Sunday, March 18, 2012


Journal Malay Literature Dis 2011
Syed Mohd Zakir Syed Othman (S.M. Zakir)


Interlok is seen as a multiculturalism narrative that depicts the process of the building of a national identity which develops out of a rigid ethnic identity. The gradual formation of a national identity that gradually develops in a multicultural space is the vision of the writer that he tries to present through the social situation depicted in Interlok. This vision of multiculturalism is an ideal, and at the same time is the hope of the writer for the future in which a multicultural society can live in a nation formed on the basis of diversity. This ideal form of multiculturalism goes beyond assimilation, instead it is a kind of integration that lays emphasis on the culture of the majority as a dominant culture. It attempts to be just and equal in order to form an ideal national culture. On the other hand, it gives rise to a false identity that differs from the social identity of the real world. However, the author’s vision concerning the formation of an ideal national identity in this multicultural society is one that is visionary and forward-looking due to his effort to promote positive values in society through literature.
Key words: Interlok, Abdullah Hussain, multiculturalism.


Interlok is a novel by Abdullah Hussain which he submitted to the Peraduan Novel Sepuluh Tahun Merdeka [Novel-Writing Competition on the Tenth Anniversary of Independence] in 1970. Interlok won the Consolation Prize and was published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in 1971. However, Interlok was written much earlier, in 1967. The objective of the competition was to set themes and issues concerning unity. There were no winners for the First and Second Prizes. The Third Prize went to the novel Sandera by Arenawati. Other works which were awarded Consolation Prizes were Pulanglah Perantau written by Aziz Jahpin, Merpati Putih Terbang Lagi by Khadijah Hashim, Badan Bertuah by Ismail al-Falah and Meniti Buih by Alias Harun. In 2010, Interlok [Student Edition] was chosen as a set text for literature at the Form Five level for the Central Zone, which includes Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan. From this time onward, the novel became controversial as a number of politicians and Indian non-governmental organizations raised their objections to this novel. They claimed that Interlok was offensive to Indians due to the use of the word ‘Paria’ when referring to the background of the character of Maniam in the novel, who comes to Malaya in 1910. For this reason, it was claimed that Interlok was not suitable to be taught in schools. For 40 years, Interlok had never been deemed offensive nor had it been considered as touching on racial sensitivities, or the author been reprimanded for the use of the word ‘Paria’. Out of a sudden, the appearance of this word twice in a novel of over 120,000 words was considered offensive. The height of the protests involved burning copies of the novel by a certain group of Indians in Kelang on 8 January 2011.

Interlok in a Multicultural Context

Interlok is a social novel that was written with a multicultural slant after the formation of Malaysia in 1963. Prior to this, Malaysia was known as the Federation of Malaya upon obtaining independence in 1957. Interlok was written to give a kind of retrospective look at the history of the formation of a multicultural society in Malaysia. This retrospective look was meant to be a holistic view of how relations between the original Malay inhabitants and the economic immigrants—the Chinese and Indians—developed to form the society of the newly-formed nation. Or, more holistically, it is about race relations in Malaysia. It was no easy matter for Malays, Chinese and Indians to accept one another. Anthropologically, the Malays were a race who had been the original inhabitants on the Malay Peninsula and who had built their civilization here. They were not a diaspora of another civilization from another place, while the Chinese and Indians were a diaspora of the Chinese and Indian civilizations who can more rightfully be referred to as ‘ethnic groups’. ‘Ethnic groups’ is used here as the Chinese who came to Malaya were not a unified race but consisted of several sub-groups such as Hakka, Teochew, Hokkien and others. This is similarly the case with the Indian immigrants, who comprise Tamils, Malayalees, Telegus and Malabaris, not forgetting the Sinhalese, who are a different group altogether. These are referred to in general as ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indians’, without specifying their ethnic sub-groups. ‘Ethnic group’ is used to refer to the immigrant groups that came to the Malay Peninsula, or to minority groups such as the Orang Asli and the like. While a ‘race’ stands on its own and has common origins, such as the Malays who consist of various tribes such as Rawa, Jawa, Pahang Malay, Kelantan Malay, Bugis, Banjar and others – those from the Austronesian or Malayo-Polinesian branch.

