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The hypocrisy surrounding Interlok

THE debate about the novel Interlok by Malaysian national laureate Abdullah Hussein continues to rage, but among a select few. The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) wants the book to be withdrawn from the Form Five syllabus for Malay literature on the grounds that the novel contains “offensive” words and depictions of Indian Malaysians. The MIC claims that the book will offend the entire Indian Hindu community, who, according to them, no longer practise the caste system.

Coming from the MIC, this smacks a little too much of hypocrisy, because I know of Indian Malaysians who still have to battle with issues of caste within their communities and families. The issue of caste has also come under scrutiny for its implications on the internal politics of the MIC. And it’s hypocritical because the MIC itself is part of a power structure that continues to practise and propagate race-based discrimination.

Interlok may or may not be right in its depiction of the Indian Malaysian community, which is taken for granted to be monolithic when it is not. But the MIC’s claim that the book highlights issues that are no longer relevant for the Indian Malaysian community is a blatant lie. It’s also a blatant form of politicking in order to win back the Indian Malaysian vote. By fighting for the rights of Indian Malaysians through this issue, the MIC is no doubt hoping that the community will forget its complicity in promoting race politics.

Selective arguments

There’s also hypocrisy from those who want the book to remain in the syllabus. These are people I follow on Twitter, traditional media columnists, as well as other writers and scholars quoted in media coverage of the issue. They claim that to censor or remove words from a published work of literature is to insult the author’s integrity. On one hand, I agree with this, because as a writer myself, I believe that the craft of writing must be respected.

More importantly, however, books, including works of creative expression, should be judged on their merits. Speculations as to the author’s intentions should not tilt the scale either way. Further to this point is the argument for free speech: something should not be censored, banned, or restricted simply because it offends some people’s sensitivities.

What would these same people who argue for the author’s integrity say about the tendency of the ruling coalition to ban any book that challenges its authority? 1FunnyMalaysia, perhaps?

Cover of Zunar's 1Funny Malaysia

Education system the problem

My greater concern is how a national education system that is fundamentally structured to be racist can attempt to teach a text as problematic as Interlok.

This book, because of its content, is the kind of book that should help further, deepen, and intensify national discourse on race relations. It is a book that should be handled with maturity and critical yet intelligent interrogation. Precisely because it offends some people, it should be deconstructed and taught with sensitivity.

But how are we going to do this through a nationally constructed pedagogy that promotes half-truths and prejudiced views, which alters history, neglects critical thinking, and undervalues the role of the teacher and student? How can we fill our schools with racist, defeated teachers, hand them a racially problematic text, and expect these very same people to teach it with any degree of responsibility, compassion, or intelligence?

Scholastic hypocrisy

Some scholars argue that Interlok depicts the “social reality” of the time in which it was set, and thus should be studied as a realistic portrayal of Malaysian society during that period of time. The Malaysian Institute of Historical and Patriotism Studies says that Interlok is a “suitable novel for use of as a textbook for the literature component of the Bahasa Malaysia subject in Form Five because it is based on historical facts”. The National Writers Association (Pena) has come out strongly against the removal of the book. A memorandum has also been signed by several groups, including the Malay Consultation Council and Ikatan Persuratan Melayu.

Will these scholars say the same about Anthony Burgess’s The Malayan Trilogy, which is arguably one of the best novels about colonial-era Malaya? Burgess is equally scathing of all races, including the British. Will any Malay Malaysian politician champion for Trilogy to be taught in schools the way some of them are for Interlok?

In fact, as Sharon Bakar has pointed out, The Malayan Trilogy is not only not taught in our schools, it has also at one time or another been banned or restricted, presumably because it takes the mickey out of not just the Indians or the Chinese, but the Malays as well. I would like to hear scholars, politicians and writers come out in defence of this book for English Literature classes in Malaysia. I think all we would hear are crickets.

We uphold free speech only when it’s convenient, and argue for the integrity of artists and the free circulation of art only when it suits us. But let us not be gullible enough to assume that if Interlok is allowed to be taught in schools nationwide, we’ve won a small part of the battle. It might only be dispiriting confirmation that the national discourse favours the sensitivities and sensibilities of one particular group or race over another.

Subashini Navaratnam is a freelance writer in Malaysia who blogs at http://disquietblog. wordpress.com.

