‘Interlok’ and Our Tragic Reality

by Kee Thuan Chye

I HAVEN’T read Interlok by Abdullah Hussain, but some of those who have, accuse it of racial stereotyping and derogating Chinese and Indian Malaysians while others say it is a novel that calls for inter-racial unity. The interpretations appear so poles apart that one might wonder if they are talking about the same novel.

I suppose how we read it would depend to a considerable extent on our racial background and predispositions. And these have been so coloured by the politicisation of race that has been at the centre of Malaysian life for so long that they will not be easy to shake off. Our biases die hard.

I’m always on the side of literary freedom. If a writer expresses a view that I am vehemently against, I would nonetheless defend his right to say it. At the same time, I would exercise my right to critique it. I believe this is the best approach to any discourse. Even if, in the process, people get offended.

If Abdullah Hussain has derogated certain races, his detractors should acknowledge that it is objectionable, even wrong, but at the same time, they should recognise that it merely reveals his true feelings towards other races.

We cannot always be politically correct; nor need we be. In fact, in literature, political correctness results not only in weak writing but also – far worse – untruthful sentiment.

I also believe that we must consider context. Artistic creations like novels, short stories, plays and films are constructs – and, therefore, fiction. Even works based on real-life people and events are essentially fiction; they are dramatisations, and the act of dramatising real-life events turns them into fictional constructs. Therefore, when we engage with them, we have to be aware of their parameters.

If characters of a certain race behave in a horrible manner in a novel or a play or a film, it should not be concluded that they reflect the race they belong to and that their rotten characteristics are common to that race. They are merely characters in a fictional work, exhibiting human traits that are not the monopoly of any one race. Whether you are Polynesian or Mongolian, you can be greedy or unscrupulous or sadistic.

Malaysians, however, tend to take the simplistic view that if an Indian is villainous in a novel or a film, it must imply that most if not all Indians are villains. Or that if a Malay is shown in a play as someone who likes to drink and often frequents pubs, it must imply that most if not all Malays like alcohol. Because of this myopic view, we often hear of how the image of a race has been tarnished because of such depictions.

It stems from nothing more than ultra-sensitivity, a condition afflicted on Malaysians by the unrelenting politicisation of the issue of race. And the effect of this on Malaysian writers, theatre people and film-makers is that it puts them in a ridiculous dilemma. They can’t portray an Indian prostitute without incurring the wrath of some Indians. They can’t have a Chinese drug baron because some members of the Chinese community might protest. They can’t have a Malay character who philanders like a bullfrog in heat because that would paint a negative image of Malays, who are supposed to be pious Muslims, even if in reality that is not always so.

In the case of Interlok, the objections have centred on the unflattering (some say, demeaning) portrayals of the Indian and Chinese characters in the novel. The most obvious objections are of the use of the word “pariah” in relation to the Indian characters and their representation as being from a low caste, and the depiction of the Chinese as being self-serving, to the extent that a poverty-stricken Chinese character says if he had a daughter, he would sell her. The Chinese are reportedly shown to be interested mainly in making money, even without caring for scruples.

I hope the objectors have considered all these strictly in the context of the novel and asked whether there is evidence in the text to show that Abdullah Hussain means to say that all Indians are pariah and that all Chinese sell their daughters and are money-grabbing. Outside of that, does it degrade the entire Chinese race if a fictional Chinese character is forced to sell his own daughter or to be obsessed with making money if he has known nothing but the famine and poverty of immigrant life?

The objectors also take umbrage against the numerous descriptions of the Chinese as having sepet eyes and fat bodies. They conclude that these and the abovementioned traits cohere with the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) agenda of promoting Ketuanan Melayu and degrading the other races. Is there a case to be made from this novel written 40 years ago that Abdullah Hussain actually hates the Chinese?

The questions to be answered are many. In view of this, the overriding concern of the objectors is whether Interlok should be made a compulsory text for Malay Literature in Form 5, whether it should be let loose on 17-year-olds who might not be discerning enough to separate fiction from reality.

The Government response so far has been to agree to edit out some parts of the novel, including the objectionable p-word. But if that is to be done, what are the repercussions?