Multiculturalism refers to the concept of living in a multi-ethnic, multicultural, multilingual and multi-religious condition in which each respects the other. Multiculturalism involves procedures and planning of the demographic structure in a specific space or region. In the political context, multiculturalism refers to the granting of equal status and rights or all ethnic and religious groups without giving preference to any particular ethnic or religious group. Multiculturalism in this sense is a cultural mosaic, which differs from assimilation and social integration. Often, multiculturalism is taken to be a kind of social integration. In reality, there is a fine line between their definition and concept. Social integration is the movement of a minority group, such as an ethnic minority, immigrants or non-citizens, into the core community or the majority. The members of the minority group attain the same access to opportunities, rights and facilities as the majority group. However, with respect to social integration, there are fixed rights for the majority or indigenous group which remains dominant and separate from the minorities, who are not given the special rights awarded to the majority. Social integration differenciates between the privileged and the underprivileged, while in the ideal concept and definition of multiculturalism, there is no such difference, and in fact the term ‘special rights’ does not exist. Social integration is on the level of ‘social acceptance’ while multiculturalism is on the level of ‘social equality’.

Multiculturalism in the ideological context historically developed after the Second World War with the rise of what is called the human rights revolution (Susanne Wessendorf, 2010). It came about as a reaction towards racism, ethnic cleansing and racial oppression that was widespread during the Second World War. At the same time, in this phase of third world countries gaining independence from their European colonizers a strong nationalism arose, resulting in indirect racial discrimination which, inadvertantly, also targeted immigrants and minority groups. In the United States, this gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement as an extension of the human rights movement that was developing all over the world, especially in Europe. The struggle for Civil Rights became a set strategy to fight racism, protect minorities and advocate equal rights for minority groups. This development also resulted from a strengthened liberalism that became widespread in this new phase of postcolonialism. Multiculturalism can refer to a communal diversity based on the rights of each ethnic group to have equal opportunities (Andrew Heywood, 1998).

From a Specific Identity to an Ideal Collective Identity

Interlok attempts to erase the lines between nationality and race by establishing all races as groups who each become entities that make up the “nationality” of the newly-formed country, Malaysia. To this end, Interlok summarily separates these three groups, with Book One representing the lives of the Malays in Malaya through the story of Seman, Book Two representing the lives of Malaysian Chinese through the story of Chin Huat and Book Three representing the lives of Malaysian Indians the the story of Maniam. Interlok does away with the definitions of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ and creates a unified community or nation in the final book, Book Four, where all differences are ‘interlocked’ to create a new community. Such aspirations are not easy to swallow, especially for the Malays who are forced to share their indigenous rights and the sovereignity of their people and accept the immigrant peoples as being of their ‘nationality’. However, this is the unavoidable truth or the reality. Through Interlok, Abdullah Hussain has sacrificed his indigenous rights (the rights of the Malays) by sharing these indigenous rights for extremely ideal aspirations, that is, to create in his soul and in his thoughts, as well as those of the whole Malaysian community, the existence of a new racial entity.

In terms of multiculturalism, Interlok is an ideal novel that presents a common aspiration about a multicultural Malaysia from the point of view of its Malay author who attempts to represent unity and the importance of togetherness in the future, or, in other words, a vision to bring together a communal identity for people of different ethnicities, i.e. to develop a Malaysian identity. Abdullah Hussain realized that this question of identity would create major problems in the future, and took steps through the vision of his novel to try and create a common identity that he hoped would prevent problems in the future. This vision is seen from a factual angle, from the time race relations began in the Malay States, and from the time of development of a feeling of togetherness in order to create a new nation later called Malaysia—a nation that was built on the cultural plurality of its citizens who shared in its prosperity and struggled together for its progress. This plurality in essence depended on how far a specific identity could represent the entirety of the nation’s culture, and create a specific identification. Marguerite Nolan (2009), a literature scholar from Australia, sees this question of a multicultural identity in literature in this way:

Finally, we must be wary of privileging understanding of multiculturalism that depend too strongly on recognition of what become, in effect, reified identities and cultures which can harden in times of cultural conflict. We need to question who benefits from such understandings of identity, and the conditions under which both particular identities come to represent whole cultures and rigid attachment to specific identifications might develop. (p.110)

Works that express issues of multicultural societies often become the focus for observing the gradual change of identity, from a rigid ethnocentric identity to one that is more flexible and receptive to differences and vairiety. Nolan writes:
In order to avoid such hardening, multiculturalism needs to recognize how cultures and identities change, the operation of difference within communities as well as between communities, and the multiple identifications and acts of differentiation that constitute us all. (p.110)

