Sunday 30 January 2011

How we failed INTERLOK

Back when Abdullah Hussein's Interlok was first published in 1971, Malaysia was a different place. 

In the ensuing 4 decades, we have become much more multi-racist. This entrenched communalism has been, to a large extent, caused by the implementation (rather than original aims) of the New Economic Policy. In the 1980s, the racist rhetoric of 'Malay supremacy' also started to be bandied about, further alienating non-Malays. The Malays were never intended to be 'supreme'. The assistance given to this group was meant to be (to quote former DPM Tun Dr. Ismail) akin to a golf handicap. But when you have an Establishment dominated by a coalition of mainly ethnic-based parties, each party will be called upon to champion only 'its' people, against the 'other' people. (Lest we forget, Barisan Nasional started in 1971, too).

The National Cultural Policy, also implemented in 1971, further helped turn what should be national institutions into very Malay ones instead. Hence, organisations like Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and even the national education system became identified as mainly 'Malay/Muslim' rather than 'Malaysian', as can be seen not only in their staff ratio but their actions, such as having long doa sessions before the start of each event.

I think Interlok is a worthwhile novel. There are many stereotypes (both good and bad), and at times it feels like a more benevolent (though, unfortunately, less humorous) version of The Malayan Trilogy. The fact that the first three Parts of the book are divided into 'Malay family-Chinese family-Indian family' also recalls the introduction to P. Ramlee's 1968 film Sesudah Subuh. (The two men were friends; one of the books I read during the research of 120 Malay Movies was Abdullah's P. Ramlee: Kisah Hidup Seniman Agung, 1973).

It is sadly indicative of our sorry intellectual climate that most of the rhetoric about Interlok has been led by people who have not read the whole novel. (For proof, check out this statement: "I have instructed my researcher to read the book and find passages that may have degraded the Malays and point it out." This is by someone who held a press conference to explain why he found the book 'degrading'!) 

It's easy for people with an axe to grind to read certain sentences and try to make those sentences fit their political agenda. Hey, you can even try it for Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird, not to mention The Merchant of Venice (a work whose racial politics is far more problematic than Interlok's.) A good teaching system for this book would be a wonderful chance for students to relearn some of the basic empathy that we have lost over the past four decades. In other words, it is the opposite of a racist book. It is even earnest.  I will just pick three scenes that I really like.

In one scene, Cing Huat as a boy had just left his village in China with his father; they are flat broke and as they pass a town market, they are enticed by the food they cannot afford: 

Ada bakul-bakul besar yang berisi beras (beras putih, beras gandum merah, hitam dan mas muda), kacang keledai yang kuning, kacang hijau yang besar, jelai. Daging babi bergantungan di lehernya, dibelah sepanjang-panjang tubuhnya yang merah, lapis-lapis lemaknya, kulitnya yang putih, tebal dan lembut. Itik bergantung berjajar-jajar, itik merah yang sudah dibakar di atas pemanggang, itik putih, angsa yang dipotong berjurai-jurai.

This is very evocative prose; and the pork becomes a crucial part of the scene in a totally non-judgemental way that you wouldn't expect from a stereotypically songkok-wearing sasterawan. 

Another is when Maniam first catches sight of the land that would become his new home:

Waktu kapal itu mendekati pantai Pulau Pinang, Maniam terasa negeri yang didatanginya itu sama seperti negerinya sendiri. Pohon kelapa melambai-lambai di tepi pantai dan warna hijau menutupi sebahagian besar daratan pulau itu. Negerinya juga begitu. Lereng Gunung Nilgiris hijau dengan pokok-pokok kayu putih yang tinggi-tinggi mewangi. Maniam sedikit pun tidak berasa bahawa dia datang ke negeri asing.

Lovely. An enlightened school syllabus would have the teacher discussing with her students the extent to which Indian and Southeast Asian histories have been entwined for centuries. In fact, the early kingdoms of the Malay peninsula were all Hindu-Buddhist.  

Take this bit where Maniam's wife (unlike the men around her) dares to confront the white tuan of the estate, in order to defend the truth about her husband:

Malini membesarkan anak matanya. Dia tidak takut pada orang putih itu lagi. Mem itu juga dia tidak takut ... Sekali lagi Perumal menjeling. Dia menyumpah-nyumpah anaknya, kerana berani bercakap dengan orang putih begitu ... Orang putih itu rasa kagum juga pada perempuan yang kurus ini.

What a great chance for students to then discuss gender roles in society; why was it surprising that she would speak up, and what would be the consequence if women always kept mute?

