Author: Abdullah Hussain
Publisher: Institut Terjemahan Negara Malaysia Berhad
..........certain words breached the highest level of taboo in the Indian community in Malaysia (understandable) but when Interlok is being appreciated in its entirety, its literature contribution to the development of Malaysian history, culture and politics is beautiful...
nterlok caused a big uproar in the Malaysian political scene recently, particularly from the Indian community. The use of certain words that breached the highest level of taboo in the Indian community in Malaysia was understandable but when Interlok is being appreciated in its entirety, its literature contribution to the development of public's awareness in Malaysian history, culture and politics is beautiful - most appropriate in Najib's era of 1Malaysia. Politicians take advantage of this to create unnecessary racial tension. General public reacted quite efficiently to this irresponsible behaviour.
Really, anyone who is upset by this should pick up the book and start reading from page 1 to the last page 406. They will find that such "breach of taboo" is immaterial to the whole scheme of matters spiritually conveyed by the book. In fact, I suspect that not only the Indians, but the Malays and Chinese too would, or are entitled to, express their dissatisfaction - simply because the book painted the former as lazy/naive bunch of people and the latter as irresponsible opportunists.
Interlok is meant for contemporary ethnicity to take stock in the context of the current co-existence of the three major ethnic groups in Malaysia.
Set in the era of pre-Merdeka, Interlok dives into the struggle of each community (Malays, Chinese and Indians) via the saga of the families of Seman, Ching Huat and Maniam. Fictional as they may be, the effects of their stories are somewhat felt as though re-living history. These are not mere stories. They are meant for contemporary ethnicity to take stock of what the beginnings were and how relevant they are in the context of the current co-existence of the three major ethnic groups in Malaysia.
Seman, a Kampung boy, inherited a farm land which was surprisingly uncovered as assets pledged to a loan from a wealthy Chinese bussinessman. Naturally, being in the lower tier of the economic status, he lost possession of the land to the lender. When investigated, he understood that this was conveniently possible for the Chinaman given the unfair terms and conditions of the loan agreement his father had entered into.
Apparently, many others fell under the same trap. A trap that caused an unfortunate generalisation of Chinese being irresponsible opportunists whereby profits would be reaped from the uncivilised Malays via biased terms, conditions and most frequently, pricing. Such economic positions between the two potray what Malaya was at that time as a result of socio-economic disaggregation encouraged by the British colonial masters.
So great the promises perceived of the golden land (Malaya), many Chinese spent their entire lives in Malaya accumulating wealth to be brought back to China; except that they never left as there was nothing to go back to in China.
The story of Ching Huat started when he was a small boy. He travelled from the God foresaken land of Tung San in southern China to Golden Chesonese (Malaya), with his father, leaving behind his mother and sisters whom he never get to see again. So great the promises perceived by many of the great golden land (of riches and wealth), he (and many Chinese) spent almost their entire lives in Malaya accumulating wealth to be brought back to China. The plan went well except that they never left. In the end, there was nothing to go back to in China.
Although they managed to secure a handsome status in the economic hierarchy, they too had their share of struggle working almost like slaves in the mining industry. Fearing poverty, Ching Huat developed a shrewd character - a necessary trait that protected him from poverty but not necessarily doing any good in his inter-racial socialisation in Malaya - evident by the creation of an enemy by the name of Seman (You'd have guessed what Ching Huat had done).
India was also not without its economic problems. Many Indians of the poorer background travelled to Malaya to serve the British estate owners. Whilst not as wealthy as the Chinese (in fact far from being close), they value the standard of living that they had achieved in the estates compared to the struggle they had in India. This was where Maniam had put his bets on. Unfortunately, Maniam faced tremendous pressure upholding culture that was brought from India.
Stuck in the middle of this struggle, compounded by violence surrounding him, Maniam had to find better path, which he did, that was only possible when his life was saved by a Malay wanderer. To repay, at the very least, Maniam was only too happy to redeem himself by helping the wanderer's son, Seman, to rebuild his life (after being driven away from his farm land) by offering a job in the estate (although no Malay was ever accepted in the estate).
