24 Jan 2011

Issues: Interlok in Gridlock

Opening remark: I must sincerely thank Suzieana Uda Nagu and Nurjehan Mohamed who wrote a two-page (three, if you count the cover) special report for New Sunday Times on 23 January 2011. Such a wonderful read and I really had so much fun reading it! Such creativity these people have in order to make fun of themselves (and I’m not talking about Suzieana and Nurjehan, mind you). Come, join the fun! Below is the article with my personal comments. Read at your own risk.


The move to adopt Interlok as a Malay Literature text for Form Five students has aroused heated debate over its suitability. Academics assuage the public’s concerns about the controversy surrounding the novel, report SUZIEANA UDA NAGU and NURJEHAN MOHAMED.

A PRINCIPAL of a secondary school in Selangor pre-empted a potential crisis by apologising to her students who had misunderstood her statement regarding the Indian community.

The principal, whom students and staff members describe as caring and open-minded, had called on students to excel in History to understand the controversy surrounding Datuk Abdullah Hussain’s novel Interlok.

Her message was that by appreciating the lives of individuals of different times and places, history provides people with valuable insights into their lives and acts as a lesson for the present and guidance for the future.

She illustrated her point by referring to a passage in Interlok where the term “Pariah caste” was used.

However, students misinterpreted her intentions and thought that she was articulating an ethnic slur.

The quick-witted teacher immediately called for a special meeting to address the issue and apologised to students if she had offended their ethnic sensibilities.

(Comment: We sure have wasted a lot of newspaper space by telling the sad, sorrowful story about this “quick-witted teacher”. Siti Inshah must be grumbling all alone somewhere in Kulaijaya. – UthayaSB)

The above incident shows the potential minefield of professional and personal suicide for teachers if they do not tread carefully in discussing Interlok with students.

Universiti Putra Malaysia, Malay language department lecturer Associate Professor Dr Lim Swee Tin who had taught in schools for close to 30 years empathise with teachers who find themselves in this predicament.

The poet and Southeast Asia Write Award-winning author believes that the decision to use Interlok as a Malay Literature text for fifth-formers must be made in the best interests of teachers and students.

“We must come up with a solution to avoid teachers and students feeling uncomfortable discussing the book in the classroom,” he says.

Copies of the abridged edition of the novel were distributed to schools in Selangor, Negri Sembilan and the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya before the start of the new school year.

But the books have been temporarily put aside pending the Cabinet’s decision on the matter.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had instructed that more discussions be held to find solutions that everyone can agree on.

The move to adopt the book as a literature text for Form Five students has aroused heated debate over its suitability.

The core of the argument is the word “Pariah”, deemed derogatory by the Indian community. The word appears twice in the student’s edition.

Indian groups have called for the word to be removed from the abridged version of the novel, or its withdrawal from the syllabus.

They fear that students may “use the word against each other” when there are disagreements.

There are also claims that certain facts and events in the book are inaccurate — for example, Kathakali dancers are said to wear masks when in fact they wear make-up. [MORE HERE]

Some say the novel is not a true portrayal of the Indian community at the turn of last century.

Kavyan Literary Group president Uthaya Sankar SB says: “While the Muslim way of life is beautifully described in the novel, the author hardly mentions the way the Indian characters practise their religion.

“The issue is bigger than the sensitive word. The errors in the novel should be corrected and its content further refined to make it suitable for young readers,” he adds.

While it is natural for parents to be concerned about exposing their children to Interlok, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Professor Teo Kok Seong believes that adults should not underestimate and over-protect the young as they are mature enough to handle such a situation.

The deputy director of the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation agrees that teachers should be cautious in handling that particular word but “I think a waras (sane) person will know the difference between polite and impolite usage”.

As a former teacher and trainer, UPM’s Lim is confident that teachers are well equipped to teach the book.

“Literature has been a component of Bahasa Malaysia for the past 11 years and teachers have taught the subject strictly guided by the module provided by the Education Ministry.

“Teachers know that their duty is to highlight positive values from the text and emphasise why certain behaviours or ideas are not condoned,” he adds.

Literary enthusiasts believe that it will be easy for teachers to pick out good moral values from Interlok as it is laden with lessons on unity, loyalty and patriotism apart from being a social commentary on life in Malaya in the early 20th century.

“The novel relates how the immigrant characters did not have to undergo a process of assimilation — changing their names, religion or language — to eke out a living in Malaya under the open sky policy practised by the British at the time.