Interlok shows such a situation, where the rigid attitude of Ching Huat to maintain a true Mainland Chinese identity gradually changes as he experiences the ups and dowsn of life together with the Malays and Indians in Malaya. In fact, this change in identity is shown as being the result of the birth of new generations. It is presented through the attitude of Ching Huat’s son, Yew Seng, who does not agree with how his father treats Seman—chasing Seman out of his own land after buying it by fraudulently using the name of Seman’s father, Pak Musa. In other words, Yew Seng is opposed to his own father’s prejudice against the Malays. Yew Seng was born in Malaya and has grown up with Malays. His thoughts and feelings are no longer the same as Ching Huat’s, who holds on to his old prejudices and Chinese identity. This is a depiction of the change of identity that takes place gradually through the birth of new generations. In the case of Maniam, the change of identity happens much quicker. Maniam quickly adapts to life in the Peninsula and is more receptive to accepting the new identity of being a citizen of Malaya. Maniam also accepts Seman with an open mind and without Ching Huat’s prejudice against the indigenous inhabitants of the country. In fact, Maniam comes to the aid of Seman and his mother and helps them find a place to live and work on the estate where he is an overseer. Before this, Pak Musa, Seman’s father, had once helped Maniam when he was attacked, and he and Maniam had been good friends when they both worked at the estate before Pak Musa left to open up a village, after which they lost contact. The change of identity through the birth of a new generation can also be seen in Maniam’s case when Maniam’s son, Ramakrishnan, becomes a police inspector in Malaya and lets go of his adherence to an old-world Indian identity. Ramakrishnan’s identity is that of a Malayan-born citizen.

This change of identity does not affect the entire identity but affects the acceptance of difference and diversity as a shared collective identity. However, a specific identity that signifies each ethnicity is maintained. In Interlok, no one form of identity that is to be accepted by all ethnicities is stressed, instead, it details the identity of each ethnicity as a new identity that is shaped through the process of awareness and acceptance which takes place in earnest. In reality, the Malaysian constitution dictates that the national identity must be based on Malay identity, such as Malay being the national language, the national culture being based on the original culture of the Malay States, and the Malay Sultans being the pillars of the Constitution. However, in Interlok, the question of assimilation is not heavily stressed upon, instead, Abdullah Hussain takes a much ‘gentler’ approach to the process of integration. In fact, where multiculturalism is concerned, Interlok is so multicultural that it does not even give a clear emphasis on integration as being acceptance while maintaining indigenous rights. In other words, Interlok does not mention at all the special rights of the Malays as the indigenous group and the sovereignty of the Malay rulers, as it wishes to emphasize the question of race relations without prejudice between the indigenous people and the immigrant community. Interlok comes closer to the concept of multiculturalism as it gives equal standing to all ethnicities without displaying one culture as being dominant over others. Malays are seen as people who accept the coming of other ethnic groups such as Chinese and Indians into their cultural circle without the need to force or dominate other cultures. It can be said that the Malays in Interlok display a collective multicultural identity accepting with an open mind, without abandoning the Malay culture that is so closely linked to the Malay world.

Contextual Comparison between Interlok and They’re a Weird Mob

Marguerite Nolan’s discussion of multicultural issues in Australian literature deals with a similar situation. Nolan looks at They’re a Weird Mob, a novel by Nino Culotta about the lives of Italian immigrants who migrated to Australia on a large scale in the early 20th Century. They’re a Weird Mob had a reprint of 74,000 copies for the Australian market in April 1958, after the initial print run of 6000 copies was sold out. Australia began its White Australia Policy through the Immigration Restriction Act 901 in an effort to form an Australian society in the mould of white British-Australians. Although white Britons formed the largest population in Australia, a European labour force had been brought in to overcome the shortage of manpower. Among the biggest group of Eurpoean immigrants that began flooding Australia beginning in 1951 where white Italians. In the 1950s, the Commonwealth campaigned for Eurpoeans to migrate and become citizens of Australia, and to assimilate into the British-Australian culture dominated by the British. In 1970, assimilation was replaced with multiculturalism after a series of improvements to the immigration policy in the 1960s, and this became the official policy. This multiculturalism was not a result of the rejection of the assimilation policy but came about because of the failure of objective assimilation, especially due to socioeconomic factors. This is explained by Charles Taylor in his essay “The Politics of Recognition” (p. 25, 1994) where he explains that identity is something that is dialogical in nature; that the feelings about who we are come from our relationships or interactions with others who are in the same environment as we are. Interaction in a multi-ethnic, multicultural and multireligious society complicates the establishing of a dominant form of identity through the process of assimilation. However, Anthony Kwame Appiah (p. 149-150,1994) refutes Taylor’s point of view by stating that identity is born from a original characteristics which are biological. Appiah adds that no one single identity can become an official collective identity; minortities can only talk within the scope of their ethnicity. Therefore, the establishing of an official identity based on the dominant identity is necessary in a nation in order to enable all ethnic groups to have an identity that gives them a voice and rights on par with the other groups. Thus, when they voice their concerns, this voice will be heard in a large circle involving all other citizens. In other words, their voice is the voice of all citizens regardless of their ethnicity or race.