First, it shows disrespect for a literary work. More significant than that, it compromises literary freedom. If I were Abdullah Hussain, I would unequivocally say no to that. I don’t know if he was ever consulted, but he should have been. The author must be allowed the last say. If he disagrees, he should be the one with the option to withdraw the text.

Ultimately, the Government needs to ask itself why it should still insist on pushing the novel through when these compromises have to be made. Why add to the mess arising from an issue that is already so contentious? Unless it is concerned that Abdullah Hussain will be unfairly deprived, it could easily look for a substitute text.

It should also ask whether Interlok itself is of sufficient literary merit to deserve being included as a compulsory school text. I can’t answer that as I haven’t read it, but looking at a synopsis of it and the passages quoted from the book by its critics, I would hazard that it is melodramatic and outdated in literary expression. I stand to be proven wrong.

When all is said and done, what can we derive from this entire controversy?

I think we all need to grow up – and grow out of our fixation on race. But the problem of course is that the ruling regime itself is the one that has been perpetuating racial divisiveness in order to remain in power – and that makes it all the more complex.

More and more, non-Malays are feeling they are being disenfranchised despite the lip service being paid by the Government to the 1Malaysia slogan. They have been called pendatang, told even by officials to go back to the countries of their ancestors, reminded by even personages like Mahathir Mohamad that this is the land of the Malays. Thus, more and more, they feel they need to resist when they are pushed against the wall.

Even if there were no sinister BTN-like agenda behind the inclusion of Interlok as a compulsory school text, the Government has been so deep in its practice of divide-and-rule that the sceptics would not believe otherwise.

With regard to Interlok, I think it is better that we educate our children so that they know how to distinguish between fiction and reality, so that they understand that it is the right of everyone to express what he or she believes, and that they too have the right to disagree with what is expressed. If our students are thus enlightened, they will read Interlok with eyes wide open and not agree with everything it says. They will resist its discourse. And that is also part of the learning process.

Unfortunately, however, we live in a society that has been psychologically damaged when it comes to the issue of race. And it will take a government that eschews racial politics and a lot of time to set us right again. Unfortunately, too, that is not fiction – but tragic reality.

  1. #1 by Lee Wang Yen on Tuesday, 22 March 2011 - 11:13 am

    I attended a forum on Interlok at USM a few weeks ago. According to one of the speakers, Interlok does make some generalised statements about all Indians in Malaysia.

    No one says that a historical novel must be historically accurate. An author of a work of fiction is free to portray anyone in any creative way he likes. In this case, since he has chosen to exercise his creative power by denigrating minorities in Malaysia who have already been ill-treated, his work is not suitable for (1) school students, and (2) the purpose of promoting solidarity in a mutually respecting pluralistic society.

    The main issue is not whether an author of historical novels has any right to write historically inaccurate historical novels. He has not done anything wrong vis-à-vis the purpose of writing a historical novel if he chooses to write a historically inaccurate one, given that a historical novel is still a novel. I don’t think Teck Ghee or other critics are unaware of this. The main issue is whether a historically inaccurate novel which denigrates minorities in a country with sizable oppressed or at least discriminated minorities is a sensible choice for school students and the express purpose of promoting solidarity.

    If he had not chosen to denigrate any ethnic group or to denigrate all groups in similar degrees in his historically inaccurate historical novel, it would be a different story. In that case I would not object to the use of this book as a school text on solidarity grounds. I would not object at all if the former approach had been taken. I would object on the grounds that this was a distasteful work if he had chosen the latter approach. At any rate, it should be clear that the problem is not with historical inaccuracies in a historical novel. But perhaps Kee Thuan Chye is right that the book does have some educational value – as an example of racial bigotry or a counterexample to 1 mutually respecting pluralistic Malaysia (rather than I Malaysia 1 Ummah [a slogan you can see in some USM offices]). As for positive lessons on solidarity and mutual respect, we certainly need a better book.

  2. #2 by k1980 on Tuesday, 22 March 2011 - 11:15 am

    Try writing a novel in the USA describing the blacks as ‘niggahs’ and the East Asians as greedy and ‘selling their daughters’ and see what the Supreme Court there will do to you. This is what a true democracy is, not like the sham democracy here.

