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Are we ready to Interlok?

 | January 14, 2011

The furore over the Interlok novel is another red chapter in race relations.


The prime minister must be a frustrated man. It appears that his plan of turning Malaysia into a colour blind nation winds up in the red, more often than not. The latest obstacle being the controversy surrounding the Interlok novel.

Penned by national laureate Abdullah Hussain in 1971, the tale centres around the daily lives of the various races in Malaya in the early 20th century.

But critics claim that it paints the Indians in a rather unflattering hue and the author erred in giving the impression that all Indians who landed in Malaya are from the outcaste stock.

Despite the sensitive nature of its content, certain quarters in the Education Ministry have deemed it appropriate to introduce the book in classrooms for the Malay literature subject.

And over the weekend, the anger took a fiery twist and protesters torched a copy of the book and an image of the author.

Those who defended the book condemned the protest, arguing that Interlok is a work of literature and should be viewed as such, without exploiting the race perspective for political mileage.

But a politician later asked if the same degree of intellectual tolerance would be extended for a book penned by a non-Malay author containing condescending remarks about the Malay race.

Would this book also be introduced in schools for the sake of learning and fostering integration or would the likes of Perkasa litter the streets of Kuala Lumpur with burnt remains of the book?

Burning books, however, is not the solution. To quote the French philosopher Voltaire, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

Teaching a dicey subject

However, is the Malaysian education system, its students and more importantly, teachers, mature enough and equipped with the right skills to handle a book replete with racial sensitivities?

Three years ago, history lessons on slavery were made compulsory for secondary students in England aged between 11 and 14 under a revised curriculum.

Students had to learn about the development of the slave trade, colonisation and the links between slavery, the British empire and the industrial revolution, alongside both world wars and the holocaust.

The Guardian newspaper then quoted children’s minister, Kevin Brennan, as saying, “Although we may sometimes be ashamed to admit it, the slave trade is an integral part of British history.”

The report added that it is hoped the topic would help students understand the make-up of the UK and help prepare them for life in a diverse and multi-ethnic society.

However, the Guardian also reported education charity DEA’s warning that teachers would need more guidance and support to tackle such issues effectively.

The government then funded the Understanding Slavery Initiative to develop teaching materials for use in museums and classrooms and training for teachers on to how to approach the issue.

In Teaching History: A Journal of Methods (2009), Daniel P Kotzin elaborated on broaching the complexities of slavery. He quoted historian Jorn Rusen as arguing that a critical historical consciousness, by encouraging a critique of past moral values, could make a positive contribution to students’ own moral values.

However, Rusen noted that in order to have the ability to offer an effective critique, students must have a firm understanding of the historical context in which those values existed.

Would teachers here delve into such depths or just skim the subject on the surface and as a result of which, further sow the seeds of racism in impressionable minds and yield a crop of future Perkasa and Hindraf leaders?

Has the Malaysian Education Ministry given this any thought?

Were concerned groups and experts consulted before making the decision to introduce Interlok into the syllabus or was it just bulldozed through by a group of people who gave little thought about the possible impacts?

As for teachers here, recent incidents have shown that some of them need to return to school to polish their integration skills first before imparting their views on the subject to the children.

In a nation that uses its racial and religious diversity to lure in tourist dollars, the education climate however is still similar to the plot in Interlok, with school heads and teachers telling their non-Malay students to board the next ship back to their motherlands.

Contrasted against this backdrop, one could only imagine the horrors to be endured sitting in a classroom when the pages of Interlok are flipped through.

And herein lies the problem with Najib Tun Razak’s fabled 1Malaysia kingdom.

It seems that only the prime minister and his band of public relations wizards are working overtime to promote the concept while the rest appear hell-bent on sabotaging it.


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