The book was written in the late 1960s for a contest commemorating the 10th anniversary of Malayan Independence. As such, there are elements that are contrived in order to fit this theme. There is a lot of emphasis on the suffering that the individual characters go through, so that the redemptive unity at the end would seem more glowingly optimistic. Hence, the (at times melodramatic) insistence on 'negative traits' in the first three sections of the book, which need to be transcended and therefore 'cured' by the time the novel reaches its muhibbah end. The way the book is structured therefore emphasis certain ethnicised 'negative traits' (such as the Hindu caste system, which is referenced twice). The 'Malay part' alone has: laziness (Seman's father would rather pawn his land than work harder at the fields), superstition (the same man, when deathly ill, is treated by an unreliable bomoh rather than a doctor)  and hostility to education (Seman is kept illiterate because his parents don't see the point of school).

Interlok is one of the few Malay novels to have prominent non-Malay characters. The utter shame is that it should really have been the first of many more local novels that did the same. If this had been the case, we would be spoiled for choice for a '1Malaysia novel' to fit the literature syllabus. But as it is, the cultural politics of 1971 onwards made more novels of this kind very difficult: 'Malay' writers started to write 'Malay' books; 'Chinese educationists' started to develop the 'Chinese school system' (which was not nearly as robust in 1971 as it is now); and so on.

Because supposedly national institutions now seemed more 'Malay/Muslim' than 'Malaysian', there came a corresponding lack of faith on just how neutral these institutions could be. Hence, the automatic cynicism that greeted the Prime Minister's 1Malaysia slogan. How to believe it, when the Establishment had been thriving on divide-and-rule for decades? (And when even his Deputy said he is 'Malay first'?)

In the last four decades, how many writers have had a national appeal? I think only Lat, and to a certain extent Usman Awang (but do kids read Usman Awang nowadays?). Even in the more accessible realm of showbiz, the names of entertainers who have had pan-national appeal are few and far between: Sudirman, Alleycats, Yasmin Ahmad. Almost everyone else becomes 'Malay' rather than 'Malaysian'. (Now, there is also a parallel 'Chinese' star system, as seen in the success of movies like Tiger Woohoo (2010) onwards). 

In the brouhaha over Interlok, we have heard from 'Indian NGOs' and 'Malay NGOs'. Why are there so few 'Malaysian NGOs' or indeed Malaysians? (Except from the admirable statement from Chandra Muzaffar, with which I agree.) It's also a bit rich for associations like Gapena and Perkasa (which are both more 'Malay' than 'Malaysian') to suddenly champion freedom of expression. If they were consistent, they would do the same with Namewee, whose right to create and share his work I defend.

I am appalled that people who have not bothered to read the novel are being so loud and even pyrotechnic in their protests. If taught properly, Interlok will be a fascinating chance for our students to find ways in which they can build upon the essentialist (but not racist) worldview it depicts. But, at the same time, I think I understand how we have come to this. Each community is now addicted to what in America was once called, by an Australian critic, "the culture of complaint". Our wounds are our badges of honour. We have been made so aware of what countries our ancestors came from that we have lost sight of what country we are creating for our descendants. 

Interlok, the novel, is innocent. It is we, as Malaysians, who have allowed ourselves to become guilty.


Unknown said...

kesian dgn nasib penulis interlok..dikatakan dia agk tertekan dgn situasi skrg yg tidak menilai karyanya dr sudut positif..lama kelamaan negara kita tiada originality dlm berkarya..*sigh*..

Al said...

ah well,our education is so exam-oriented that in my time at least,none of us read the prescribed sastera or literature,there's minimal concern about learning and more so just the appearance of it,can you imagine a class here where the things you mention,gender roles and so on,are discussed openly and genuinely? we're not ready for critical thinking.

Anonymous said...

sometimes it is more about ppl politicizing the whole issue and true enough, those who challenge the book have not even read the book themselves.. :P

Amir Muhammad said...

aisyahussein, Umurnya sudah 91 jadi tak hairan dia rasa tertekan. Tapi faktor usia bukanlah faktor utama; contohnya, ramai juga diktator di Timur Tengah dan seluruh dunia yang dah tua tapi wajib ditekan sehingga mereka digulingkan! Apa yang saya ingin tekankan ialah bagaimana sistem politik (termasuk pendidikan) kita telah begitu lama menjadi mangsa sikap perkauman dan rasa curiga sesama kita.

AI: we've got to trust the young. If we don't, we are really doomed. I am sure most people outside Tunisia and Egypt thought the people there were 'not ready' to do what they are doing now, but they've gone ahead and done it nonetheless. And kids nowadays get information not just from schools but from many other sources. Look at the Internet-fuelled campus groundswell to repeal the UUCA. This would never have happened if the students had merely been sheep.

ShawnSharif said...