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29 Responses to “The hypocrisy surrounding Interlok

  1. Zydar C. says:

    I find it ironic on so many levels that Interlok was written by Abdullah Hussain, the same man who wrote Konserto Terakhir. Admittedly, I have yet to read Interlok myself. But it what has been said so far about the book is true, then it makes no sense. Despite the dearth of good contemporary BM literature, I found Konserto Terakhir to be a refreshing read, even if it was several decades before. A simple driven storyline of one individual’s successes in life, marred by tragedy throughout the whole book from start to finish. Unless there really is NO decent BM literature left, I can’t see how Interlok was chosen in the first place.

    On the subject at hand, Mr Navaratnam has a point. The whole debacle smacks of sheer pretentiousness. MIC’s protests reek of vote-baiting tactics, even though a majority of locals, Indian [Malaysian] or otherwise generally view MIC as being irrelevant nowadays, what with Samy Vellu still desperately clinging on to power. Ever heard of the stamp joke?

    Likewise the traditionalist and self-proclaimed champions of the established order have always been regarded as sycophantic lapdogs striving to outdo one another for approval from BN (this includes all the component parties) When BN says “jump” they ask “how high?” This may have been obvious to few in earlier times, but it’s certainly becoming more and more so to all and sundry in the country. Malaysians as a whole may be deferential and humble but not obtuse; something that our dear leaders evidently don’t realize to the fullest.

    If we cannot learn to think critically and analyze our surroundings, what is to say about the advancement of Malaysia as a whole? Little wonder then why so many of our best and brightest want to leave our shores to seek a better living for themselves, some never to return.

  2. The girl in the red Ferrari says:

    The last sentence is excellent:

    “It might only be dispiriting confirmation that the national discourse favours the sensitivities and sensibilities of one particular group or race over another.”

    But of course, the same is apparent in the case of lawyer Ng Kian Nam, who wrote a letter asking a mosque in Kampung Kerinchi to lower the volume of its azan call. Was there anything wrong with what he did? I don’t think so.

    Why are the sensitivities of Chinese, Indians and Lain-lain not taken into consideration, where these races are awakened by a prayer call not directed towards them?

    On the other hand, I think the controversy surrounding Interlok is uncalled for. The Indian [Malaysian] committee has a lot of issues it could better put its time and resources to instead of making an issue out of literature. For starters, education for children of estate workers, so that they can break out of the vicious cycle they are trapped in. Domestic issues (alcoholism, domestic abuse, etc). And the economic problems plaguing the community.

    Anyone will tell you there are more important issues to focus on. Issues that are bigger than you and that will bring about a change long after you are six feet underground.

  3. Albert says:

    Whatever it is, the book must be withdrawn. That’s it.

  4. orang lama says:

    The real issue here is “ketuanan Melayu, ketuanan Islam”: that Malays and Islam are superior to others, so you all keep your mouths shut. Only their sensitivities are allowed to be expressed. Others just keep quiet and accept your plight. That is what it is all about. Unfortunately, what is so ketuanan about Muslims and Islam? The moment Malays mention this, then the Malays must be prepared to be challenged. They cannot practise ketuanan and expect other races/religions to keep quiet, especially when the Malays/Islam have nothing superior. Dr M has raised the question as to why Chinese/Indians don’t embrace Islam out of love. The reason is obvious. There is nothing that attracts me. The way it is practised makes me wonder whether they are allowed to think. Malays must do something to themselves so that they can be “ketuanan”. At the moment they are “kosongan”.

  5. ctzen says:

    I haven’t read the book, only the short interview with the writer recently, carried by Utusan.

    Politically this can be interpreted in different ways. Some books are good for all times. We can dismiss the Indian community’s protests insofar as their feigned inability to accept historical facts.

    But look at what the writer himself says recently:

    ” …Dari situ saya dapat ilham untuk membuat kisah mengenai orang India dalam novel Interlok. Mengenai orang Melayu saya memang dilahirkan sebagai Melayu. Orang Melayu ini ketika zaman penjajahan Inggeris selalu hanya pergi ke sekolah Melayu dan ramai tidak boleh masuk sekolah Inggeris. Orang Cina dengan India masuk sekolah Inggeris tetapi orang Melayu tidak ada.

