They did not inspire their students with stories of how we could learn from the past and how relevant history is to us. History is not about forcing students to just memorise dates and signing of treaties.
History is about his story, and teachers should respond with lively accounts, even personal trivia, of the personalities involved to spice up their classes.
With a short remark, Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim restarted a debate on the existence of Hang Tuah, who is said to have lived during the reign of Sultan Mansur Shah in 15th century Malacca. Hang Tuah is believed to be the greatest of all of the sultan’s admirals and was described as a ferocious fighter.
Certainly, he has been and is still held in the highest regard in Malaysian Malay culture, and so when our eminent historian said he did not exist, many Malaysians felt let down, even cheated.
Many remember learning in school that Hang Tuah was a hero with a steadfast sense of loyalty who readily sacrificed his friendship with his best friend Hang Jebat after the latter rebelled against the Sultan.
Furthermore, we are also being told that Princess Hang Li Po, who was supposedly married to Sultan Mansur Shah, is probably fictitious as well.
But to be fair to Prof Khoo, he is not the first historian to dispute the existence of Hang Tuah or Hang Li Po. It has long been the subject of conjecture at university level. At school level, however, students seemed to be just happy to swallow what their teachers taught them.
The conventional method of teaching history could be the reason for this, but lack of critical thinking in our education system is another factor. Most students rely entirely on notes given to them and they don’t do their own research on the subject.
Teachers could address this shortcoming by, for example, stating specifically that Hang Tuah is a subject of myth and legend at the start of lessons. Students should also be informed that the location of his tomb, if it exists, remains in dispute.
In the case of Hang Li Po, her existence has long been disputed since she was never recorded in the chronicles of the ruling Ming dynasty. Others say that if she ever existed, she was probably a very beautiful maid in the imperial house who was picked to assume the role of a princess, which is said to be a common practice.
But we should not let the legend of Hang Tuah be forgotten. He should remain a symbol of morality, loyalty, bravery and humility – principles that are enduring.
In fact, Hang Tuah has not even been promoted or marketed as well as other figures of fiction like Sherlock Holmes, the detective created by Scottish author and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The London-based “consulting detective” has now made it into several movies, including two contemporary versions, besides being in the books and TV productions.
Holmes’ fictional home address, 221B, Baker Street, has been turned into a museum under government protection for its “historical and architectural” importance. Never mind if he’s not real; Sherlock Holmes is being so well marketed that there is even a statue of him outside the Baker Street tube station.
Most of us would also know of the legendary Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men, what with the penchant among film and TV producers to feature heroes, be they real or fictional. In English folklore, Robin Hood, known for “robbing from the rich and giving to the poor”, was described as living in Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, a county in England.
Cashing in on Robin Hood’s heroism, Nottinghamshire has aggressively promoted Sherwood Forest as a tourist attraction and there is even a Robin Hood airport and the Robin Hood statue.
So what if Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood and the Loch Ness monster are all not real? The locals are certainly benefiting tremendously from tourist money earned from spinning tales of these legends.
In Malacca, however, it is easier to get a T-shirt printed with Che Guevera’s iconic face than one with Hang Tuah’s. Never mind if the face of Hang Tuah resembles M. Nasir or P. Ramlee. Where can tourists buy replicas of the magical Taming Sari, the keris used by Hang Tuah? And where is the path that tourists can take to the Hang Li Po trail up Bukit Cina, a site supposedly given to the entourage who accompanied her from China?
There should be a statue of Hang Tuah where tourists can pose for photographs which they can take home to remind them of the legend. There should even be a museum in Malacca to pay tribute to him, and where re-runs of the Hang Tuah movies could be screened.
So, instead of just whining and feeling depressed over Prof Khoo’s thesis, we should ask ourselves why we have not cleverly promoted Hang Tuah and the other legendary figures in Malacca. Keep the legend alive.