Why history books are often biased

Those who get to write it shape a narrative that is often accepted for years but may, in fact, be highly partial

FILE PHOTO: Malaysia's Education Minister Najib Razak, Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (L-R) laugh at a joke by one of the delegates during the United Malays National Organisation's (UMNO) annual general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, June 20, 1998. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

"History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." The famous quote attributed to former British prime minister Winston Churchill – who did indeed write many books, including six on the Second World War, in which he was one of the victorious leaders – came to mind recently. For a flurry of books have just come out about Malaysia's recent past. The race, it seems, is on as to how the 2018 downfall of the Barisan Nasional government, which had never previously lost an election since independence in 1957, and its aftermath should be viewed.

Final Reckoning by Romen Bose is an excellent insider's view of how the last Barisan prime minister, Najib Razak, was misinformed by yes men, and provides a sympathetic portrayal of the gentlemanly figure whom many Malaysians regret having booted out of office at the last general election. Capturing Hope, by the man who succeeded Mr Najib, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, is at times acerbic, but frequently evasive: it will not convince the reformists who allied with him only to feel disappointed by the direction of his government once in power.

Why does this matter? History books can set narratives for years, decades, even centuries. One about the UK from the end of the last millennium, Guilty Men: Conservative Decline and Fall, 1992-1997, by the former cabinet adviser Hywel Williams, has justly been described as "the classic text of the 1990s implosion of Toryism". Memories of the "sleaze" associated with John Major's government may remain strong, but so mercilessly and convincingly did Mr Williams skewer nearly every member of that administration that I asked him at the time whether he found it awkward when mixing in political circles.

A handout book cover image of "From Third World to First
The Singapore Story: 1965-2000" by Lee Kuan Yew (Courtesy: HarperCollins) *** Local Caption ***  al24jl-ueareads-bhatia04.jpg

The title of Lee Kuan Yew's two volume memoirs says it all. He set out to write The Singapore Story so that his version of events would be heard the loudest, and the dominance of the former prime minister's personality in the city-state's history – and the downplaying of roles played by any who became critics – have certainly been boosted by his very compelling books.

Sometimes a book, or its title, can take on a life of its own and appear to influence the future, and not just record the past. When the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man in 1992, he did not mean that time had somehow stopped. But his conclusion that the world had reached "the end-point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government" persuaded many that this was a truth so self-evident that it needed no further discussion. Influential western policymakers under the spell of this delusion ignored the deep wells of local cultures and the pulls of communalism, faith and nationalism as a result, with frequently disastrous consequences.

That a historical narrative can be wrong, but still widely believed, is nothing new. The reputation of England's Richard III has never recovered from his villainous characterisation in the playwright William Shakespeare's history play of the same name. The same goes for MacBeth, the 11th-century king of Scots. Rather than being a tyrannical murderer and usurper, as Shakespeare had it, according to the BBC, "for 14 years, Macbeth seems to have ruled equably, imposing law and order and encouraging Christianity". Alas for him, few hear a fairer 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)
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Just ask yourself who the historians are – and what axes they have to grind while they're writing

On occasion, only an authoritative new history can begin to chip away at long-held misconceptions. One startling revelation in Abdul Rahman Azzam's 2009 biography of Saladin was that many of the stories most cherished about him were entirely apocryphal. For instance, the great 12th-century Kurdish general never used his scimitar to slice a silk scarf delicately in two after the English king Richard the Lionheart broke an iron bar with his longsword – not least because the two never actually met. More important was the intriguing argument that Saladin's crucial role in the Sunni revival in Egypt may have been more significant than his defeat of the Crusaders and recapture of Jerusalem.

But then Dr Azzam's biography was, at least according to his book's publishers, the first on Saladin by a Muslim historian, and one who was fully able to draw on all the Arabic sources, to appear in English. This ought to be surprising, but after a little consideration, it sadly is not. For English-speaking authors from North America and Europe have never felt daunted when writing magisterial tomes about parts of the world with which they may have limited connection.

That is not to say many have not produced works of great scholarship. But their perspectives are almost bound to be a little different – sometimes vastly so. At prep 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 lack of balance is still striking. It would be fascinating as a contrast to read widely published histories of the UK or Europe by authorities from, say, Indonesia, Nigeria or the Middle East. If any exist, however, I do not know of them.

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

And these are just the newest accounts of a recent history. That, and the histories of other countries, will be pored over and re-examined again in the future, so long as there are writers who cleave to the late American novelist William Faulkner's words: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Just ask yourself who the historians are – and what axes they have to grind while they're writing.

Published: January 5th 2022, 7:00 AM
Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National