    Orang Melayu sudah pandai menulis dan membaca tetapi apa yang mereka buat, tidak ada apa-apa. Akhirnya orang Melayu ini hanya duduk di kampung jadi petani, nelayan. Kalau di estet hanya orang India dan orang Melayu tidak ada. Hidup orang Melayu sangat susah, miskin dan bodoh. Sebenarnya saya ada tulis di dalamnya saya bukan menghina orang Melayu tetapi itulah kenyataannya dan orang Melayu tidak marah. Tetapi bagi orang India saya tulis paria mereka nak marah. …” [Utusan interview]

    Right now with problems the Malay community is facing (the cronies are another kettle of fish), and with them being large in numbers, socioeconomic problems are still there! Who are the those people in “pariah-like” conditions now? They might as well be the large number of Malays and bumiputera still bogged down by socioeconomic problems, including those in Sabah and Sarawak.

    Why ban the book from study and inference?

  6. amirmu says:

    Albert, why must the book be withdrawn? Have you or any of the other commentators even read it?

    • sakthi says:

      Only God is perfect, nobody else is. Everybody has their own weaknesses. Please do not bring up unnecessary topics that can hurt other people’s feelings. We are in the 21 century. Don’t dig up the past. Thank you.

  7. Mani says:

    I have read the book. It is full of geographical, cultural errors which do not reflect a National Literature Laureate. I am sure there are works of better quality, even from this same writer. This book does not meet the standards of a literary text. Please substitute it before our Form 5 students think this is the best we can give them.

  8. anthjoe says:

    I’ve read the book. It is the author’s interpretation of south Indian society before independence (India’s). The contention is why now? After all these years, it is being used in school.

    The Indians have felt hurt by the word ‘keling’. Now the word ‘pariah’ might be freely used by students on Indian [Malaysian] students in school. Why is it that the Malays are telling the Indians it’s not sensitive? It is sensitive indeed to the Indians. The caste system that existed in India is something the majority of Indians want to forget. Many young Indians, including students, may not have known that such a word existed.

    Indians are saying it is offensive. Please remove it from the schools. Don’t argue that it is history. It is literature, and that is subject to interpretation.

    Will the ministry allow the f-word in school books? The word ‘pariah’ is [possibly] even worse for Indians.

    A good government would listen.

    • ahmad says:

      You have a point there.

      • male35 says:

        Yes, you have a point there. By the way, I have studied, worked in and travelled to many countries. Trust me, all countries have bad apples and racism. Patience is the key to living life to the fullest.

        Whether the book is withdrawn or not, the caste system is still alive [and is still practised by many Indians, especially when it comes to marriage].

  9. consequence says:

    Literature must be judged on its own merit devoid of any other possible interferences, be it politically or racially driven ones. Read it, analyse it, and judge it on its own merit. No need for fatwas to be issued a la Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Many books and other media have made fun of and insulted my race (fortunately not my religion as I am, *gasp* an atheist), but you don’t see me kicking up a ruckus over it.

  10. Pegasus says:

    I believe that the book has to be withdrawn on the basis not that it contains irrelevant caste practices, but that it has this word “pariah”, which might hurt the people in this caste and other castes as well. It is inevitable that the caste system still persists in the Indian community, still strong and unshakable. However, the book contains some details of the early Indian immigrants to Malaya which I deem untrue and misleading. The claim that that majority of Indians who came here were South Indians is true. But that they were all regarded as ‘pariahs’ even back in India was utter nonsense.

    Why do we have to talk about it at all if the one involved or depicted is not comfortable talking about it? I was one of those readers of Konserto Terakhir who read it again and again for the portrayal of events and the quality of language I love. Removal of the book may mean a big disgrace to the elderly writer. But, isn’t our unity something worth more than anything?

    Forget about MIC. I see the writer of this article as a person against MIC and that he is not interested in the issue which is hurting the Indian community at this point of time. If you are against MIC, you are just no different from them. You are not addressing the issue as well. You are just reacting to MIC.

    I just hope that our national unity will not be compromised for anything. It’s our Malaysia for God’s sake.

  11. be ReaL says:

    Can you imagine being an Indian [Malaysian] learning this book in class full of others? How would you feel?

    • male35 says:

      [This is a true story: one of my teachers taught us moral education, and she insisted that Batu Caves devotees were Buddhist. But you and I know they are Hindus. Since she was our class teacher and was stubborn, I gave in to her, but my classmates were smarter than her and knew the correct answer. :P ]

  12. k.pselvam says:

    Well, one must understand that Interlok was written 40 years ago, and we do not know of the author’s reference materials. Please think rationally. We are talking about 1Malaysia. Aren’t we happy to see our children mingle with other races peacefully? What happens when the Malay and Chinese [Malaysian] students read this book?

