Making History

18 September 2017

From as early as the 19th century, passionate historians around Malaya have made it their mission to collect and store important historical records. Today, the public can access these records and more at Wisma Sejarah.

There are stark, recent examples of how trumped up narratives that favour fictions over fact can upend not just communities, but entire geopolitical structures. It seems like there has never been a better time to take note of real history. Lucky for us we have the Malaysian Historical Society (PSM) doing exactly that.

PSM has officially been around since the 1950s, but it is the result of a coming together between volunteer historians around the country that started out way back in the 19th century, chief of which was the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (formerly the Straits Asiatic Society, established in 1877). These historians saw it as their duty to collect and store historical records, and to encourage a love of history through the publication of their journal.

But it wasn’t until 2003 that PSM got its own citadel in the form of Wisma Sejarah on Jalan Tun Razak. It also houses a tower that’s rented out for private events, but the most important part of the building is its research library, the 3,000 sq ft Tan Sri Omar Mohd Hashim Library (PTSOMH), named after the PSM chair at the time.

When PSM was still stationed on Jalan Hose – appropriately named after the son of the first chair of the Straits Asiatic Society, Bishop George Hose – the library was called Pusat Sumber Persatuan, and had roughly 500 books, 300 pamphlets, and 30 journal titles before the move to Wisma.

It has now grown that collection significantly to include a vast sprawl of books, academic journals (including the famed JMBRAS, Jebat and Jurnal Peradaban Melayu), historical magazines, old newspapers, maps, and audio visual resources, in line with its aim to be the best-stocked historical reference library in the country.

It even has a section called Koleksi Nadir (as in ‘rare’), which stocks precious books that have gone out of print. Some of the more standout editions include the first volume of the 1957 Hakluyt Society translation of The Travels of Ibn Batutta, those epic stories of the 14th century Moroccan explorer, and a quaint 1959 copy of Hikayat Hang Tuah, written in Jawi.

These resources cover education, religion, politics, economy, sociology, literature, culture and art, most of which have something to do with Malaysia. “We aim to keep resources that relate directly to Malaysian history, with 70 percent of books on the subject, another 20 percent on Southeast Asian history, and the rest on general interest subjects and world history,” says Farid Ahmad, executive secretary of PSM.

But with so much of recent history being recorded online – see the need for the ‘Covfefe Act’ in the US, for instance – there is the danger of Wisma Sejarah missing out. Thankfully, PSM is keeping up: “The library will download historical records that are only available online, with resources sorted by date and theme,” Farid says, noting that special emphasis is placed on online news.

PSM intends PTSOMH to be the best research library in the country. It is, of course, open to members of the public – who can even examine the Galeri Sejarah info boards if thumbing through old, precious books seem too daunting – but most of its resources are used by academics, historians and history students.

Which works out, since PTSOMH doesn’t really function like a normal library, with resources only being accessible onsite. It might seem a drag to be unable to take anything out, but it actually makes sense, since it’d be a shame if something as precious as a 1947 Sejarah Alam Melayu textbook got any more tattered than it already is.

Beyond recent events, the importance of Wisma Sejarah is underlined by the fact that we’ve not always had the best luck with history, through no fault of our own. The colonial yoke caused us to forget momentarily that we were once mighty, with our thalassocracies ruling the seas; and until today, some of the original manuscripts of our epic texts are still stuck in foreign libraries.

There is danger if history is susceptible to being lost. But as long as the citadel of Wisma Sejarah stands, it won’t be.

Address: Wisma Sejarah, 230 Jalan Tun Razak, 50400 Kuala Lumpur (03 2681 5388). Open Mon-Thu, 9am-1pm & 2pm-5pm; Fri, 9am-12.30pm & 2.30pm-5pm. Learn more at www.psm.org.my.

By Jason S Ganesan

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