Lagi di-ban, lagi la saya berminat nak baca =)

Anonymous said...

I'm curious, Amir. Did you really speak to any person of Indian ethnicity regarding Interlok and why they were offended (whether or not they read the book entirely or not)?

I don't think a community reacting in a way a community reacts is 'carrying a wound like a badge of honour'. If that is how we are to view the Indian reaction to Interlok, when do we stop using such terms to simplify and ultimately misrepresent the issues of people who are an Other to us?

I think it's just as unjust to not really look at why the Indian community complains. They may have been wrong to target Interlok, but the fact is the offensiveness reveals important things about the Indian community that other ethnic communities are completely alien to. Simply handwaving and going "we should all be Malaysians first, etc." isn't going to make those issues go away.

Merijuana said...

I as form 5 this year .

I think this book was published agenda from govn & Our Minister of Education not read it.

That it's my opinion . TQ

Unknown said...

gomen objective: keep our people blind and backward-thinking
easier to control (con and troll)

Amir Muhammad said...

Merijuana, Good luck on your SPM English paper :-)

karcy, this comment on my FB quite eloquently explains the 'wound' (which I never said was not a legitimate wound):
"in my opinion, the whole "sensitivity" of the Interlok novel......should be seen as an indicator of diffrent races in malaysia.............after being told "pendatang","pengemis" by political parties, namely PERKASA/UMNO, and seeing that no action taken against racists remarks. I see this whole whhhhhooooooaaahhhh, as a stand made by worried if they dun make a stand today even on a single word......then racist politicans/educationists might that the tolerance shown and become even more racists. remember, it was just less than 1 year, after teachers and HMs called students pendatang/balik sini/balik sana. The whole stuff was actually not really about the word pariah..........but the fear that allowing any potential words that could be misused by educationists/politicians later on, as there was no concern shown about these words (when first used in schools). SERIOUSLY, I AM JUST SAD SEEING MY COUNTRY CHANGED......DARI MASA AKU KAT SEKOLAH/AND SEBAGAI RAKYAT COMPARED TO THE SCENARIO NOW. ONLY LAUNGAN SLOGAN, BUT STILL LEAD BY LAME POLITICIANS."

~YM~ said...

I do agree that the whole thing is not about the word "pariah". I've asked a few Indian friends of mine, and they had mentioned that it usually has no effect on the younger generation especially since it's non-existential in modern Malaysian Indian society. Plus, the MIC politicians tries to politicize the issue by saying that the author implied that all Malaysian Indians originate from the "pariah" caste, which is not true if the person had read the novel. I think perhaps MIC had no other issues to solve to prove its usefulness, hence creating some issue so that they could champion the rights.

A good review on the book. I'd purposely bought myself the book out of curiosity. :P

fadz said...

finally, a fair review on tha matter..

Uthaya Sankar SB said...

A good one, Amir. My humble opinion at, which also answers some questions asked above.

Akulah Aqilah Itu said...

Definitely I'll have a read on this book.


jejaka anggun said...

amir: Merijuana, Good luck on your SPM English paper :-)

Unknown said...

Well said, Amir. I agree that this book presents mind-boggling opportunities to the intelligent educationist. I see every "slur" or "racist depiction" in the book as a gift....which used well can actually open the minds of our young to be fully mature and integrated within oneself.... to be brave enough to face and learn lessons from the past......and not try to pretend it did not happen.

Amitav Ghosh's award winning "Sea of Poppies" is rife with references to the caste system. So are many other books by authors who are themselves Indian. Should we keep such books away from our children as well ? Similarly, Abdullah Hussein was just writing things as they were then. I don't think 17 year olds are too young to be exposed to these issues.

Thedervish said...

Seriously, all this kontroversi made me want to read Interlok more than ever and may i say that if you want to carve up parts/one word/two words/whole passage of a book then don't use the book in schools in the first place! how would you feel if somebody hangs your most prized artwork in public but before doing so he cuts up here and there the parts that he didn't like.

The only way to move forward is to learn from the past.If the book is a fair representation of the past then let it stand as it is. Sugar-coating (that is what i see as to the revision of the book) things will not benefit students.Let the young learn how terrible and shitty the past was so that they can make sure that the future will be better.
Also, i find that we are all getting more and more sensitive by the day. If the culture of duelling is still around i am pretty sure that the hospitals would be full of people with stab wound or GSW over perceived slight upon their honour or the honour of whomever they are protecting. Can't we just look at things in calm and objective manner?
Seriously, chill la nok!

Eyes Wide Open said...

Read what the Ministry is teaching through Interlok here:

Actual lesson plan from Bahagian Perkembangan Kurikulum, Kementerian Pelajaran Malaysia.