Saturday, January 22, 2011
Interlocked In Interlok
This was not Shi Huangdi, burning books so no scholars would become more intelligent than him.
This was not Adolf Hitler, monarch of the Third Reich, burning all books that were deemed un-German.
Neither was this the Communist Party, burning all texts written by "capitalist pigs".
This was Malaysia, nine years from 2020, and these were books burnt by angry citizens.
The book? Interlok.
Interlok, a book written by Abdullah Hussain, has recently come under fire for its "racist" and "discriminatory" content, with characters in the story calling another Indian character a "pariah" and a "keling". Politicians from the opposition have been quick to capitalize on this, stoking the flames of discontent, using it to fire up unrest, instead of steering the rakyat to a more progressive, and practical way of solving this. Instead, community leaders have shown themselves to be of the same political genius of the likes of Adolf Hitler and Shi Huangdi.
Firstly, as a fellow Malaysian, I can understand their rage, but what I cannot, and never will condone is their manner of handling the issue at hand. Burning books? Barbarians, Nazis, Communists and terrorists burn books, not civilized, educated people! By committing this atrocity, these angry citizens have not only further stoked racial unrest, they have also destroyed the sanctity of books. They have only further validated, and proven that Malaysia is far from an open minded, tolerant society.
When someone disagrees with you, one does not kill the person, or shut them up with duct tape. One endeavors with logic and reason, to debunk their arguments, to prove that they are wrong. It is the most effective, most practical way of handling an issue like this. If one is unhappy, one should complain to the press, go through the legitimate procedures, and tell the world about it. Burning and other acts of destruction only paint a radical, extremist light on the activists, however noble their intentions may be.
Secondly, I am of the opinion that Abdullah Hussain's novel is exactly what it is meant to be, a NOVEL. It is a story meant to entertain, educate, and raise awareness. The whole reason of the writing about the ill treatment given to the Indian character, is to raise awareness about it, so that readers know that it is wrong. The caste system, keling, pariah, these things have in fact happened in the past. In some ways, these things still remain at large in society. Some say it is unreasonable to comment on the caste system. However, the caste system, though officially abolished, still survives in a form, because in India there is still prejudice against the untouchables, and there is still a great divide between the rich and the poor.The racial injustices mentioned in the book are still happening today. The problem is, that people take literature too literally. The caste system is a symbol of the injustice that happens all over the world simply because of one's background; the racial injustices are reflective of the very things we must avoid. So what if things are not 100% factually correct? Nobody said Interlok was a factual historical commentary, in fact, Interlok is a work of FICTION.
At the very same time, the incidences in Interlok do not glorify and condone the acts of racial discrimination mentioned. They simply reflect what society was at the time. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, has characters calling African Americans 'negroes'. These characters act the way they do simply because that was how things were in that era. Khaled Hoesseni's Kite Runner describes a child being sodomised. Does writing about it indicate that the author condones it? No! It is in fact, the opposite; the author wishes to fight it, and instead of ignoring the problem, chooses to acknowledge it, and tackle it head on. In George Orwell's 1984, he describes an authoritarian society, with a Big Brother watching over all. Had he been published in Malaysia, his book probably would have been burnt, as a text that spreads communist ideals. This could not be further from the truth, he is in fact fighting the evils of communism by raising awareness about it, by shocking the reader, so that the reader can understand how terrible communism can be. Likewise, Abdullah Hussain fights racism, by showing us how things should NOT be.
In essence, Interlok retains its integrity as a piece of literary fiction. On the other hand, its validity as a textbook is not as sound. Not because of its content, but because of the teachers teaching the subject matter. The teachers using Interlok as studying material must be able to handle the racial issues raised in the book maturely and reasonably. Students must be educated so that they know the characters' ill treatment of Indians is wrong, and of the social context of the novel. And so, the real question is not whether Interlok is a good textbook, but rather, can our Malaysian teachers handle it sensitively and responsibly? With no offence meant to those truly Malaysian educators, it might be wise to point out all the controversy surrounding the principal who asked racial minorities to go back to China and India. With such educators in charge of schools, how can we expect students to emerge with progressive, tolerant mindsets?
The Education Ministry has been placed between a rock and a hard place. If they choose to withdraw, they will be acceding to the demands of political and narrow minded bickering, as well as damning Abdullah Hussain's work of literature. Should they choose to do otherwise and retain the book, they might be causing untold damage at the hands of some racist and equally narrow minded educators. Once again, it seems like the Malaysian government has got itself INTERLOCKED in a bad situation. Surprise, surprise.