“It also narrates the process of how the three main ethnic groups came together to uphold the principles of Rukun Negara,” says former Malay Literature lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia Dr Fatimah Busu.

(Comment: The novel was written before 1968, and Rukun Negara was introduced in 1970, a year before the novel was first published. Hey! How come the ‘official’ spokeswoman for everything Pariah is given only three paragraphs? – UthayaSB)

Raja Rajeswari Seetha Raman, a lecturer, poet and translator from Institut Pendidikan Guru Malaysia Kampus Bahasa Melayu says many phrases in the book raise the level of the Indians through Maniam, one of the lead characters.

For example, in the fourth part of the book, the Malay protagonist Seman calls Maniam “Tuan” out of respect for him as an employer and ayah angkat (adoptive father).

In the days before Malaya’s independence from the British, without titles such as Datuk or Tan Sri, this was the highest honorific designation.

Rajeswari was mildly surprised to read that Maniam was given a lot of respect by the author.

Withdrawing the book from the syllabus would be unfortunate, says Teo, as the title of the book itself is “about ethnic unity and 1Malaysia”.

“If the book is withdrawn, we would miss a great opportunity to unite our youngsters,” he adds.

The story of us

DATUK Abdullah Hussain’s novel Interlok is a sound choice for Malay Literature students, says Raja Rajeswari Seetha Raman, lecturer, poet and translator from Institut Pendidikan Guru Malaysia Kampus Bahasa Melayu.

(Comment: Interlok is used as Komsas for Bahasa Malaysia, not Malay Literature subject. – UthayaSB)

Elements that promote national unity are found in the novel. These include how the three ethnic groups depicted in the book fought for independence together and had a sincere and helpful relationship with one another.

“This is the 1Malaysia concept being depicted in the book — it is a good text for Malay Literature students,” says Rajeswari, who lectures Malay Literature and writes Malay poetry.

“Many moral values are actually integrated, which you have to study in an interdisciplinary manner — you need to look at it in the context of history, sociology and social linguistics to get the right message.

“On the surface, interpretations can be ‘unjustful’ but when you get into the novel, the reader will understand the actual message,” she adds.

(Comment: Interesting to compare with what she actually told me on 20 December 2010 -- READ HERE - UthayaSB)

The book is written in a mosaic style — the first part is about Seman, the second about Cing Huat, the third about Maniam and the fourth about how these characters link up.

Rajeswari says the term “Pariah”, used in Maniam’s narrative, is not meant to humiliate or degrade anybody and that the setting is in 1910.

“You have to look at the period in which the story takes place; you cannot analyse it according to the present situation,” she adds.

(Comment: But you could use the same book to promote national unity and 1Malaysia propaganda in the present situation? – UthayaSB)

The word is used to throw some light on the situation in India during those times and does not reflect present-day Indians in Malaysia.

People are already familiar with the word before its appearance in this book thanks to cultural studies,” she says, adding that in her 20-odd years of teaching Malaysian schoolchildren, this was never a word that came up in arguments among youngsters.

(Comment: Not in the past, yes. Now we have Interlok as a guidebook! Check out the first part of this article about the “caring and open-minded” principal. – UthayaSB)

As regards misleading or incorrect information about the Indian culture, such as describing Kathakali dancers as wearing masks during performances (in reality, they use make-up), she says that the novel is a piece of faction — a mix of fact and fiction.

This form of writing — used by Truman Capote in his book In Cold Blood — is often disliked as it is confusing for people who are trying to find facts.

(Comment: Fishy. Reads as if the information was lifted and translated from my blog, but out of context! – UthayaSB)

The author wanted to incorporate something new or different into his story,” says Rajeswari, adding that Abdullah had consulted with (sic) a scholar from University of Malaya’s Indian Studies Department at the time of writing the book.

“He obtained information for his book from this scholar as well as his own observations and reading,” she adds.

(Comment: So he told you? Or so you read? Or so you were told by someone else? – UthayaSB)

Contrary to what Indian groups are saying, she does not view the book as a threat or demeaning to the community.

“People should look at it as a whole. Literature is an art that uses connotative language — you cannot make judgements by looking at one phrase or diction, you have to look at the whole context,” she says.

Indians came to Malaya long before the 1900s — Parameswara is a good example — so Maniam does not represent the entire community in Malaysia or India.

He is simply a character in a novel created by the author,” says Rajeswari.

