(NOTE: Blast from the past! # 1)
PERFORATED SHEETS fortnightly with AMIR MUHAMMAD:
NST. June 23, 1999
I HAD not cracked open a school textbook in quite a while, but in the interest of "getting close to the younger generation" I decided to reacquaint myself with this dusty, much-maligned genre. I expected to be bored out of my skull, but I was actually entertained and energised. Who wouldda thunk it?
The book that I chose was the Form 5 Pendidikan Moral (Moral Education) text by Mohd Sawi Abdul Hamid, Siow Siew Sing and Annamalai Arnasalam (DBP, 1992). The writers are described as experts in the field of morality, so I suppose they are the type of people who always slow down at yellow lights and never steal sweets, no matter how yummy-looking, from the hands of babies.
The authorial line-up is also reassuringly muhibbah, a vibe reinforced by cover pictures of our multi-racial badminton team and of a bunch of Asean Ministers demonstrating a silly handshake.
I had narrowly escaped taking this subject in school, and the idea of taking an exam in Moral Studies still strikes me as a très quaint notion. I mean, imagine what would happen if you failed!
Picture the ignominy of telling your prospective in-laws or employer that you can't grasp the fundamentals of accepted morality; you might as well tattoo the word 'Degenerate' on your forehead.
The resultant despair must be enough to drive you to suicide, a prospect that must have occurred to this textbook, because right there on page 34 you are forced to consider this: Mengapakah seseorang yang cuba membunuh diri boleh dikenakan tindakan undang-undang? (Why can a potential suicide be liable for prosecution?) There's no escape, I'm tellin ya!
What I remember most from my own textbooks of yore was that you always got these three kids named Ali, Ah Chong and Ramasamy who would run themselves ragged (going camping, dividing marbles, opening up a stall, whatever) simply to demonstrate principles of grammar, algebra and micro-economics to us. This indefatigable trio - together with their distaff compatriots Siti, Ah Moi and Devi - was a feature as regular as rain.
Well, times have moved on, and we now get a much wider range of protagonists vying for our attention. This book features the trials and tribulations of people like Michael Yapat, Jaylin, Garai, Meling, Jampang, Salman and Gumbiron alongside the boringly inevitable Siti. It's a heartening tribute to the throbbing diversity of Malaysian life; either that, or the authors just made the names up.
Multi-racialism is repeatedly stressed. We are asked to list the benefits of mixed marriages, and the book ends with a stirring call for a Bangsa Malaysia. In fact, there isn't a single character here who only hangs out with "his own kind", something which, according to recent reports, isn't quite the case in our own institutions of learning.
I had hoped for the book to feature at least a few boo-hiss racist villains, but they don't seem to officially exist. There's a thin line between a feel-good portrayal and a whitewash. The book should be a lot more honest in its depictions of politically- motivated communalism, instead of pretending that everything is A-OK.
There's no real point in pretending that factors like religious bigotry and the quota system have not bred a certain degree of resentment. It's one thing to tell students to treat each other as equals, but quite another to ignore the structural inequities that exist all around them. Morality isn't just a matter of random good deeds.
An example? When Maniam's car breaks down on page 110, Datuk Shafie's family goes out of its way to help by giving food and shelter for the night. Maniam's family go to sleep still in awe at the great treatment they received. Would this sense of awe continue if, let's say, Maniam's little son grows up and figures out that he's less likely to get a scholarship than the Shafie scion? We are not told.
The first chapter is called Kefahaman Asas Keharmonian (Understanding is the Basis of Harmony) and while we all agree that we should try to understand one another, the cultural differences presented here seem contrived and skin-deep, like something from a tourist brochure designed to show how 'exotic' we are.
This is supposed to describe all Chinese households: Biasanya tuan rumah menghidangkan minuman ringan tetapi tetamu janganlah minum kecuali setelah dipelawa beberapa kali oleh tuan rumah (Hosts will normally serve light refreshments but the guests should only drink after being asked repeatedly). Do all or even most Chinese hosts behave in this way? Isn't it just as likely that your host will be exasperated by your rather coquettish behaviour?
The next paragraph tells us that Indians mainly visit one another during the Hindu New Year (even the Indians who are not Hindus?) as well as on occasions to do with house-warming; newborn babies; setting off or returning from an overseas trip; illness and death. Is that all? Are Indians expected to stay cooped up the rest of the time?
There are some nice profiles of people like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Pak Sako as embodiments of principled behaviour. The profiles are brief and very bowdlerised, but then again, I didn't seriously expect them to include sentences like "He also enjoyed betting on horses!" or "You should have HEARD the things he said about Dr Mahathir!"
There's also a schizophrenic feel to any book that wants you to think seriously about why kerajaan asing tidak harus campur tangan dalam pelaksanaan undang-undang sesebuah negara (foreign governments should not interfere in the administrative affairs of a country) before going on to excoriate apartheid and communism! But it gets marks for at least praising the courage of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tiananmen Square protesters, by saying that the struggle for true democracy in this region may be slow but it's inevitable. (Yeah, reformasi!)
Maybe it's just my idea of a good time, but this book was fun reading. To say it's didactic would be like saying Hannibal Lecter's a bit on the anti-social side, but the real appeal of this sort of book lies in all those illustrated stories of heroes and ... well, not quite villains, but people who take a Temporary Wrong Turn before deciding to taubat (repent). We get reformed drug addicts, disco-goers, arrogant theatre directors and even a guy who's breathlessly eager to tell his English pen-pal all about our Prime Minister's launch of the Kampungku campaign. I kid you not.
This moral menagerie can provide Jins Shamsuddin with enough melodramatic plots for another Esok quartet. Gasp in horror when the grotesque Albert (p.55) would rather watch TV than buy cooking oil for his mother! Weep in despair when Daniel Joseph (p. 47) recalls how his drug addiction caused both his parents to drop dead from heartache! Cluck in disapproval as Meng Hua, Maniam and Rustam (p. 24) spend all their money livin' la vida loca in discos!
The most memorable story is the cautionary credit-card tale (pp. 84-6) simply because one of the characters ANNOYED THE HELL OUT OF ME. This is what happens:
Hock Seng and Fikri go shopping. Hock Seng is a greedy pig who splurges lavishly because he's got three pieces of plastic. But Fikri is such a moral guardian that he keeps popping up with unsolicited, faultlessly grammatical advice: "Kalau boros begini, wang kamu cepat habis dan kamu akan berhutang dengan bank atau syarikat kad kredit (If you spend so much, you will run out of money and you will be in debt to the bank or credit-card company)" Then later: "Biarlah kita berbelanja sederhana, janganlah boros. Biarlah kita hidup bebas daripada hutang (Life a moderate life, don't be wasteful. Let us be free from debt)." Still later: "Kamu mesti berhati-hati menggunakan kad kredit. Kalau kamu terlalu ghairah menggunakannya kamu akan berhutang sekeliling pinggang (You must be careful when using credit cards. If you're too eager to use them, you'll end up with a pile of debt)." And STILL later: "Sederhana dalam perbelanjaan perlu dijadikan amalan hidup kita (Moderation in spending should be our way of life)."
If I were Hock Seng, I would have cheerfully used my credit cards to slit Fikri's smug little throat by now. But of course this doesn't happen. Hock Seng, true to form, overspends and regrets his actions. When Fikri points out The Error Of His Ways, Hock Seng's response is not "Shut the hell up, you sanctimonious prick!" but simply "Terima kasih atas nasihat kamu (Thank you for your advice)" -although I hope he had the decency to say it sarcastically. After all, Man cannot live on morality alone.