In conjunction with Merdeka and in the lead up to Malaysia Day, Prestige Malaysia explores historical streets named after important national figures, with tales of their triumphs as shared by their proud descendants. Last in the series, son of Professor Khoo Kay Kim, writer Eddin Khoo shares personal testimony of the man that shaped his life and the nation.
Widely regarded as Malaysia’s national historian, Emeritus Professor Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim worked as a lecturer at the University of Malaya for more than 50 years during which he was a thought leader, impacting the lives of many current leaders of the nation. He was an instrumental figure in co-authoring the Rukun Negara to foster national unity following the aftermath of the 1969 race riots.
In July 2019, Jalan Semangat in Petaling Jaya, Selangor was renamed as Jalan Professor Khoo Kay Kim in honour of his lifetime of achievements and numerous contributions.
What do you feel was his most important contribution to society?
He laid the foundations for the post-colonial history of Malaysia. He also played a crucial role in bringing about a shift of attention in historical detail: When we talk about history and communities, we often talk about the contributions of communities to Malaysian history. He wanted us to look at other things.
He wanted us to focus on the roles that individuals and their communities played, and in that way, he shifted the attention of our history from something that was value-driven to something that was a lot more objective. I doubt he succeeded in convincing everyone, but that is one of the matters that he emphasised, that history should be objective, dispassionate, and perceived with a cool head.
Can you name a memorable quote of his that had a big impact on you?
The quote that I still hold very close to me is one he uttered when I finally made it to university. He said, “In life you must want to know everything, and that’s not possible, but with that spirit at least by the end of your life, you will know as much as you were ever capable of knowing.” These striking words are very personal and remain with me to this day. In terms of his public life, the most important to me was a quote about being Malaysian. He said, “A true Malaysian is always a very lonely person.”
Why did he feel that way?
Because as a nation, we are so strongly communalised in our identities. He represented something different – a complete openness, in marriage, in his social interactions, with his students and so on. He was never prejudiced against a single race or class. He lived as an example of everything that we should aspire to be.
What kind of person was Professor Khoo Kay Kim, and how would you describe him?
My father was quite beautifully mad. He was very eccentric, loved life, and he was a very odd kind of intellectual in the sense that he did not care very much for intellectual life. He believed in this thing called “genius”. He loved people with genius like the footballer Maradona – my father was a huge football fan, and a good footballer himself.
He also loved music – singers like Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and Tan Sri P Ramlee were great idols. He always said that these things could never be learned, they were a kind of grace from somewhere and he admired that. My father was also a great dancer in his youth: cabaret, Joget modern, the cha-cha-cha. But you know, it was a time when none of these things could earn you a living, being a dancer, singer or footballer. Instead, he encouraged all his children to follow their passion.
My father was not a great reader of books – he did not like books. He believed historical truth was best uncovered by understanding the attitudes and experiences of people of the time. He always felt that you did not get that in books. As a result, he was impatient when he had to read, feeling it was one other person’s opinion of history, rather than the historical actors themselves discussing the matter.
How do you think he would have reacted to being commemorated in a street named after him?
I think he would be bemused. One of the reasons for his great openness and affability was that he truly thought nothing of himself.
What does it mean to your family, having him honoured through part of the city that is still home to his kin?
Of course, it means a great deal to us. It was extremely generous of his Royal Highness Sultan of Selangor and the menteri besar of Selangor to afford him this honour. That said, I do believe this also reflected the general sentiment of the people – he was an orang rakyat in the end, a man of the people. He really believed in this country. It was his whole life and he was incredibly proud of it.
Also read: Spotlight on Jalan Yap Kwan Seng