Book review: 'I, KKK — The Autobiography of a Historian'

The memoirs of Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim is a tale of growing up during the most exciting times of Malaysia’s recent history.

Set against the backdrop of Malaysia’s own coming of age, Professor Khoo Kay Kim recounts his early childhood spent in Kampar, Teluk Anson and Ipoh, his time as an undergraduate on the Singapore campus of the University of Malaya and his career in post-independence Kuala Lumpur.

Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim is among the most esteemed local historians of our time. To many, he is Malaysia’s historian, representing the height of the country’s academic excellence and intellectual curiosity. But, before he wrote his memoirs, little was known about the man beyond his academic achievements and his illustrious career.

Born in Kampar in 1937, he grew up in a time of war and conflict in Malaya experiencing the Japanese Occupation, followed by the communist insurgency. Through the eyes of a young child, we get an emotive yet objective account of what it was like to live through a time of danger and uncertainty — having to hide from the Japanese by fleeing into the jungles of Perak, and coming face to face with Japanese soldiers who had threatened to cut his father down.

The book takes us on a probing journey through the history of his family. Starting with the oral histories of Khoo’s Peranakan grandmother, we learn of their family’s Straits Chinese origins and then get a glimpse of the rich colours of his multicultural upbringing across Perak. From his endless travels throughout the state with his civil servant father, living in government quarters, Khoo speaks lovingly of how the community came together to celebrate each other’s culture and religion. His fascination with Malay culture and literature is typical of a Peranakan — with bangsawan, P Ramlee and the joget. But, it was Khoo’s love for sport, mainly football, that allowed him to team up with and build community ties with people from all walks of life — to share in joy and grief with a cadre of teammates of different races and religions. We learn that football, played on the local community fields, in many ways, paved the way for the academic and professional choices that Khoo later made.

The book’s most revealing stories are about his love for his wife, Rathimalar, and his relationships with his three sons. While Khoo’s Peranakan parents readily accepted the relationship, the young couple had to bide their time to win over his proud Tamil father-in-law, who later became a close confidante. Khoo’s marriage with Rathi extended his cultural world further, allowing him to embrace his new family, their history and unique nuances, as well as Malaysia for its role in bringing together vast cultures and histories, and with it, true love.

The first member of his family to go to university, his memoirs show his gratitude for his luck and the opportunity to have learnt and discovered himself under the tutelage of the likes of Maurice Baker, John Hartley-Swan, Zainal Abidin Ahmad (or Pak Za’ba), Dr Wang Gungwu, Professor K G Tregonning and more. Inspired by great minds, Khoo sought to mould himself into a rounded intellectual through classes in philosophy, English literature, history and Malay. At Malaysia’s time of independence, it seems that these classes were rich in debate. How fortunate he was to have lived in an era that allowed him to take paths of learning that seemed to him the most interesting, engaging the ideals that were most nationally relevant.

I, KKK is a beautiful and perceptive study of the author’s life. Khoo has a natural gift for storytelling, despite his private disposition, casting a light on the lives of ordinary Malaysians living during the country’s most fascinating times. The book does not try to make strong judgments on the history of our country, but teaches us a great deal about who we are as a nation through the day-to-day characters and events that the book honours. The imagery in the book is rich, allowing the reader to ponder their own lives as ordinary Malaysians, and compare it to the past. That itself is a lesson on its own, one that is not felt in text books and classes today.

I, KKK - The Autobiography of a Historian is available at all major bookstores at a recommended retail price of RM60.


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