As the drama over the Interlok textbook issue continues to unfold, it is important for Malaysians to understand the context and the stakes involved, and to make a stand.
There are some defenders of the book who have argued that withdrawing or even just editing it will rob Malaysian writers of their artistic freedom and integrity. To these people, I would like to say “hello, where have you been” – Interlok has already been edited twice, in 2005 for Edisi Pelajar and in 2010 for Edisi Murid.
Its literary integrity was already compromised by the shedding of some 85 pages even before this latest controversy.
In fact, copyright for the edition distributed free to schools no longer belongs even to Abdullah Hussain but to Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
Hence Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s statement that his ministry “will ensure that any amendments made will not affect the storyline of the novel and the noble message that the author wants to convey” is nothing short of whitewash.
According to reports, Muhyiddin is not permitting anything beyond deletion of the word ‘pariah’.
This concession is like slicing off one tentacle from a hundred-headed hydra – a totally pointless exercise.
Make no mistake; Interlok is a work that must not be permitted into the nation’s class rooms as a compulsory literature text. Anything less is a vital failure to grasp the gravity of the threat it poses.
The quarrel is not merely with vocabulary or spelling (for example, of ‘tali’ vs ‘thali’) but the overall suitability of the novel with its overt and covert racial messages as a school text.
Starting ‘em young and younger
Concern by many Malaysians that Interlok has been intentionally selected by the authorities to fulfill the Umno/Biro Tata Negara objective of indoctrinating young minds with a warped worldview and national view is hardly misplaced.
Before these concerns are dismissed as imaginary or overwrought, let us not forget that education has long been and continues to be the most politicized sector of the country.
Far from being neutral institutions, many of our public sector colleges and universities consciously and consistently promote a narrow nationalism.
It is in the educational sector where proponents of the Ketuanan Melayu dogma have sought to impose their will and polarize our communities.
Their missionary zeal focuses on use of race-based criteria at all levels and in all aspects. It is no surprise therefore that the propagation of the ideology of super-ordination and subordination has now been extended to the schools, and to the curriculum and text books.
As has been pointed out by those who have analysed the Interlok content, why are all the villains and nasty characters Chinese and Indians?
One of the key plots turns on the rapacious Chinese merchant swindling the easily duped Malay of his inheritance.
Touted as a ‘historical novel’, Interlok is constructing a version of BTN history and racial stereotypes to influence young minds.
Drawing line in the sand
Its government-mandated and authorities-supported dissemination and circulation appears to further a carefully thought-out agenda to fan racial animosity.
Because Interlok is the first round battle (in tandem with the History curriculum revamp), it is important for conscientious objectors to send a strong signal to the Education Minister and his bureaucratic and academic cronies that Malaysians will not be cowed into acquiescence.
We must exercise our right to openly discuss, criticize and protest on this crucial matter.
To remain mute will only embolden the apologist wolves wrapped in their sheep clothing of educational good intention and defence of literary freedom.
Lim Teck Ghee is the director of Centre for Policy Initiatives