Culotta’s literary work is a narrative that deals with the formation of a collective identity in an emerging multicultural space—in other words, literature as a multiculturalism narrative. However, this narrative functions not only as a script for the collective identity of the minority but should also be read as a script for a national identity. As a script for national identity, it brings out more similarities than differences. Nolan considers a narratuive with such characteristics (referring to Culotta’s They’re a Weird Mob) as a “…historical relationship between nationalism, multiculturalism and identity construction in the Australian context” (p. 101). In the context of history, They’re a Weird Mob shows how it becomes a script for a national identity by depicting how the Italian immigrants assimilate into what is termed ‘Australianness’; what defines them is not ‘Italianness’ but rather ‘Englishness’. Although assimilation is mentioned and takes place here, it is not assimilation in the true sense. Instead, it is a dialogical process in the context of the formation of a shared identity that significantly happens in a multicultural space. Nolan writes (p. 108)

“Multiculturalism, if it is to mean in practice anything significantly different from assimilation, is about intercultural dialogue, negotiation, and mutual compromise.”

They’re a Weird Mob as a multiculturalism narrative is a form of complex understanding of he formation of identity, both individual as well as collective, and the relationship between identity and culture that is encouraged to thrive and develop. It opens room for retrospection or a reviewing of the history of the establishment of a multicultural society and finally the formation of a new identity born out of the dialogical process mentioned earlier. This situation is similar as that in Interlok. In Interlok, it can be seen thatthe process of identity formation for a multicultural society begins from the time the indigenous Malays encounter the Chinese and Indian economic immigrants; they socialize, assimilate in the context of having dialogue, accept diversity and finally begin to gradually develop a new social identity in a multicultural space. In other words, there is a dialogical process to form a shared identity. Like They’re a Weird Mob, Interlok does not stress on the cultural domination or cultural hegemony of the dominant culture over the minority cultures, instead it becomes the narrative or the script for a national identity by depicting the immigrants as assimilating into what can be termed as ‘Malaysianness’, a national culture which is indirectly based on the indigenous culture. In truth, Interlok is also a complex understanding of the formation of a national identity through this process of multiculturalism. In other words, Interlok indirectly depicts the history of the relationship between nationalism, multiculturalism and the reconstruction of identity in a Malaysian context.

Multiculturalism Narrative and False Identity

There are several other novels that can be looked at to view the multicultural space as relative to what is presented in Interlok. Nanyang, a novel by Khoo Kheng-Hor (2007), presents a story that is quite similar to Interlok. It begins with the migration of Yap Kee, who leaves Kwantung after the Taiping army under General Yang Hsiu-ching is defeated by the army led by General Wei Chang-hui. Yap Kee, who had fought in the Taiping army, escapes Kwantung to save himself from persecution. Yap Kee comes from the Hakka tribe who had settled in Southern China for centuries after leaving the Eastern regions of China. The Hokkiens refer to the Hakka as ‘khek’, meaning ‘guests’ or foreigners. The Hakka were labelled as foreigners or aliens by the Cantonese in Kwantung, in Fujian province. The Hakka were very poor and were looked down upon by the Cantonese of Southern China. Yap Kee escapes to Singapore, which is called Nanyang [meaning ‘southern ocean’, a term used to refer to Southeast Asia] in the 1860s. Yap Kee then goes to Kuala Lumpur, where Yap Ah Loy is opening tin mines and becomes the powerful Chinese Kapitan of Kuala Lumpur. At the same time, Dato Jaffar is in charge of a small area of Perak. Also at the same time, John Sutcliffe arrives in Singpoare to begin his duties at the office of the Governor of the Straits Settlements.

