4 Nov 2011

Speaking in Tongues: Part 6

Interlok Lessons

On 20 December 2010, Kavyan was contacted by Raja Rajeswary Seetha Raman – a committee member of Persatuan Penulis Nasional Malaysia (National Writers’ Association; PENA) – who claimed that Interlok: Edisi Murid was racist and degraded Indians in Malaysia (and Singapore).

In January 2011, Kavyan committee members started reading the original versions (1996, 2003 and 2008), the student edition (2005) and the controversial compulsory text (2010).

In a nutshell, the novel talks about Indians who come from India and Chinese who come from China to start a life in Malaya. They interact with the Malays whom are the “original” people of Malaya. The timeline is from early 1900’s to 31 August 1957.

Throughout the novel, the Indians in particular are referred to in a humiliating manner; which I shall not quote here. Too many obvious factual errors related to the Indian culture, religion, language and history were not looked into when the latest edition was published to be made a compulsory text in schools.

Kavyan’s findings were made public in a media briefing held on 16 January 2011 in Shah Alam, Selangor. All the statements were based on facts and a thorough reading of the different versions of the novel. There were of course shocking discoveries.

For example, almost all the negative portrayal of the Malay characters were conveniently deleted from the 2010 student edition while negative images of the Indians and Chinese as the “pendatang” (aliens) were maintained almost fully.

I wrote a series of 13 articles and they were published in Free Malaysia Today starting 18 January 2011 to educate Malaysians about the real issues surrounding the Interlok: Edisi Murid controversy. I was also involved in a number of forums and debates where I had a chance to explain all the linguistic mistakes, factual errors and sensitive issues which were not handled professionally by whoever was in charge of publishing the student edition (2010).

In February 2011, Dr N. S. Rajendran, Mr G. Krishnabahawan and I were appointed by the Education Minister to be part of a panel in charge of making the amendment to the student edition. The three of us gathered a total of 106 recommendations which were approved by the 8-member panel on 4 March 2011. Other panel members came up with amendments involving the Malay and Chinese characters.

But when the decisions were finalised and the panel was called for a meeting with the Education Minister on 16 March 2011, the panel members who prepared the amendments involving the Malay and Chinese characters withdrew their recommendations!

Since then, Kavyan’s statements regarding the Interlok issue were published in Makkal Osai, Tamil Nesan, Malaysia Nanban, The Star and theSun newspapers; in addition to a wider coverage in Free Malaysia Today, The Malaysian Insider and Malaysiakini news portals.

Meanwhile, on 22 June 2011, the Education Ministry finally decided to reprint the novel according to what has been approved by the panel on 4 March 2011, sans the amendments involving the Malay and Chinese characters.

And Yet Again

Kavyan openly supports Bahasa Malaysia as the language of all Malaysians. We are also totally against the “pendatang” (alien) label. Strange but true: when you support the true spirit of Malaysia, you might be labeled “anti-Melayu”.

One such issue is regarding the Kamus Dewan (dictionary). The Education Ministry made a statement in its official website (April 2011) that all the Bahasa Malaysia words and phrases in the dictionary belongs to and represents the Malays, therefore the non-Malays have no say in it. This was the response given to a news report in the Tamil daily, Makkal Osai (31 March 2011) that there were some words in Kamus Dewan deemed sensitive to the Malaysian Indian.

Kavyan made a press statement and was immediately labeled as anti-Malays who dared to question the “Ketuanan Melayu” (Malay Supremacy) in the land which some claim belongs solely to the Malays.

One Subari Ahmad, for example, made a statement on Facebook that I should be detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) “kerana cuba menggugat ketenteraman rakyat” (for trying to undermine the peace and harmony amongst the people). Of course, many rallied to support him, at least on his Facebook wall.

So, if one thinks that being a Bahasa Malaysia writer in Malaysia is easy, think again. You have to struggle for your right – even to use the term “Bahasa Malaysia” in your works! Not to mention using “Bahasa Malaysia” to unite a nation.

But Kavyan and I take all these as challenges. Be the change you want to see in this world, as Mahatma Gandhi said long ago.

Uthaya Sankar SB, “Speaking in Tongues: The Kavyan Writers”, paper presented at the World Tamil Writers Conference in Singapore on 29 October 2011.)