(Comment: Finally, some almost valid point! But we are talking about more than your beloved Pariah Maniam. And what happened to all the talk about faction? Also, have you forgotten that no man is an island? Maniam came to Pulau Pinang on July 1910 with 119 others and they were all Pariah. So, it’s not simply ‘one’ character. – UthayaSB)

Professor Teo Kok Seong, deputy director of the Institute of Malay World and Civilisation, who is also a professor of Malay Sociolinguistics, agrees.

You cannot jump to conclusions without reading the book,” he says.

(Comment: You don’t jump to any conclusions too, please. I have read the book. You should be giving this ‘valuable’ advice to the Gapena Alliance out there. – UthayaSB)

He assesses it as a good book that talks about national integration and “interlocking” of the three main ethnic groups in Malaya.

‘It’s unfortunate that people have made a big fuss over it.”

(Comment: Yes, that Gapena Alliance making too much noise shouting on stage, barking up the wrong tree and all that stuff. I understand what you mean; I understand how you feel. – UthayaSB)

All in a word

THE essence of the controversy surrounding the adoption of national laureate Datuk Abdullah Hussain’s novel Interlok as a school text for fifth-formers is a linguistic one, says Professor Teo Kok Seong.

“It is about the use of the word ‘Pariah’, which is a taboo and sensitive term to the Indian community,” says Teo, deputy director of the Institute of Malay World and Civilisation, who is also a professor of Malay Sociolinguistics.

(Comment: Excuse me, where have you been since 15 December 2010? Read more, know more about the actual issue. Get your details HERE. – UthayaSB)

However, in the novel, the word is used as a proper noun, spelt with a capital “P” — which means it is referring to a social entity in the caste system.

(Comment: How clever of you, sir! Your beloved Pariah proper noun is not even part of the caste system. – UthayaSB)

The word can be used in three ways, according to the English dictionary — as a proper noun, a common noun and an adjective.

As a common noun, it is used as a metaphor to mean a social outcast — “a person who is not acceptable to society and is avoided by everyone” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary).

As an adjective, such as in “pariah dog”, it refers to an “animal that has no owner or home and is of no particular breed” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary).

“Although it is claimed by some that the word is offensive in the novel, it is not at all,” says Teo, a linguist by training.

(Comment: So, shall we officially start calling you as such; no offence, not at all? – UthayaSB)

“If it is used with a small ‘P’, then it is racist. If it is used as an adjective, it’s worse still.”

(Comment: So, we should be looking forward to hear headmistresses, teachers and students shouting “Hey, you! Pariah with a capital P” I assume? How lovely! – UthayaSB)

The word in the book, he stresses, is never used as an epithet and is not discriminatory in nature — a point that the public needs to be educated on.

Teo adds that the term is written in the form of narrationnot as part of a dialogue or monologue — which means that it is used to expose a fact about this caste system.

(Comment: Let’s start by ‘exposing’ that the caste system does not include your beloved Pariah with a capital P. Please be educated about these matters first before you open your … mouth, of course. – UthayaSB)

He also analysed the word from the speech act approach — which means the utterance of a word or phrase can bring about an action.
“For instance, if you were to call someone ‘binatang’ (animal), you are showing anger towards the person.

“The use of the word ‘Pariah’ in Interlok, is only to give information to the reader that the character is from this class in the caste system,” he says.

(Comment: Some binatang still has trouble understanding that Pariah with a capital P is not part of the caste system. No, I’m just referring to the poor animal, no speech act approach applicable. – UthayaSB)

Teo agrees that there is no way to prevent people from using the term in a racist manner — people have the linguistic right to use words they want — but it needs to be seen in its context.

(Comment: Yes, yes. Remember that I used binatang above in the context of the poor animal, not in any racist manner. For an expert, there shouldn’t be any problem to understand this. – UthayaSB)

He adds that the ‘P’ word has been used in the English language “like nobody’s business”.

(Comment: The ‘F’ word has also been used in the English language “like nobody’s business”, sir. So you better start using it together with your beloved Pariah with a capital P during your lectures and in your writings. Just make sure you use capital ‘F’ and capital ‘P’ to save your butt. Have fun! – UthayaSB)


Closing remark: If Lim Swee Tin’s and my opinion were not included in this special report, the whole thing would have been a complete and proper sarkas binatang (common noun; not speech act approach) just like one of Pak Lah’s shocking cerpen dealing with manusia-binatang (animal-human). Then the whole thing would have been a complete farce and pure entertainment. Oh, God (proper noun)! I can’t stop laughing. - READ MORE HERE