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In The News

Date: Monday May 7

Another blow to Malaysian history
Farish A Noor

4:17pm, Mon: Malaysia, like all developing countries, has an ambiguous relationship with its past. We are a developing nation that is desperately trying to carve a niche of its own in the international arena. Decades (if not centuries) of struggle have brought up before obstacles of all sorts.

In our efforts to industrialise and modernise our economies we are often thwarted by the nefarious wrongdoings of other, more developed countries that continue to insist that theirs is the only model to be emulated.

The orientalist biases that remain in the global arena relegate us to the margins of world history, and our historical achievements are often consigned to the footnotes of history.

In many cases we see how these inherent inequalities have pushed developing countries to the corner. We retreat back into forms of parochialism, native essentialism and the politics of authenticity - all in the attempt to show that we too have a history to be proud of.

In some instances these flights into the past can conjure up weird and even repugnant notions of what a purely authentic Asian past may be like.

Positive changes
But like it or not, one thing we cannot afford to do is to deny the complexities of our past. Our recent history is invariably bound up with the history of colonialism and contact with the West. This encounter has had mixed and interesting results. Colonialism brought along with it many questionable developments, but it also brought with it many positive changes.

The introduction of modern public education happens to be one of them, and we cannot deny that the spread of open, free and public education was one of the better results of the encounter between East and West. This led to the creation of a number of institutions of learning - including schools like the Malay College of Kuala Kangsar (MCKK), the Sultan Idris TrainingCollege (SITC), St. Johns Institution, Victoria Institution, the Convent School of Bukit Nanas and the Bukit Bintang Girls School (BBGS).

Ironically these institutions remain with us as a reminder of the fact that the encounter with the West was not always a negative thing. The fact that the Europeans had built such colleges and institutions spurred on the reform activities of a number of Malay-Muslim thinkers like Syed Sheikh al-Hadi, prompting them to build a number of modernist-reformist madrasahs (like the Madrasah al-Hadi in Melaka and the Madrasah al-Mashoor in the Penang that was later destroyed) as well.

Crucial role
So the news that the Bukit Bintang Girls School (BBGS) is about to be destroyed for the sake of commercial development can only arouse a sense of loss and sadness for those of us who are concerned about preserving out precious links to the past.

BBGS was founded in 1893 by European missionaries in Brickfields. It was later moved to Bukit Bintang Road where it is presently located in 1930. Unlike the elite colleges that were built for the sons (and never the daughters) of the Rajas and Sultans, the BBGS was meant for the daughters of the poor as well as the rich. The school's motto was Nisi Dominus Frustra - Without God, all is in vain.

The BBGS played a crucial role in the education of young women in Malaysia for nearly a century. Built at a time when Malaysians were reluctant to send their daughters to school (for fear that they might be educated, of all things), it provided one of the very few opportunities for young women to be educated and thus enter the space of modern civil society.

It provided opportunities at a time when they were few and far between. And whatever we think or say about the politics of colonialism then, it cannot be denied that the school's founders had managed to make a positive and lasting contribution to the development of this country of ours.

It is therefore ironic to note that their contribution to Malaysia's development has been rewarded with this - the school is now to be torn down for the sake of 'development' (at a time when the entire region is drowning in a tide of over-development in commercial infrastructure).

Students of BBGS have now been relocated to a new school building, purportedly a smart school in Cheras, which is intended to encompass other schools. The name of the new larger school is Seri Bintang. So not only is BBGS being demolished physically, even its name is being erased from the annals of Malaysian history.

Featureless tabernacles
But no development in the future can ever compensate for the lost of the past. BBGS, MCKK, SITC, VI, St. Johns - these are names that have been etched in the collective memory of generations of Malaysians. (I myself was educated at St. Johns).

Any attempt to remove or destroy these buildings for the sake of what may come in the future cannot possibly compensate for the trauma of loss of the past. Should this development go ahead (and most likely it will), we would have dealt another blow to the effort to preserve the history of this country. Perhaps in time all these schools (MCKK, VI, St. Johns) will be relegated to the backwaters of the past as well.

But in the void left by their absence, we have built only new and featureless tabernacles dedicated to the new religion, Capitalism, instead. How sad it is to see a country like Malaysia - which continues to present itself as a wellspring of heterox cultures and histories - reducing itself to a mere suburb of Los Angeles with its homogenous malls and shopping centres instead.

The school song of BBGS, which soon will pass into memory, echoes the values of an age which may one day become extinct. And that can only be a loss for all of us Malaysians:
BBGS, we pledge to thee,
Our love and toil in the years to be,
When we are grown and take our place,
As loyal women with our race.
Teach us to bear the yoke in youth,
with steadfastness and careful truth,
That in our time, thy grace may give,
The truth whereby the nations live.

Last modified:Monday May 7, 4:21 pm

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