The Intelok Quagmire

Art Harun

The political and social typhoons caused by the book “Intelok” had come and apparently gone. A “solution,” in the form of a compromise, has, as is usual in Malaysia, been found and announced.

I have not read the book. From whatever I had read in the past few weeks on the subject, as I understand it, the book is a mandatory read in our school as part of the Malay literature curricular. The objections taken against the book is the fact that it contains the dreaded “P” word, which is deemed demeaning by Indian Malaysians.

Intelok is a book authored by our National Laureate, Abdullah Hussain. It was written in 1967 as an entry for a national writing competition commemorating the 10th anniversary of our independence.  Apparently in the 1970s, the book was already used in our schools as a text book for the Malay literature subject.

Quite frankly, I can’t for the life of me remember that book although I was in Form 4 and 5 in late 70s. If I recollect, the modern Malay literature mandatory reading at that time was Sandera (which had also won some sort of a competition to commemorate our independence – I remember that book well because it was one of the worst novel I had ever read!) The non-prose mandatory book then was a poem anthology called Di Penjuru Mata Mu, which was a gem of a book, if I may add.

From various reports, I gather that Intelok’s theme was one of unity between Malaysia’s three main races, the Malays, Chinese and Indians which ran back from the 1900s. In other words, it is a period story, which is a story set in a certain era in the past.

Why the sudden outcry, if I may ask?

It has been around for so many years and now suddenly it has become an issue. Why?

The arguments against the usage of the book, among others, is that it contains the dreaded “P” word (well, heck, this is a blog, and so I am going to use it anyway, it contains the word “pariah”). Granted, that word, if used to describe an individual or a group of individuals now, would be demeaning to them, especially if they are Indians.

However, the story in Intelok is set in the early to mid 1900s. Such word was in fact being used then, just as the word “Keling” was being used in Sejarah Melayu, 400 hundred years ago. (In fact in Penang, we do have Masjid Kapitan Keling. So, are we to change that name?) In keeping with the period against which the story was set, the author used the word. I suppose he had wanted to make the story realistic.

What is the problem with that? It is not as if the author is saying all Indians come from that caste.

The deeper objection is not the against the book but against the decision by the Education Ministry to use that book as a mandatory reading in our schools. While I agree to a certain extent that the Ministry should have been more circumspect in choosing a book for mandatory reading, I could not see anything principally wrong with the decision.

On Tweeter, someone said that the usage of the book may give the impression to the students that such derogatory term is acceptable.

Okay. First of all that consequence is not the result of the book. It is also not the result of the decision to use the book as mandatory reading. That would be the result of the lack of education or the lack of depth among our students. That signifies a wider and deeper underlying social, and perhaps even, political issues which pervade our society at large nowadays. The book has nothing to do with that.

In fact, I would dare to argue that the usage of the book Intelok as mandatory reading could be used to create positive awareness among our students that such derogatory term is unacceptable; that it is passe to do so; that political correctness in this millennium demands the removal of such term from our daily vocabulary and that it is not cool to call any of our brothers and sisters as such.

As a Malay student in late 60s and early 70s, I was taught Malay folklore where the Malays were portrayed as stupid (read Lebai Malang); lazy and dreaming (read Pak Pandir). In Si Luncai and in fact Sejarah Melayu (which was mandatory reading in Form 6), we were told that the Malay rulers were greedy, sex crazed, willing to sacrifice their people for personal gains and that the palace was full of intrigue, back stabbing, jealousy and envy and  power crazy people.

In Hikayat Hang Tuah, we were told that Hang Tuah went to Pahang just to steal a woman from her fiancee so that he could present that woman to his King as a present. Hang Tuah had also apparently jumped into a sewage pond to safe the King’s horse, such was his undivided loyalty to his King. Hang Jebat on the other hand frolicked with the King’s concubines.

In Badang, he even swallowed the puke of a jembalang just so that he would get superhuman strength!

Isn’t that demeaning to me, a Malay? Do we change those story in 2011 in order to make it politically correct? Or to make it – to borrow current parlance – “cool”?