    [...] Choose a literature book that will help to unite all students and respect each other. Please do not poison the young hearts of students at the tender age of 17. The book [...] is setting a bad example and precedent.

  13. ctzen says:

    This book has nothing to do with Indian [Malaysians] not “growing up”! It was because Samy Vellu was slighted by Umno and now wants to fight back in the best and only way he knows!

    So what if everyone was pariah once. Forgetting doesn’t mean you learn anything. What about the Sabahans who are mostly poor with high poverty levels? They’re natives of the land and they’re still “pariah”! Haven’t they been made “pariah” of a country that have robbers who get away with RM889 billions? Like Samy Vellu for instance?

    Get real, Indians. No offence. Just don’t sulk. The Tamil “pariah” contributed to human civilisation by being victims eons ago. They’re not so special because others have also been murdered and slaughtered, blown up to bits and pieces.

    If you have to amend the book, why use it? On the other hand, if you have lost the discriminatory powers of being able to tell left from right, welcome back to the “pariah” world.

    Just as Rais is intellectually dishonest now. When he got his doctoral thesis his belief was:

    “The future for the rule of law and human rights in Malaysia is dismal. Rule by law and not rule of law supersedes and takes priority in most aspects of ruling the people. The decline of the rule of law and human rights in Malaysia can be traced to the corrupted notion of democracy which the executive holds. It has been suggested that in Malaysia human rights and the rule of law are precepts peculiar to the West which, so the imputation goes, it is inappropriate to apply in Malaysia. This should be seen as a severe distortion because human rights and the rule of law are no longer within the confines of the geo-political parameters of each country. They are now universal rights.”

    “The judiciary has lost its tussle with the executive in controlling arbitrary executive power. The executive that directly alters the affairs and status quo of the judiciary in a manner that the Malaysian executive has done is indeed a rarity and its mode of attack on the Malaysian judiciary in 1988 is not known to be practised in the liberal democratic world. But again one must understand, Malaysia is not a liberal democratic country.”

    “The executive has come to occupy a truly supreme position that renders the other segments of government – Parliament and the judiciary – subservient to it.” ["Freedom under Executive Power in Malaysia"]

    What does Rais believe now? He only nows how to rap the poor rakyat!

    Interlok isn’t the best reader around. It’s probably because the publishers and printers will lose a lot of money if it’s withdrawn. For God’s sake there are so many other worthwhile books of better quality to use. But those who stand to lose financially are the cronies. How about 1984? Translate it!

  14. kamal says:

    I have not read Interlok and so cannot comment on it. But I agree with Subashini, we should all be reading Anthony Burgess’s A Malayan Trilogy in literature! It’s a brilliant book which, on the surface, appears to take the mickey out of everyone (and it does with style!). It is a late colonial-era production. But read it again, and one will appreciate the subtlety with which Burgess deals with complex relationships and the very human feeling of being caught at the tail-end of an era.

    It’s a wonderfully clever and witty book that plays on juvenile humor (just read the names he gives his characters, places and perhaps even chapters) to explore some very mature and complex issues. And if one reads it closely, we would realize he isn’t trivializing anybody, except perhaps the colonial characters. It’s a book I would recommend to anyone interested in knowing a bit more about human nature searching for meaning. And I’ve always wondered how he captured the interethnic relationship and stereotypes (in Malaysia) so well. Makes you wonder how much of what we think is ‘natural’ about one another is truly a colonial construct that we have inherited. A colonial mindset which Syed Hussein Al-Atas illuminates so well in his book The Myth of the Lazy Native (also, in my opinion, a fascinating must-read).

  15. Politicokat says:

    Would the book be accepted if it were taking the mickey out of the Malays? And we already seen from Nicol Paul Miranda’s example, the Malaysian education system will not take kindly to any kind of discussion that questions Ketuanan Melayu.

    Rather than having a work of literature engage with sensitive issues, thus requiring the students to examine who they are and their relationships with other races, the wall of silence in Malaysia with regard to race and religion would force everyone to hold their tongues or face expulsion from school, [be subjected to] police reports, and even have their school-leaving certs withheld. And all we have are students being forced to keep silent while they are insulted by a book – more so when this book takes the mickey of only a few and leaves out others.

