The threat by several Indian NGOs to go on a nationwide road show that would have as its highlight the burning of the Malay novel 'Interlok' is a retrograde step that will stifle literary creativity, promote a herd mentality, and dry up the wellsprings of artistic endeavor.
The NGOs say the novel defames Indian Malaysians and is not a suitable literary work for upper secondary school Malaysians to read and contemplate.
Further, the NGOs claim that the tenor of the novel, by one-time national laureate Abdullah Hussein, is against the spirit of 1Malaysia, the supposedly national unity building concept introduced by Prime Minister Najib Razak.
In addition, the NGOs hold that the novel disparages the contributions to nation building of Chinese and Indian Malaysians who are described as immigrants or birds of passage. Therefore, the NGOs want the novel withdrawn from being part of the Malay literature syllabus that fifth formers in the arts stream are encouraged to offer.
It is difficult to talk about the novel when one has not read it. A check at popular book stores earlier this week revealed that copies had not yet arrived which was surprising because the school year was set to begin and adequate stocks of texts should have been requisitioned and kept.
Whether this apparently was not done because of the controversy that started to flare last week, with the implied threat that the novel could be withdrawn from the syllabus of SPM-sitting students, could not be confirmed.
In the event, 'Interlok' is set to become a literary work whose sales - if the book is not withdrawn - are expected to soar, not just from purchases by examination-sitting students but also from people who are naturally drawn to find out what the hubbub is all about; nothing like the lure of the illicit to stimulate the tastes of the curious.
The book's critics among Indian Malaysians are, no doubt, prompted by the long burgeoning sense of alienation among sections of the community, stemming from its slumping economic prospects and the feeling that its contributions to national development are not properly valued.
There is the feeling among the community that it has contributed to nation building in ways that require a lot of hard work which because it is unseen, is under appreciated.
Somebody the other day pointed out that the three best football coaches in Malaysia are Indians – K Rajagopal (left), who coached the national team to an unprecedented Asean Cup triumph; B Sathianathan, who led soccer-mad Kelantan to once again tilt at national football prominence; and K Devan, who coached Negeri Sembilan and Selangor to national excellence.
The fact that football is these days almost exclusively played by Malays only serves to underscore the Indian Malaysian feeling that, not just in sport, their labour is what sets the stage for the euphoria of others.
Just to emphasise the point, some years back, Malaysia's soccer achiever of the moment, Rajagopal, coached Selangor to domestic honours. The following season he had to make way for a Malay coach for Selangor.
Kelantan, at that time an underachieving team, reacted by hiring Rajagopal who went on to pull them out of the doldrums in an exhilarating run that had the football-passionate Kelantanese hailing the coach as a favourite son.
A self-defeating step
The episode underlined the Indian Malaysian sense of alienation stemming from underappreciated merit.
The reaction to 'Interlok' must be seen against the background of how these 'realities' resonate among Indian Malaysians: Indian Malaysians feel they are trapped in the cleavages of a national social engineering scheme whose rules are rigged against their upward mobility.
But sections of the community, by reacting in ways such as calling for the banning of a seemingly risqué literary work, are unwittingly helping to forge the manacles by which the negative effects of this engineering scheme cascade through Malaysian society.
Malay literary society is capable of rising above parochial concerns to give effect to the witness and moral assignment of literary creation which can only endure by transcending sectarian barriers. One recalls poems of the late national laureate Usman Awang as testimony to this fact.
The Indian Malaysian NGOs that threatened to go on a book burning road show should desist from what would ultimately be a self-defeating step.
Instead it should encourage Indian Malaysian writers in Bahasa Malaysia – there are some promising ones out there – to write the great Malaysian novel by simply concentrating on an enduring theme which is the human heart in conflict with itself.
That theme, by its very nature, would transcend the downward pulls of the parochial and is certain not to leave readers unaffected by that which is most disaffection-causing to Indian Malaysia: unrequited labour.
TERENCE NETTO has been a journalist for close on four decades. He likes the occupation because it puts him in contact with the eminent without being under the necessity to admire them. It is the ideal profession for a temperament that finds power fascinating and its exercise abhorrent.