The demise of Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim is a huge loss to the nation. A renowned historian, sports buff, and a teacher to many, Khoo was never one to hold back on his views be it on history or socio-political issues in the greater cause of nation-building.
Khoo, 82, breathed his last at Universiti Malaya Medical Centre at 10.13am today.
The recepient of the 2018 Merdeka Award, Khoo played an instrumental role in drafting the Rukun Negara following the 1969 racial riots and served Universiti Malaya for over 50 years at its Department of History. In 1974, he became the first Malaysian to obtain a PhD for his thesis entitled ‘The Beginnings of Political Extremism in Malaya 1915-1935.’
Twentytwo13 managing editor Pearl Lee, who interviewed Khoo several months before the 14th general election, went through her notes and shares some of his invaluable insights on the nation.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
Pearl Lee (PL): What is your take on the state of race and religious relations in Malaysia?
Khoo Kay Kim (KKK): We have been talking about this since almost 100 years ago. It’s very difficult to persuade people to not identify themselves according to race. It’s because every generation is brought up like that. At home, race and religion are instilled through cultural practices.
It’s difficult to ask them not to think like that.
PL: Why is this so?
KKK: The British administrators who ruled us introduced integration and not assimilation among ethnic groups.Before 1957, many of the people here came from India and China and they only intended to work and return to their homeland. But in 1949, after the Communists took control in China, the Chinese decided to make Malaya their home. The Chinese here were once known as the ‘Hua Chiau’ — they believed China is their homeland. The Indians were the same as well. In fact in the 1930s, the non-Malays outnumbered the Malays and that was a problem.
PL: But this continued even post-1957 Malaya. Who is to be blamed?
KKK: After 1957, it is the politicians who are responsible for dividing the people. And it is not easy to solve this as if you come out to say you want to bring the people together, to see beyond race and religion, you will be attacked. The main political parties Umno, MIC and MCA — race-based parties set up pre-Merdeka continue to exist. If these parties are told to forget about race, they will not exist anymore.
PL: What about our present education system — how is it addressing this issue?
KKK: The present education system is not helping either. It is too focused on figures and technology. There is no room for culture. If you were to ask people about the Chinese, they think they are all Buddhists. But they are not. The Chinese are open-minded and you see them praying to Datuk Kong and when you go to Batu Caves during Thaipusam, they are there praying as well.
PL: Do Malaysians lack a sense of identity?
KKK: People are very confused. They don’t seem to know who they are. When non-Muslims adapt to Muslim ways, there are Muslims who do not like it. For example using the world Allah.
I am very worried. Politicians are not working to bring people together. Their existence depends on dividing people. When it comes to votes, they will go for racial groups.
PL: But what about multiracial parties? Are they making inroads for a more unified Malaysia?
KKK: They only exist as multiracial on the surface. If you study properly, they are only for one racial group.
PL: How would you describe the state of race relations in the country?
KKK: I am very sad at the present state of affairs in the country. I lived in an era where I went to an English school and my friends were of various ethnic groups. But today people are divided. And those who feel they do not belong here have migrated. It is not just the minorities as there is also a small group from the majority race.
PL: Why do you think politicians are not taking cognisance of these issues and doing something about it?
KKK: It really depends what politicians are afraid of. In essence, they want to stand for elections and it depends where they are standing. If the area is predominantly made up of a certain race, you do not want to offend. In essence, a politician cannot stand on principles, and it’s all about winning votes.
PL: What about the people, someone like you and other forward thinking Malaysians? What can they do to bring about changes?
KKK: I try to be non-racial. But I get criticised all the time. People attack me when I speak. Some praise the communists but when I ask them what good have the communists brought to the country, they cannot back their argument. Despite mixed marriages being on the rise, I feel kids will take on after the race of their mothers, as they spend more time with them as they grow.
PL: Can we ever have a sense of national identity?
KKK: It is not easy. The British, they ruled with an iron fist and they had one system of education for us. But now, when you talk about abolishing vernacular schools, you can’t as no one here wants to use force. In 1925, the British told Chinese schools, if they adopted local syllabus, the British would provide them with funding, but the Chinese said “We don’t need your money”.
PL: Do you think we will see Malaysians being united in our pursuit of a national identity in this lifetime?
KKK: Politicians want to play safe all the time and they will not pursue this. But in Singapore, you had one strong leader. It’s different here. The people must tell politicians what it is they want to unite the masses. But many just want the easy way out and they will continue to allow the present system to thrive.