Many years ago, I was at a World Economic Forum session in Kuala Lumpur listening to the Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia detail his country’s plans for the region.

During the question-and-answer session that followed, he was asked why the Chinese felt compelled to view much of the South China Sea as “theirs.”

The reply was so fast it seemed rehearsed: “There is a reason for the sea to be called such.”

This was swiftly followed by a comment from the back, in an American accent: “The Indian Ocean stretches down to Australia and parts of West Africa but you don’t see India claiming those waters.”

When nations begin using history to legitimise their claims – to territory or anything else – the results are generally fraught with peril because the rationale is spurious to begin with. Henry Ford is the one credited with saying: “History is bunk” and while he said a great many egregious things, I think he got that one right.

One is reminded of the cartoon, in which the first box features Donald Trump fretting about the “dangers of unchecked immigration into the US.”

And, in the next, a seriously unhappy Geronimo is agreeing, “Amen to that.”

Whether it’s the Chinese or the US, these claims are unending. When the British first proposed the creation of the state of Malaysia through the union of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak, both the Philippines and Indonesia objected on the grounds, yet again, of “history.” Manila claimed “ownership” of Sabah while Jakarta insisted that Sarawak had always been part of the republic.

But the British and the Malayan leadership pit the matter directly to the people of the regions themselves and, in a referendum supervised by the United Nations, the notion of Malaysia was overwhelmingly accepted.

Despite the popular snub, Jakarta took it badly and declared a campaign of “ganyang Malaysia” (Hang Malaysia).

It took another two years of foolishness – and a coup that unseated Indonesia’s then President Sukarno – to restore amity to Southeast Asia. Even so, every eight years or so, Manila threatens to dust off its ancient claim to Sabah which leads to another fruitless round of sabre rattling from both sides.

If one takes history too seriously, you might end up with some utterly strange conclusions.

For example, did you know that present-day England was once ruled by the Romans in an unbroken stretch that lasted for 366 years (43AD to 409AD).

To put it in a modern context, that’s roughly 55 years longer than the current duration of the modern superpower known as the United States of America.

Taking that a step further, how would the people of England feel if Rome were to declare that, because of its ancient claim to England by virtue of historical antiquity, that, henceforth, all Romans and their descendants had a right to become automatic citizens of England. Sorry and all that, and I know it’s hard cheese for you chaps, but it’s history, what?

It would just about sum up the feelings of the Palestinians currently.

And don’t forget the clincher, all ye who treasure history: that the Jewish claim was rooted in no less than divinity, that the land in question was promised to them by God!



There is a phrase that’s still relevant in thought. 

Tabula Rasa literally means “clean slate” and it refers to the absence of preconceived ideas in humans when they are, say, young. 

But it’s not just the young that are easily influenced. On one level, there’s Goebbels and his ideas about propaganda: “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” 

Hitler, Stalin et al have used it successfully. 

But, incredibly, it’s still in use.  

The Deceiver-in-Chief in residence in Washington routinely employs the Goebbels Gospel to downplay the ravages of Covid-19 on the United States. 

Even more incredibly, and despite over 200,000 deaths, it’s believed by enough people literate enough to know better. And this in the US in the second decade of the 21st Century! 

It’s enough to make you believe in Santayana, “History always repeats itself; first as tragedy, then as farce.” 

But this “clean slate” business cuts across levels. Take me, for instance.  Growing up, I lived in a family where my father stressed English, so most of my siblings spoke English. With the exception of the eldest, we only have a rudimentary grasp of Malayalam. 

My father subscribed to two publications at the time: The Straits Times and the Reader’s Digest. Later on, TIME got added to the mix. 

In those days, my father used to insist that we read the editorials in The Straits Times – this was in the 1970s before the two papers separated, news-wise. We did, out of prudence: he occasionally tested us with dinnertime questions.

Add to this a reading diet of Enid Blyton, the Biggles heroics and TV fare like Get Smart and it changes a boy’s worldview. 

