Malaysia: ‘Offensive’ Novel Creates Controversy

Interlok book. From the blog of Hartal MSM

A recent controversy that has arisen in Malaysia is the issue of a novel used as a textbook for literature in secondary schools.

Interlok, is a Malay novel written by Abdullah Hussain and published in 1971. It caused uproar when it was made a compulsory reading for students in Form Five as it refers to Malaysian Indians with derogatory words.

Malaysian English daily The Star reported:

Several individuals and Indian organisations are protesting and want the novel banned simply because in one paragraph on page 211, the words kasta pariah or pariah caste are mentioned in the context of how the Tamils were recruited from various parts of South India and how they were packed into crowded ships and suffered long and dangerous journeys to arrive in this country.

It has been received with mixed reactions, with some believing that it is just a work of fiction and that it was published so long ago that it does not reflect the actual society today. Others think that it is an insult to the Indians.

A blogger that goes by the name The Owl posted:

Writers may be good or writers may be bad. You may read their books, or you may dismiss them, that is your individual choice. But you cannot change what they have written, to suit yourself, current values or political situations. Interlok, is, in any event, a mediocre novel, and if we were to write a book review, it would be scathing.

Having said that, we are against it being used, or taught, in secondary schools. Malaysia's educational system does not promote, in our opinion, critical thought and analysis. Students who are products of such an educational system may lack the maturity to handle the book with the appropriate detachment or the critical eye and review that all books merit.

Blogger drrafick wrote:

I don’t know who started the caste system in India. It is wrong and does not jive with Islamic teachings. It is unfortunate for an innocent child is born in a wrong cast like pariah and continues to live with such a brand on their head. He did not ask to be born in this cast and it is not right to continue being reminded as such.

For any books to be use as teaching material in the national school it must meet certain standard. One of the standards should be about national cohesion. The book INTERLOK failed this test. There isn’t a need to remind the children of this nation about something that strongly practiced by the previous generation. The caste system is practice minimally today in Malaysia and it is best that it should not be reminded.

Kavi believes that the teachers in Malaysian schools are ill equipped to teach the students to analyse the story critically:

In Malaysia, with even school principals uttering racist remarks, can we say that our teachers are fully prepared 2 guide the children as necessary? The government clearly has no spine to enforce strict disciplinary codes in fear of losing support (or out of mere ignorance). Who’s to say that the teachers themselves fully understand the usage of the word ‘pariah’ in context?

Teachers must b able to explain to children on why the word has been used. They should be well versed with literary concepts and have a strong grasp of Malaysian history before even attempting to educate the children. But with even our history syllabus distorted for political means, will this materialise? I am not saying that all teachers are such, but it doesn’t matter if only a small percentage of teachers are ill-equipped. Planting wrong and inaccurate information into young minds, whether with or without intent, IS WRONG. Can the Education Ministry give a guarantee that all KOMSAS teachers are fully aware of all these issues and give a neutral perspective on ‘pariah’?

At the time of writing, Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has said that the novel will remain in the syllabus, although a panel has been established to resolve the controversy.

1 comment

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.