Recently, national discourse has been rife with questions of historical revisionism and decolonisation.

First, is the defacing of Francis Light’s statue in Penang. Red paint was thrown on the statue; the act characterised as vandalism. Another account frames the act as part of the wider Black Lives Matter movement, where historical figures with problematic histories are removed.

Second, is an op-ed that appeared on the Malay Mail. The article argued for Penang to be returned to the state of Kedah, outlining the legal validity of the historical treaty between the British and the then-Kedah Sultanate. The authors cited forceful occupation and strong-arming tactics by the East India Company, which resulted in the island appropriated from both the natives and Sultanate.

Both are separate incidents but come simultaneously at an interesting time. Both carry a similar thread of the decolonising process. One is a physical act, while the other, intellectual. Both sought to reframe the past by acknowledging British imperial interference in shaping modern Malaysia as we know it. To be precise, however, in these instances, Penang sits at the heart of this debate.

It is not difficult to see why. There are several facets to this. But let us tackle the contemporary first: politics and racial discourse.

The legitimacy of history

It is no coincidence that in the Malay Mail op-ed, the sacred legitimacy of the Kedah Sultanate of old was invoked. As the claim goes, Penang Island was occupied through deception and after which, was developed  by Francis Light. He identified the island’s strategic location along the Straits of Malacca’s trading route. This intervention led to the current composition of Penang’s racial makeup.

The island-side is over 50% Chinese-majority, with the shoreside being 49% Malay-majority. It is no coincidence that this geographical divide is also economic. Penang Island is developed infrastructurally and economically. So obvious is this racial cleavage that Penang Island is often accused of reforming itself into the next Singapore.

This narrative is uncanny: a DAP-ruled state government, a Chinese-majority population, a leading position in the national economy – this is what haunts the Malay-conservative diaspora.

So, the question of historical revisionism is not only to look past British imperial legacy but to invoke the Malay Sultanate of old, a sacred echo of Malay legitimacy. Alongside this op-ed, coincidentally, are calls to return Penang Island’s name back to Tanjong Penaga – its pre-colonial name.

While name-changing exercises may seem trivial, there is a legitimacy accorded to names. Think of the politics surrounding naming roads and highways. A name signifies acknowledgement, legitimacy as well as the identity we chose to honour. The petition for the name change is a discourse of both historical and racial measures.

Defacing statues and history in hindsight

Let us now examine the defacing of Francis Light’s statue. Regardless of the perpetrator’s motives, let us instead read reactions to this act. Many have labelled this as vandalism. More extensive arguments are the contributions of Francis Light towards the economic development of Penang Island. Thus, this historical contribution means that the statue and what it represents deserves to be revered and respected.

Hindsight is 20/20 and despite whatever negatives came with British occupation, Penang Island was undeniably modernised under imperial intervention. Not surprisingly, this same argument was presented with regards to the defence of Stamford Raffles’ statue in Singapore.

With Singapore, there is a reverence for its colonial history: a legacy reflected in its modern-day legal system, trade market and civil service. And though last year’s Singapore’ Bicentennial was backdropped with a debate of Stamford Raffles’ position in the making is Singapore – he is still highly regarded the island-country’s narrative.

While the discourse and defence of Francis Light are not as strong as those about Stamford Raffles’ in Singapore, the same defence for the colonial past is similar. Albeit in less severe tones.

Arguments against the questioning of the morality of Penang’s colonial history is typically that the Black Lives Matter movement is nationally contextual, or specific only to America. Propping up this argument is the claim of America’s troubled history with race, slavery and its current-day issues with institutionalised racism. But just because the movement is strongest in America, does it mean that Malaysia, as a former colonial-occupied territory, could not use this zeitgeist as an opportunity to re-examine our history more critically?

The revered late Syed Hussein Alattas attempted this exercise in his magnum opus, The Myth of the Lazy Native. The book examined the economic and racial division cleaved by British occupation onto both Malay natives and the Chinese and Indian migrants of the time. The book also investigated the legacy of British imperial policy, damages that are experienced even in modern-day Malaysia. The Myth of the Lazy Native is but one in the body of post-colonial theory literature.

What is important in this context, is the call to revisit our colonial history and move away from the long-hegemonic thinking that ‘West is Best’.

Our relationship with the West

Our reverence for the West is evident in our multi-faceted relationship with our former colonial master, the United Kingdom. I will not go into detail but will use education as an example. Malaysia is consistently one of the Top Five Non-EU sending countries to the UK for higher education. Think of the countless young Malaysians sent to study in the UK; scholarship holders, children of the business and political elite and children of parents who believe that an overseas-earned degree is more worth than one earned locally.

Even historically, we sought British dialogue and approval for earn (or be given) our Independence. This is something our Indonesian neighbours often deride us for, as theirs was earned via colonial resistance, an armed revolution for freedom against the Dutch Empire. Though that is not to say our peaceful methods were any less meaningful. It certainly impresses on our collective national identity as a people who believe in compromise and dialogue. This still, to an extent, rings true even in today’s social relations.

Reading Francis Light’s legacy

Criticism against Francis Light comes in his role in the opium trade. Under British imperial rule, the colonial authorities commercialised the opium black market. British merchants and affiliate authorities reaped handsome revenues. For example, in 1914, the Straits Settlement government collected over 1 million Straits Dollars directly from opium farms, alongside tax revenue of 5.2 million from Singapore’s opium farms.

The profits of the opium trade in both Penang and Singapore alone formed two-thirds of the entire opium tax revenue of British Malaya. This should also be read concurrently with how the opium trade was used to subjugate the then-Malayan labour class, who the Empire routinely exploited.

Decolonising how we approach history

Even without focusing on the legacy of Francis Light and opium trading alone, the entire British imperial occupation and its long-lasting effects on modern-day Malaysia should be examined critically. This is not a call to embark on a slippery slope of the historical blame game. That is an exercise that will never end. But there is certainly value, especially decades since 1957, for us to examine what this legacy has left on our national and historical psyche.

History should not be looked back with rose-tinted glasses and neither should the excavation be a whitewashing process. This is the entire point of the decolonising process. To be sure, history is grey. It is unfair to harshly judge past actions on contemporary morals, as values too, change with the times. However, neither should we excuse the immoral practices of the past.

Not especially when the former colonial powers like the modern-day United Kingdom still stands as one of the world’s developed nations, its current position built of the backs of the global South’s exploitation. This is not a call for reparations, but for Malaysians to look at ourselves and our history critically, as a way to chart a shared narrative forward.

This op-ed has also been published on The Malay Mail.