History buff

AT just 22 years old, university student and history buff, Netusha Naidu, keeps busy as co-founder and director of Imagined Malaysia, a research project that aims to broaden our understanding of Southeast Asian – and specifically, Malaysian – history, by providing a platform to learn and critically discuss alternative historical narratives.

A product of the public school system, Netusha started noticing several gaps in the "official" history accounts taught in Sejarah classes. She found that past events are often narrated from a single viewpoint, while key figures' actions, and states' decisions go largely unquestioned.

Unsatisfied with the "sense of shallowness, and a lack of balance" in the national discourse on history, Netusha became intrigued with the mission to uncover other sides to the same stories she had learned in school.

Since embarking on the journey at the age of 16, Netusha's passion to piece together a deeper, and more coherent sense of history manifests itself in Imagined Malaysia.

"Our goal and mission is to address gaps in our dominant historical discourse," Netusha said. "Alternative history provides a counter-narrative to that discourse, by looking at the multiplicity of narratives in Southeast Asian and Malaysian history."

Could you describe this "dominant historical discourse" you speak of?

In the context of many post-colonial societies, the "dominant narrative" doesn't fall far from the apple tree. The "history" we learn in schools isn't very different from the colonial-era historical narrative. Malaysia is a very young nation – it's only been 60 years since we gained independence from the British.

However, even until now, many of our ideals, values, and perceptions of society and nation are simply perpetuations of what the colonisers thought about us.

For example, the ways we understand Malaysian history, politics, and society, and our interactions with one other are conducted through very racial lenses – a product of British colonisation.

How did the Imagined Malaysia journey begin for you?

My work with Imagined Malaysia was very much inspired by Malaysian academic, Farish Noor, who started The Other Malaysia project – I was exposed to his work when I was 16, which is quite late in life!

Farish was notable among his generation of activists and thinkers as having cultivated a passion, and a real genuine love for Malaysian history – not just our political history, but also the history of Malaysian culture. He manifested a lot of creativity throughout the project; that motivated my desire to become a historian.

I met Imran (co-founder of Imagined Malaysia) about two years ago. We shared a common interest in history. The two of us started doing Post-colonial Reading sessions on our own. We would get together to read and discuss a post-colonial theorist, like Edward Said, or Gayatri Spivak. We realised, "Hey, this is actually really fun."

We then thought to expand beyond ourselves. Instead of just learning with each other, we wanted to learn with a community of people who are also interested in cultivating their minds. One thing led to another; Imran and I decided to just dive in and restart The Other Malaysia with our own branding – and we decided to go with the name Imagined Malaysia.

Why the name?

There's a fun story behind it. Imran and I were very inspired by the political scientist, Benedict Anderson, author of Imagined Communities.

He depicts a nation as an imagined political community, as a constructed image. It is dynamic; it morphs over time. His idea is that a "nation" is not a rigid, unchanging society bound by geography. It is more abstract than we think, than we commonly believe.

Through our forums, research, and talks, we want to truly imagine Malaysia – its past and present – and create a more inclusive society.

We want to show that, through critically learning about history, one can better inform and understand the country's social and political situations, and hopefully address them in more productive and long-term ways. A lot of the things that are happening today are actually repeats from the past.

So, what has Imagined Malaysia been up to?

We organise sessions, forums, and workshops to cultivate a critical attitude to history. For example, we have group reading sessions where we study writings by a variety of thinkers.

These serve as good tools to help us better understand society, and politics.

We try to provide a public place for people to get access to this knowledge, since a lot of this knowledge is usually restricted to institutions, like colleges and universities.

How would you describe the relationship between the general Malaysian public and history?

I find that a lot of people my age have become disillusioned with history. It's like, "Oh, just study for exam only." Not enough people see history as a story that shapes how we perceive our identity. When asked the question, "What makes you Malaysian?" We give superficial answers like, "Food!"

Our answers are often about the external. I think there is something more complex to the idea of what it means to be Malaysian, and the official narrative taught in government schools doesn't sufficiently equip us to answer this question.

Are there dangers to not knowing your history?

I think it's up to one's individual liberty whether one chooses to learn history or not, since history is very personal. I would say the greater danger lies in not being critical – generally and towards history, specifically.

There is a lot of danger for a mind that does not question, or innovate.