At first, the boy believed that only white people had all the adventures; that it was England which was the arbiter of life.  

Only to find out twenty years later, that Ms Blyton wasn’t the kindly, twinkling woman I’d imagined, but an unabashed racist who called a spade just that.    

And that the Battle for Britain wasn’t just won by English pilots like Biggles but pilots from other Commonwealth countries, including India.

The periodicals made me staunchly pro-Alliance and then pro-BN. I remember being annoyed with the University Malaya demonstrators in 1974 for “disrupting” life and business in Kuala Lumpur, as the ST described it then.  

I believed everything I read then in the ST! 

The Reader’s Digest improved my English, made me understand humour as a writing tool, and left me admiring of a conservative, anti-communist US worldview. TIME merely reinforced those perceptions. 

Indeed, I bought McNamara’s Domino Theory and thought the Vietnam War helped protect countries like Malaysia from falling under the communist yoke. 

Reading and experience – I’ve been a journalist for 30 years – have changed my views considerably. 

Still, some things never change.

Before, the last general election, a Malay friend Z was confessing that he had difficulty wrapping his head around supporting the Democratic Action Party.  

This was a successful man with two Western degrees. But I understood: it was the tabula rasa effect all over again

“With your mother’s milk, you have imbibed the notion that the DAP is anti-Malay,” I said and Z, understanding immediately, agreed. 


The Raffles Hotel in Singapore is located on what seems to be a misnomer of an address because there isn’t a beach in sight. 

But the imposing colonial-style building eponymously named after Singapore’s founder still squats along Beach Road. That’s because when it was built over a century ago, the sea was visible through shimmering palms in the malarial heat of an island Sir Stamford thought might be a nifty port. 

The malaria is gone but the heat is still around although it’s dispelled by the many ceiling fans that line the route our guide takes to lead us to The Courtyard. 

We have now been stuck in Singapore for over five months largely because we landed a day before Malaysia imposed its movement control order. 

Then, just when it seemed that we could return to home quarantine, some idiots were taped breaking home quarantine and that loophole got closed.  

So, we thought we’d have a drink at the Raffles which was, at least, vaguely historic. I mean, Somerset Maugham staved off the chills via stiff G-and-T’s at the hotel’s Long Bar. 

Alas, the Long Bar was closed due to the virus, Rudolfo regretted but assured us the Courtyard would be just as good. 

We are led to a table amid the strains of the Stones’ Paint It Black, which I suppose is sort of par for the course for six in the evening. Rudolfo is from Chile and he’s here because he “followed my girlfriend home.” 

You have to suppose that’s as good a reason as any. 

We scan the menu and that’s when you realise how good the island is at branding itself internationally.

We learn that the Singapore Sling was invented in 1915 in the Long Bar by one Mr Ngiam, a bartender whose verve with gin-based cocktails endeared him to so many British hostesses that it made his at-first-shyly-offered pink confection an instant hit. 

We didn’t have one though: they were priced at S$35 a pop. 

But the guy who dubbed it the Singapore Sling was a genius who put the drink, its origin, on the map. 

Why can’t we do the same thing?

Malaysia is supposed to have invented Yee Sang so let’s just christen it the Kay-El Toss and get on with it. Why not Seremban Eggs for Foo Yong Tan? Tambun pomelos, anyone? And so on, ad infinitum.

And the thing that simply screams out to Malaysians visiting the Raffles Hotel is this: Malaysia has a zero history – zilch, nada, zip – of preservation or maintenance.  

The Kuala Lumpur Railway Station could be every bit as colonially imposing as The Raffles but history hangs shabbily on its frame. It is grubby; it has Ficus (a parasitic vegetation) growing in its cracks and it’s downright embarrassing given the billions squandered on wasteful projects or outright theft. 

Remember the country’s rest houses? They used to be quasi-motels where you could get a good meal relatively cheaply and a clean bed/toilet for the same privilege. These used to be looked-forward-to staples back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Now ask yourself: where are they now?