Khoo Kay Kim: An oral history appointment fated not to be

File picture of Professor Emeritus Khoo Kay Kim at his home during an interview after winning the 2018 Merdeka Award in the outstanding scholastic achievement category for his contribution to the scholarly research, development of reinterpretation of Malaysian history and lifetime dedication in history education. Pix by NSTP/Asyraf Hamzah

HISTORY is what happened in the past. And the past can also be fated not to be, at the same time. On the Tuesday morning of May 28, I was initially slotted for an oral history session with Professor Emeritus Khoo Kay Kim, widely regarded as the nation’s historian.

That interview was destined not to be. It was earlier postponed as Khoo was hospitalised. An earlier attempt was also scheduled on the morning of the 28th day of the month. It was February. The initiatives were part of the Perdana Leadership Foundation efforts at documenting ideas and moments on the nation’s past. But on Monday of the last week of February, I was informed that the interview was called off: “The doctors need to run a few more tests on him,” said the WhatsApp message.

It was a coincidence that my column in Higher Ed last month on Wednesday, May 29, the day after Khoo’s demise, was on the use of newspapers as historical sources.

And I cited the late professor’s book titled Majalah dan Akhbar Melayu sebagai Sumber Sejarah (1983).

When I started my academic career at the then School of Mass Communication, Institut Teknologi MARA in 1986, Khoo’s writings were heavily used and referred to in my Journalism and Communication courses. It was unusual for the work of a historian to be used in a communication and journalism school in Malaysia — then in the early 1970s and even now.

Then I was teaching an introductory course on Journalism, where the focus was on newspapers and periodicals. The structure of the course was divided into three portions — the organisation, the producer and the product. For each, I would approach from a socio-historical perspective. This led to the need for some pertinent local literature to meaningfully understand the abstract and the context. There were few books then bearing on the sociology or history of Malay newspapers and journalism, or for that matter similar materials with reference to the national context.

One was W.R. Roff’s The Origins of Malay Nationalism (1967). Roff devoted a significant part of the book to the role of Malay and Malay-language journalism and newspapers, their leading editorial figures and opinion leaders from the early 1800s to the birth of Utusan Melayu (1939). I was looking for more context in narrating newspapers to society. Roff was useful enough. However, this led me to two works by Khoo pertinent to what I had imagined for the course. One is Malay Society: Transformation and Democratisation (1991), which I added as reference. The other was the 1983 Majalah dan Akhbar Melayu published by Perpustakaan Universiti Malaya. The latter in addition to Roff’s were my initial references on the socio-historical corpus on Malay newspapers. Malay Society: Transformation and Democratisation provided the context in understanding the how and why of the evolution of Malay newspapers and journalism.

There was also Ahmat Adam’s 1992 book Sejarah dan Bibliografi Akhbar dan Majalah Melayu Abad Kesembilan Belas.

A.F. Yassin’s Etika dan Wartawan: Satu Kajian Ke di Malaysia (1986) provided some discussion on ethics. The work was based on the author’s M.A. thesis in 1980 for Universitas Padjadjaran in Indonesia.

Khoo’s Majalah dan Akhbar Melayu sebagai Sumber Sejarah demonstrated his perspective on and insights into newspapers and journalism as legitimate objects and sources of study about society, Malay society in particular.

And in his autobiography I, KKK: The Autobiography of a Historian (2017), Khoo recalled his engagement with newspapers as a student of history.

“…one of my principle resources for research was old newspapers, such as the Prince of Wales Island Gazette, Malaya’s oldest newspaper. I found them to be a great source of information for those wanting to know about the past. Until today, I have a fascination for reading Malaya’s old newspapers. Visitors to my office are often bemused at the piles of newspapers that rise from floor to ceiling.” (Khoo Kay Kim, 2017: pages 124-125)

I experienced the “piles of newspapers” in the late 1980s when I entered his room for an article I wanted to publish in a journal I was editing. The article was on Walter Makepeace (1859-1941), journalist and editor of the Singapore Free Press.

In I, KKK, the late historian argued that there is no easier way to find out about the past, without which it will be difficult to understand the present. To him, newspapers seized the mood of the times. Khoo had a fair sense of the logic of journalism and newspapers, their importance in public education. He recalled that in the past, local newspapers were important because they played the role of publishing talks and lectures by the more educated segments of society.

In the course of witnessing the early development of the nation, Khoo began to be approached by journalists “who liked to discuss the country’s affairs. I would lead them into a discussion of history, which they knew very little about.” (Khoo Kay Kim, 2017: page 130)

How well do we know our past? Before the interview that never happened, a list of questions was drafted — of the past, present and future of the nation and of the man generally regarded as a historian of Malaysia. There were 25 questions.

Broadly what we would have discussed would cover the times of his life and how that has shaped the person, the teaching and appreciation of history, his publications, the future of Malaysia and how he wants his legacy to be remembered. And sports, P. Ramlee and national unity.

By A. Murad Merican.

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