  3. #3 by cemerlang on Tuesday, 22 March 2011 - 11:31 am

    What true democracy ? Even villians can get away if they can pay the top notch lawyers there. It is just Asians. Not East Asians. And it is the ” n ” word or letter.

  4. #4 by dagen on Tuesday, 22 March 2011 - 12:41 pm



  5. #5 by undertaker888 on Tuesday, 22 March 2011 - 1:41 pm

    ..in continuation of the inter-unlok bigotry…

    Moohidin, hasan’s neighbour, was born out of incest. he is the product of a father and his 14 years old daughter, siti. so is hussein who lives 3 houses down the street. moohidin did badly in school because of his inability to grasp simple logic. this could be due to in-breeding.

    but moohidin does not need to worry about going to university even though he did not do well. thanks to the country’s quota system. all is laid down for him nice and easy.

    but not so for Raju and Chin Seng who had to slog it out. Rajen, Raju’s dad is a hawker. he finds it hard to make a living to feed his family of 4. this is due to the bribes he had to pay weekly to the enforcer. even though his shop is legal, he still had to pay. if not, licence will not be granted.

    so every friday, abdullah will come by after his friday prayer to collect his due. every friday, he would say, “Hey Rajen. mana rezeki aku. tiada rezeki tiada lesen oh. ada tiga bini mau bela oh”. this is almost routine every friday for Hussein’s dad.

    ….to be continued.

  6. #6 by k1980 on Tuesday, 22 March 2011 - 1:55 pm

    #5 continuation…..

    Then one fine day abdullah came and say, “Hey Rajen, dollah ada bini lagi, yang keempat. Jadi rezeki aku mesti dinaikkan 25%…..tiada rezeki tiada lesen oh. Ada empat bini mau bela sekarang oh….

    That was the reason Rajen decided to pack up and go back with his family to Kerala. You see, unlike his mamak neighbour who is a doctor in the house, Rajen could not qualify for the nep…….

  7. #7 by dagen on Tuesday, 22 March 2011 - 2:02 pm

    Did someone mention “doctor in the house”? Is he? Yeah. In the house? Really? Then quick. Lock the house. And and burn it down. Now. On the double.

  8. #8 by dagen on Tuesday, 22 March 2011 - 2:11 pm

    Secret poll by umno on taib’s chances showed horrible result for taib and umno.

    What we now see is a concerted effort to yank the gigantic block of deadwood (umno) from the ground for disposal.

    First, the people in peninsular yanked that block to loosen it from the ground. Next the people in sabah and sarawak will yank the block from that other side of the country. After that the entire block will became dislodged from the ground and will be disposed off.

  9. #9 by Thor on Tuesday, 22 March 2011 - 5:58 pm

    YB Lim,
    Please ask Anwar to beware of one blardy bitch who might be involve in the making of the video.
    She even claimed to’ve 18 more videos which she knew,was hidden somewhere.
    Another Ezam in the making!!!

  10. #10 by tak tahan on Tuesday, 22 March 2011 - 10:07 pm

    #6 continuation..

    Then Rajen’s kerala’s friends learned of his ordeal and decided to convert to muslim and came to Malaysia.Unfortunately most Kerala folks just like Rajen,strong headed and not willing to scoop that blardy low to dispose their ethnicity and belief just to devour those left-over filthy crumbs.In the awed contrary,huge influx of bugis,javanese,pakistanese and others muslim alike took that(NEP) as golden opportunity to become the most elite ketuanan melayu baru.Melayu baru has to be created because melayu tulin mudah lupa dan tak pandai.So melayu baru had managed to conquered melayu layu.Mamak has been laughing to himself all this while.”Ka ka ka,melayu betul betul bodoh” as he is so confidently saying and be proud in his heart.

    To be continued..

  11. #11 by negarawan on Tuesday, 22 March 2011 - 10:33 pm

    Kee Thuan Chye, a good and meaningful article. This goes to show UMNO is trying to make our children believe in fiction of “pendatang” and “ketuanan melayu”. Thanks

  12. #12 by good coolie on Sunday, 27 March 2011 - 12:02 pm

    You will know in the next general elections what si botol (si “koleh”, to be culturally correct) can do to you. As for this business of prostitutes being from only one race, this goes against the 1 Malaysia policy. So, the ostriches should take their heads out of the sand.

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