If history was written by Interlok author Abdullah Hussain — Centre for Policy Initiatives
JUNE 9 — The Malaysian Insider yesterday (June 8) carried the rather arresting headline “Use Interlok as model for history textbooks, says historian”. The article reported a suggestion by Prof Anthony Milner for “Interlok” to be used as a model for history textbooks. The reasons given are that the novel is “wonderfully inclusive” and “sympathetic” in its narrative and depiction of non-Malays.
Milner, who is with UKM’s International Studies department, categorises “Interlok” as being “a bit of a historical novel” that provides an insight into the lives of the Chinese and Indian communities and their relationship with the Malay community.
The Australian academic is likely unaware that his proposal is every bit as controversial as Abdullah Hussain’s contentious novel. “Interlok” elicited the firestorm it has precisely because its sympathy quotient is no more than if a third-rate author were to attempt to copy Alex Haley’s acclaimed “Roots” (about the origins of the African-Americans) but narrating from a white slave owner’s supremacist point of view.
An analogy would be if Milner — who incidentally has admitted to reading “Interlok” only in its truncated English translation — were to put forward the idea of including “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in the German school syllabus as a model to teach sympathetic history.
If one were to take Milner at his word, what would a reader derive from the novel regarding the portrayal of Indian and Chinese immigrants historically?
The main Indian character Maniam is a bigamist and irresponsible husband. In fact, “Interlok” prescribes that “Indians are irrational and violent people” [this surmise within quotation marks is made by the blog Hartal MSM which had gotten hold of a classroom lesson plan designed by the Education Ministry’s curriculum development section]. The Hartal posting “When a language lesson isn’t about language” reveals the ministry’s insidious pushing of derogatory racial stereotypes in its study guide worksheet.
If you asked anyone from the Indian community how they view their women, he would not hesitate to say that Indians are the most loyal of wives. Yet Abdullah Hussain depicts Maniam’s first wife as an unfaithful spouse who was “enticed” (ala the Daphne Iking cheating case) by their neighbour. Meanwhile, Maniam’s second wife, whom he abandoned, is described as responding sexually to her rapist who happens to be the mortal enemy of her husband.
Apart from the implausibility of the plot devices, what “Interlok” imposes is the pronouncement of one bigoted Malay author on what he promotes as the ingrained character traits of the Indian and Chinese.
SPM students forced to study the book do not hear the genuine voice of an Indian or a Chinese speaking for himself. Instead the students are hectored that an Indian is such and such, that a Chinese is such and such, and are required to accept Abdullah’s cock-eyed view of them because the officially sanctioned prejudicial lesson plans reinforce his slanders.
Chinese came here as prostitutes
There are no positive role models among the Indian women characters in “Interlok”. Among the Chinese female protagonists, again there is a similar type — the vapid wife of the immigrant is left behind in the homeland by her philandering husband Kim Lock. The other woman in Kim Lock’s life is an opium-addicted prostitute in the north of our peninsula who ultimately hangs herself.
“Interlok” conveys the Chinese race as nothing more than ruthless swindlers, inveterate gamblers and walking, talking sepet caricatures. The Indian community in Abdullah’s selective world is quarrelsome, violent, devious and pariahs.
The Malaysian history curriculum already has enough trouble distinguishing fact from Biro Tata Negara fiction. Therefore, it is surreal to hear a foreign professor seemingly promoting a piece of BTN propaganda to be taught in Malaysian school as history aid or accessory.
Such a line of thought would however align perfectly with Perkasa Professor Ramlah Adam who claimed the Chinese came here only either as a coolie or as an investor. Kim Lock, the immigrant in “Interlok”, was pictured as a manual labourer who pulled a rickshaw and carried nightsoil (shit buckets).
Whether “Interlok” is disguised as something historical, or if immigrant history is otherwise passed off as the epic story of “Interlok”, one cannot escape the unmitigated negative stereotyping of the minorities — made out to be a species of succubus who suck dry the milk and honey of the land. The enduring image sketched by Abdullah Hussain of Chinese town folks is “muka mereka berminyak, semuanya gemuk-gemuk” and of the Indian who is easily emotionally aroused — “[Maniam] sudah mabuk seperti babi gila”.
In the latest episode (remember that we study the past to understand the present and predict the future), the parliamentarian Teresa Kok made a statement that is apposite of the recent “cattle-branding” of Chinese nationals detained in a Penang nightclub for alleged vice. Kok said: “It is sickening that the police would employ such dehumanising tactics as a show of power and moral superiority over their detainees.”
Exactly the same can be said of “Interlok”. The Malay hegemony of the Ministry of Education (including all the public universities, and also the one that Milner is currently a visiting scholar), Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Gapena/Pena as well as the government-approved literati dominated by a single race, have together conspired to allow Abdullah Hussain to get away with it.
Like the police who branded the Chinese women with a scarlet letter, the methods of writing employed by the author is similarly dehumanising and a show of power and perceived moral superiority over the immigrant races. The Malay body politic has permitted a biased author to fictionalise an adverse history about two peoples whose ethos he has but a shallow understanding of and whose culture he is little acquainted with.
Blood libel of selling daughters
The worst is how Abdullah makes as if Chinese parents are incapable of loving their female offspring. He also insinuates that it is a cultural norm that they sell their daughters. Can he show a single piece of Chinese literature or any Chinese text of note or authority that proves this as a traditional or common practice of the community?
One would expect Ramlah Adam to endorse Abdullah Hussain but whatever possessed Prof Anthony Milner of Australia to lob his little bombshell?
To be fair to him, those we spoke to who attended Milner’s talk have pointed out that these comments on “Interlok” comprised a very small portion of an extended presentation which also focused on the pitfalls and dangers of an ethno-centric history.
Nonetheless, let’s hope though that Prof Milner realises the potential damage arising from his woefully injudicious and naive endorsement of “Interlok” and comes out quickly with an appropriate clarification. If he fails to do so, he can be sure that the media coverage of his speech — likely to be extensively circulated in Malay and officialdom circles — will be used to justify the further propagation of negative and hateful stereotypes of the non-Malays in the educational system of the country.
Certainly if “Interlok” were to be used as a model to liven up our history textbooks, it would teach a salacious “history” of Indian sluts and Chinese whores.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.