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Why history books are often biased

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“The story will be kind to me because I intend to write it. The famous quote attributed to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill – who indeed wrote many books, including six on World War II, of which he was one of the victorious leaders – has come to mind recently. Because a flurry of books has just been released on Malaysia’s recent past. The race, it seems, is on as to how the 2018 fall of the Barisan Nasional government, which had never lost an election since independence in 1957, and its consequences should be viewed.

Final countdown by Romen Bose is a great insider’s take on how the last Barisan Prime Minister, Najib Razak, was misinformed by men of the yes, and provides a sympathetic portrayal of the gentleman figure many Malaysians regret. for having dismissed their functions during the last general elections. Capture hope, by the one who succeeded Mr. Najib, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, is sometimes acerbic, but often evasive: he will not convince the reformists who allied with him to be disappointed by the direction of his government once in power .

Why is this important? History books can define stories for years, decades, or even centuries. One on the UK at the end of the last millennium, Guilty Men: Conservative Decline and Fall, 1992-1997, by former cabinet adviser Hywel Williams, has been aptly described as “the classic text of the implosion of Toryism in the 1990s.” Memories of the ‘sleazy’ associated with John Major’s government may remain strong, but Mr. Williams so ruthlessly and convincingly skewered nearly everyone in that administration that I asked him at the time if he found it embarrassing. to mingle with political circles.

The title of Lee Kuan Yew’s two-volume memoir says it all. He started to write Singapore history for his side of events to be heard the loudest, and the dominance of the former prime minister’s personality in the history of the city-state – and the downplaying of the roles played by all who have become critics – have certainly been reinforced by his very convincing books.

Sometimes a book, or its title, can take on a life of its own and seem to influence the future, not just record the past. When the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published The end of the story and the last man in 1992 he didn’t mean time had stood still one way or another. But his conclusion that the world had reached “the end point of the ideological evolution of mankind and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” persuaded many that it was such an obvious truth. that she did not need to be discussed further. Influential Western policymakers under the spell of this illusion have ignored the deep wells of local cultures and the lures of communalism, faith and nationalism as a result, with often disastrous consequences.

That a historical account may be false, but still widely accepted, is nothing new. Englishman Richard III’s reputation never recovered from his role as villain in playwright William Shakespeare’s story play of the same name. The same goes for MacBeth, the 11th century King of Scotland. Rather than being a murderer and a tyrannical usurper, as Shakespeare did, according to the BBC, “for 14 years Macbeth appears to have ruled fairly, enforcing law and order and promoting Christianity.” Alas for him, few hear a more accurate account of his reign.

Portrait of Saladin (1560) by Cristofano Dell Altissimo.  Saladin (1137 or 1138? 1193), known as? Ala?  ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub the first sultan of Egypt and Syria and the founder of their Ayyubid dynasty.  Saladin led the Muslim opposition to the European crusaders in the Levant.  At the height of his power, his sultanate included Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Hejaz, Yemen and other parts of North Africa.  (Photo by: Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Just ask yourself who historians are – and what axes they need to grind while they write

Occasionally, only a new authoritative story can begin to shake long-held misconceptions. A startling revelation in the 2009 biography of Saladin by Abdul Rahman Azzam was that many of the most cherished stories about him were entirely apocryphal. For example, the great 12th-century Kurdish general never used his scimitar to delicately slice a silk scarf in half after English King Richard the Lionheart smashed an iron bar with his longsword – not least because the two have never met. More important was the intriguing argument that Saladin’s crucial role in the Sunni awakening in Egypt may have been more important than his defeat of the Crusaders and his recapture of Jerusalem.

But then Dr. Azzam’s biography was, at least according to the editors of his book, the first on Saladin by a Muslim historian, and one which was perfectly able to tap into all Arabic sources, to appear in English. This should come as a surprise, but after a little thought, unfortunately it is not. For English-speaking authors in North America and Europe have never felt discouraged when they write masterful tomes about parts of the world with which they may have limited connections.

This is not to say that many have not produced works of great erudition. But their views are almost necessarily a little different – sometimes dramatically. In preparatory school in England in the early 1980s, the conquests of the British Empire were always presented to me as a glorious achievement, for example. The interpretation would be different now, but the imbalance is still striking. It would be fascinating in contrast to read widely published stories from the UK or Europe by authorities in Indonesia, Nigeria or the Middle East, for example. If there are any, however, I do not know them.

Luckily for the collection of books on Malaysia that I spoke about to begin with, all are written by locals – with the exception of Mr. Bose, but he is a Singaporean who grew up thinking of the peninsula to the north as its hinterland. His knowledge of the country is deep.

And these are just the most recent accounts of recent history. This, as well as the histories of other countries, will be deepened and revisited in the future, as long as there are writers who cling to the words of the late American novelist William Faulkner: “The past is never dead.” . It’s not even the past. . “Just ask yourself who historians are – and what axes they need to sharpen as they write.

Posted: Jan 5, 2022, 7:00 a.m.