forced to resign. He was also never prosecuted. Years later during a TV interview with David Frost, he states that “if the President does it, it’s not illegal.”

This blatant abuse of presidential power had a significant impact on American politics. It contributed towards an atmosphere of cynicism, distrust and scepticism. It caused Americans to be more critical about their country’s political leadership, particularly the Presidency.

As a result of Watergate, the US Congress also passed legislation on campaign finance reform and probed abuses of power by national security agencies such as the CIA.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigative journalism won them a Pulitzer Prize and a place in history.