"What was the point of Malays going to school? Learning the Quran they believe was enough. Knowing to pray and how to recite the verses was enough for life."
The three families had their lives intertwined by fate unleashing many emotions that created tension. They were overwhelmed by sadness, hatred, confusion and fear but they were also equipped by determination, hope and courage. In the beginning, little that they know that the differences between them would be put aside for a better future. Hence, they indulged themselves in preserving the microsociety that they belonged to.
The Chinese were traders and as such they always wrote down the things that they traded. This necessitate the need for education. On the contrary, the Malays ask themselves "What was the point of Malays going to school?" Learning the Quran they believe was enough. Knowing to pray and how to recite the verses was enough for life. As a result, many funds were made available by Chinese for Chinese schools while Malays were more than happy to sacrifice their wealth to the mosques as investments for afterlife.
Meanwhile, the Indians struggled to pool enough funds for the education of their children in the estates. Instead, they demanded Tamil schools to be built by estate owners claiming that Malay schools are unfit for their purpose as they do not want their children to become Malay and to forget India - because one day, they will return to India (or so they hoped). The Indians believe that the Malays had borrowed Indian culture - evident by the Sarongs, betel nut and the marriage ceremonies. Hence, it is stupid for the Indians to be in Malay schools when Malays had no culture of their own.
The different concepts of education by Malays, Chinese and Indians not only resulted in an impossible assimilation of those three groups, it also extended the problem to generations that came subsequently. This was to be the main contributor to the socio-economic landscape in Malaya - One of which is infested by hatred between those ethnic groups.
".. why do you want to be like the Huan Na (Malays)? They are lazy, and they don't know how to make money. I don't want you to be like them."
Interlok reveals the inter-racial disregard for each other in great transparency potraying what reality would have been. Cing Huat was so strong of a believer that the Malays were lazy that he uttered to his son ".. why do you want to be like the Huan Na (Malays)? They are lazy, and they don't know how to make money. I don't want you to be like them."
Maniam on the other hand, quite innocently made a generalisation remark "They (Malays) have a good life and have padi lands and villages. They are happy with what they have (explaining that the Malays would not bothered to work hard giving the opportunities for foreigners to the land to do the work)." It seems that only Indians were accepted to work in estates, Chinese in the mines and Sikhs as guards. The Malays did not belong to any working class at all other than farming.
The Malays generally felt that Malaya is a Malay country and that the riches of the land should be shared with the Malays without causing difficulty for the foreigners (Chinese and Indians). The Malays blamed all this on the white man - they had made the mistake of colonising this country and allowing the Malays to be left behind. The negative feelings between the ethnic groups disappeared almost overnight when the Japanese claimed themselves as the masters of the land supressing Malayans of their basic rights regardless of whether they were Malays, Chinese or Indians. Against the Japanese, the three ethnic groups united at their own accord fighting for justice.
... the common purpose of achieving independence for their country, Malaya - a concept the Chinese and Indians had begin to accept after realising that India and China have become foreign to them...
Post-Japanese occupation, the Malays begin to be active in their nationalistic views against the Malayan Union. There was a need for a Malayan society. Malays, Chinese and Indians lived within their own communities - Indians in the estates, Malays as farmers, fishermen and state officials; and Chinese in the mines and in commercial activities. There was no unity. Whatever the circumstances were, the Chinese and Indians had also helped in building up the country and they had to be given a chance to seek a living in Malaya.
In the end their coalition extended beyond the wars into the realm of politics with the common purpose of achieving independence for their country, Malaya - a concept the Chinese and Indians had begin to accept after realising that India and China have become foreign to them. The Chinese and Indians also realised that they must unite and co-operate with the Malays to make Malaya their own country. In the end, Seman, Ching Huat and Maniam became good friends with a common purpose, Independence of Malaya, Merdeka.
Interlok is beautiful. Despite the negative descriptions of Malays, Chinese and Indians, it provides a strong foundation on the back of that very negativity, for a stronger tie between those ethnic groups. Page 406 of Interlok ended the book with the below:
... Yew Seng (Ching Huat's son who lost his leg when warring against Japanese) had chosen to accept a wooden leg contributed by the Malay, Indian and Chinese communities...
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