In the Praise of the Department of History, University of Malaya


Writer traces the history of History Department of Malaysia’s prestigious educational institution, where he did his doctorate. He says ‘The history department is the live academic setup of the university. It always attempts to balance the historical needs of the Malaysian students as well as world students.’

Zaffar Junejo

Dr. Azharuddin Mohamed Dali, my Ph.D. supervisor, and I had a final meeting at the Tea Kiosk near the faculty of Science, where his daughter Ms. Anees works. I opened the conversation that it was luck or chance that Dr. Shanthi Thambiah forwarded my Ph.D. application to the department of history, where I met with the galaxy of professional historians. During the meeting, we talked about the history of the history department. The following are the excerpts of the conversation.

Establishment of the History Department

The Department of History is one of the lead departments of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Malaya established on 15th January 1959 in Kuala Lumpur. Dr. John Bastin of Australia became the first professor of history in the 1959/60 academic term. However, its Singapore campus was led by Dr. Wang Gangwu, Dr. H.A. Lamb, Dr. D.K. Bassett, and Dr. C.M. On the other hand, Turnbull joined the campus at Kuala Lumpur. The Western academia was initially employed, and later, locals were also engaged in 1962. Chandran Jeshurun was the department’s first tutor, and in 1963 Goh Yoon Foong and R. Bonney joined in 1963. The history department has passed through gradual phases. The important decades were the 1960s and 1970s in terms of direction-setting and faculty recruitment. In the 1970s, along with other world-class Universities, the tradition of visiting professors was introduced in the department.

Direction Setting Days

The faculty engagement and development initiatives matured in the early 1990s. Thus, more focus was on specialization and direction setting. Therefore, the department started courses and researches in the areas of History of the Middle East, History of the United States, Social History of Malaysia, Economic History of Malaysia, Vietnamese History, History of Indonesia, History of Japan and Archeological Studies, Political History of Malaysia, Social History of Malaysia and History of World War I and World War II, British Empire, South Asian History and Indian History, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Middle East, East Asia, and Europe.

What History Department Offers

The history department is the live academic setup of the university. It always attempts to balance the historical needs of the Malaysian students as well as world students. Therefore, academia periodically reviewed the courses for matching the demands of the subject. It seems like an ongoing topic – in 1960s History of South Asia, History of Modern Europe, History of Modern Russia and History of the United States were favored subjects of the students. Later in 1965, in the days of Bhoomi Putra, suddenly, the History of Malaysia became the most favored. These subjects remained the part of the syllabus, and later in the 1980s, Early History of Asia and Early History of Europe, Early Asian Civilization, Early European Civilization and World History were added into the list of the most preferred subjects.

Contribution of the Department

The contribution of the department could be gauged at the two levels – first admission of the students and second contribution in the research. However, the government’s educational policy in either way influenced enrollment and even research. Keeping in view the political agenda of the country, in the 1960s, the History department enrolled approximately 300 to 500 undergraduates. However, from 1971 to 1976, the department got 1000 students. The number of students remained around 2000 in the 1970s. But in the 1980s, students’ number dropped due to educational policies. However, at the faculty level, the history department remained one of the favorite departments of the university.

On the other hand, at the Ph.D intake, the number of registrations is increasing. In the 1960s, it was 5, and now it is around 20s, and at the faculty level, the department’s contribution is around fifty percent. The department’s two initiatives revised the interest of academia in the history – one was holding International Conference of Historians of Asia, and publishing of History: Essays in Commemoration of the 25th Anniversary of the Department of History, University of Malaya. However, one of the colloquia and seminars ‘Colloquium on Shipping and Trade in the Malay World before 1900’ also set the ground for more research in contemporary economic history.

Recently, holding conferences on the history of Malaysia and the region has set new standards for scholars and academia.

We parted with a resolution that the major task of the professional historian is the popularization of history.


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