  16. koko says:

    I’ve read the book. Actually, Interlok takes on the Malays, that they were lazy even though they had an education, and “pariah” is used to reflect conversation 40 years ago. That book was written 40 years ago anyway. The MIC brought this up to get more votes from Indian [Malaysians], that’s all. [...] I don’t agree that the word “pariah” has been forgotten, I’ve heard it being used in schools, in estates and kampungs, etc. Its like “keling” being used by [some] to denote Indians on occasion. To say that “pariah” is not being used is to ignore reality. Nowadays everything is sensitive, “keling”, “pariah”, “pendatang” … but I remember that words like these were once friendly words used to pat a friend on the back.

    • male35 says:

      Yes, I used to be called “keling”, and I would call back “babi”… in those days we were young. Now we are grown up; we call “hey bro” “bang” “bai”…

      • Kong Kek Kuat says:

        @ male35 “we call “hey bro” “bang” “bai”…”

        “Singh”, not “bai”. The last time a stranger [...] called my brother “bai” in the face, that stranger didn´t know what hit him.

      • dan Lain-lain says:

        male35, don’t worry. For us, the Iban, ‘Keling’ is the name of one of our famous warrior demigods. If someone calls your children ‘keling’ next time, just smile and say, “May God be with you”, hehehe.

        I know it hurts when people use words like that, but even some Chinese [Malaysians] call us Iban “lakia”. The origin of the word is from the Chinese themselves. When I ask my friends, “lakia” means “pariah” to the Chinese. Although it hurts, I usually smile and tell myself, thank God that headhunting is already banned. Hehehe. Just a joke. Peace!

  17. RationaleMe says:

    Isn’t what matters here is that the context should be considered? The real problem arises mainly because either someone has never read the book, or someone does not fully comprehend the national language, or someone is trying to gain political mileage (tokenism, anyone?). It would be helpful if someone actually READ the book and posted commentaries based on what is written in it, rather than what they think.

  18. dan Lain-lain says:

    If someone or specially a RACE feels hurt or uneasy by anything that touches on their sensitivities, it is better that we stop what we are doing. If we want to live in harmony, we have to respect other races, in this case the Indians Malaysians, just as we HAVE TO respect the Malays. If the majority of Indians don’t like [Interlok], then withdraw it. Abis crita. No need to argue on this book this and this book that. [...]

  19. Normal people says:

    Why do you need to be so offensive on the book? I see that book just telling a story about an Indian who came from India and how he grateful that there was no differences in status among people when he first came to Tanah Melayu. There’s nothing insulting in that book at all. Plus, the caste system is a part of Indian culture, am I wrong? True, it would be quite offensive IF the writer were insulting Indians about their caste system. But I don’t see any insults in this book. So what’s with the red eye? Even if you search Wikipedia, the caste system is written about on the page about Indian people. Interlok didn’t take mickey out of any races.

  20. Joe Black says:

    I’ve read the book. There are facts that are not correct about Indians. Names like Maniam, Suppiah, Syanmugam, Pillay and Raman are typically used in Tamil Nadu and not in Kerala as stated by the author. People in Tamil Nadu speak in Tamil, people in Kerala speak in Malayalam, people in Hyderabad speak Telugu. No doubt that these languages originated from Tamil, but they have their own literature. The author claims that all of them speak in one language, Tamil, which is not true.

    I believe that a lot of people haven’t read the book. It wouldn’t be so obvious if there was no noise, thanks to all the politicians who have highlighted what was forgotten. Now everybody knows about it. It is not going to make any difference whether the book stays or not.

    It is obvious that many Malays and Chinese [Malaysians] haven’t read the book. It is about the Indians (father and son), Chinese (grandfather, father and son) and Malays (bumiputera) who helped one another when they were in trouble with the Japanese and the Communists. It is about how the Indians and Chinese came to terms that they have nowhere to go and that they excepted this land to be their home. It is about how the Communists helped to get rid of the Japanese. It is about how the Indians, Chinese and Malays combined and defeated the insurgency. For more details, please buy the book and read it. Don’t listen to what people say, especially politicians!!

    Generally, it is a nice storybook. Very nice storyline. Alas, it is not suitable to be a school textbook because it has errors.


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