Earlier this summer, a forum on Malayan history and textbooks quickly devolved into a shouting match before becoming the target of a right-wing media blitz.

The three-day event, “A People’s History of the Malayan Emergency,” was held in conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the start of the Malayan Emergency, a significant period in the struggle for Malayan (Peninsular Malaysian) independence. It featured documentary screenings, performances of songs and poems from the period, forum discussions, and an exhibition.

But the event’s third forum – titled “Should We Rewrite Our History Textbooks?” – quickly turned into a powder keg for more conservative Malaysians. Efforts to analyze the historical role and cultural influence of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which helmed Malaysia’s governing coalition for over 60 years until its defeat by Mahathir Mohamad and his Pakatan Harapan coalition, were met with angry, false accusations of pro-communist collusion.


Photo: Instagram/Darurat.70

A poster for the ‘A People’s History of the Malayan Emergency’ forum.

The forum focused on a bias in history textbooks favoring the UMNO, challenging the narrative presented to Malaysian schoolchildren. The textbook is slated to be revised this year.

The outcome of the event, organized by independent publisher Gerakbudaya, revealed rifts still present in Malaysian society after Mahathir’s shock election victory knocked the UMNO out of power for the first time since independence, and raised questions about how the reform-minded Mahathir will mend long-standing historical and societal tensions going forward.

Ire was further stoked after Utusan Malaysia, a Malay-language newspaper owned by a group closely linked to UMNO, falsely claimed that Fadiah Nadwa Fikri, a lawyer and advocate who spoke at the forum, had called for the Malayan Communist Party to be recognized. Fadiah says she has received threats since the report’s publication.


Photo: Instagram/Fadiah Nadwa

Lawyer and advocate Fadiah Nadwa Fikri, who spoke at the forum.

The event provided historical perspectives of the Malayan Emergency, a bloody 12-year guerrilla war from 1948 to 1960 between colonial Commonwealth forces and the Malayan Communist Party which took thousands of lives on both sides of the conflict.

Malaya (Peninsular Malaysia) gained independence from the British on Aug. 31, 1957, as the Federation of Malaya. Modern-day Malaysia was formed on Sept. 16, 1963 when Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo, which were separate British colonies, voted to join the independent Malaya.

The event had gone swimmingly until, the night prior to its third and final day, Gerakbudaya spokesman and forum moderator Imran Rasid sensed trouble.

Imran tells The News Lens that, the night before the forum, a Facebook user by the name of Tun Carlos circulated a doctored flyer with false information about the event.

“It gave the impression that the forum was going to be a pro-communist discussion,” says Imran. “By the time we knew about it, it had been shared nearly 2,000 times. Although we put up a clarification, we assumed there would be some fuss.


Photo Credit: Gerakbudaya

Although it was held on a Sunday morning, some 150 people turned up for the forum.

“The next morning, Perkasa [a Malay rights group] asked for the police to shut down the forum,” he continues. “There were also a few people who showed up early to scream at Fahmi Reza, who was one of our panelists, wanting to punch him. It all happened even before the forum started.”

“All in all it was a good dialogue, except that the next few days, Utusan Malaysia misreported about the forum and made it frontpage news for three consecutive days,” he adds.

Read an interview with Fahmi Reza: PROFILE: Walking Tall in the Land of 'Seditious' Clowns


Photo Credit: Gerakbudaya

Organizers managed to calm down some of the attendees before the start of the forum.

The UMNO-owned Utusan Malaysia has been criticized for its slanted reporting and has been named in a number of defamation suits.

A press statement issued by Gerakbudaya and several civil societies questioned the motive of Utusan in “accusing” the panelists and forum organizers as supporters of the Malayan Communist Party in its reportage.

“A journalist from Utusan was there for the entire forum but the newspaper went on misreporting on the forum’s content,” says Imran. “The other panelist and lawyer, Fadiah Nadwa Fikri, has said she will be suing the paper for misreporting what she said.”

Fadiah told news site Free Malaysia Today that she had received death and rape threats after the Utusan reports were published

At the forum, Fadiah spoke on the leftist nationalist movement and the history of the People’s Constitution that goes against the British divide-and-conquer policy allegedly supported by UMNO.

Fahmi’s presentation was on the UMNO bias in the current Form 3 History textbook, which contains 10 pages on the party’s history.


Photo: Instagram/Fahmi Reza

Fahmi Reza, a political artist and filmmaker who was a panelist at the event.

Imran says it was important to present the country’s history in a holistic manner, not as indisputable facts but rather as perspectives of historical events.

“Students should be allowed to discuss these events and not just have it memorized just to pass exams. They do not need to take sides,” he says.

“Without such discourse, the next generation would have forgotten, for example, protesting against the government is nothing new, as seen in the events during Hartal,” Imran adds, referring to the Malaya-wide strike that started on Oct. 20, 1947, which was highlighted in Fahmi’s 2007 documentary “Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka” (10 Years Before Independence).

One organization which supported the forum was Imagined Malaysia – a research project based on the alternative history of Malaysia and Southeast Asia.

Spokeswoman Netusha Naidu said the aim of the event was to critically discuss the UMNO-dominated narrative prevalent in the country's history.

“In fact, there were other groups that were fighting for independence long before UMNO,” she says. “However, these groups are left out in the narrative.”

Imran adds: “We need to know we have other political parties to choose from. As Malaysians we should not assume one party as the only savior.”

At the time of publication, neither the Perkasa Malay rights group nor Utusan Malaysia had responded to repeated requests for comment.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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