The plots involving Yap Kee, Dato Jaffar and Sutcliffe are developed to span several generations who finally become related through marriage and are connected by incidents happening in Malaya and Singapore. The development of the plot of the novel Nanyang is similar to that of Interlok, in which the story of each character type, representing a different race, is developed separately in different chapters, and all parallel plots finally converge at the end. This can be seen when Yap’s great-grandson Yap Keong, or Dr Yazid, marries dato Jaffar’s great-granddaughter Nik Aini, and John Sutcliffe’s great-grandson Mark Peregrine marries Tan Mui Kooi, who is Yap Kee’s great-granddaughter. There is also a point of convergence in the political events and social development of the multicultural society that has formed in Malaya and Singapore. There are so many characters and events in Nanyang that it paints a complicated picture of the formation of the Malaysian multiculturakl society. It, too, shows how a multicultural space gives rise to a gradual change in identity, as is also presented in Interlok. However, Nanyang is far more complex and deals with far more generations, with far more events spanning a longer time.

Both Abdullah Hussain and Khor Kheng-Hor have created narratives that depict the development of a multicultural society in Malaysia from a ‘national’ point of view (Khor focuses on Singapore as well, however, historically, Singapore was a part of the Malay Peninsula that later became a part of Malaysia). Both present multiculturalism narratives with a positive slant and ideal aspirations regarding the formation of a multicultural identity that needs to be accepted as the new reality of the nation. Although Khor Kheng-Hor inserts some of his personal points of view through his persona in Nanyang which leave room to be exploited as issues, on the whole, Khor has a positive vision for a multicultural Malaysia. This makes the literature created a kind of bridge for studying a society that has developed in a multicultural space. Secondly, these works of literature display a form of requirement for the legitimacy of the multicultural situation that must be seen as the basis for understanding the identity of Malaysian society. The process of viewing and understanding multiculturalism through literary works such as Interlok and Nanyang requires analysis with a clear framework. Nolan (2009) see this situation in the same way in her analysis of the novel They’re a Weird Mob, and says, “There are two things I want to draw out about this process: one, the concern with image takes us into the realm of representation, which is why it is relevant to literary studies; and two, the demand for recognition is also about domination, subordination and resistence.” (p. 99).

However, all the ideal situations created in these novels, especially in Interlok, also create what is termed as ‘false identity’. Not all depictions in the novel take place in the real world. There are a number of incidents where a false identity can be seen in relation to the situation and condition of a multicultural society. The reality of Malaysia’s multicultural society is not as wonderful as depicted by Abdullah Hussain. Looking at the true situation in the multicultural society of Malaysia, there are times when the national identity, projected through the multicultural process resulting in acceptance, unity and equality or homogeneity, is a false identity. In reality, Malaysia’s multicultural society still maintains very separate identities, which are still strongly rooted in their own ethnic or racial identities. In fact, ethnic antagonism (Collin Abraham, 2004), that is, the suspicion with which each ethnic group views the other as antagonistic, is still strong in the social perception of Malaysia, to the extent that there are times when ethnic identity takes precedence over national identity. In other words, ethnic identity comes first and national identity comes second.

This was proven when Interlok itself became a victim of racial debate when ethnic Indian politicians and non-governmental organizations representing ethnic Indians called for Interlok not to be used as a literature text in schools because of the use of the word ‘Paria’, which occurs twice in the novel, where it is said that Maniam was from the Pariah caste when he came to Malaya. This explains that the identity that has formed through multiculturalism as depicted in Interlok does not reflect the true situation of the multicultural society in Malaysia. Although Interlok does not make the Pariah caste an issue for identity, in reality ethnic Indians in Malaysia view the origins of some of these, from the Pariah caste, who came to Malaya in the 1910s as an identity issue. The assumption that the depiction of Maniam as a Pariah implies that this is the origin of all ethnic Indians who settled in Malaya is inaccurate, and shows a lack of understanding of Interlok. Further, small issues were blown out of proportion to present Interlok in the wrost light, such as allegations that Interlok of presents wrong facts about Maniam as being from the Pariah caste, and deliberately exaggerating issues of its sensitivity.

‘Pariahs’ in Mulk Raj Anand’s Novel

Mulk Raj Anand is a well-known writer who has written a novel titled Untouchable that was translated into Malay by the Oxford University Press in 1964 under the title Paria. This novel was published in 1935 by Hutchinson & Co. Ltd. It depicts the humiliation that is suffered by the Pariahs, represented by the character of Bakha, a young toilet cleaner who works in Bulashah. Paria exposes the drawbacks of the caste system, which has existed for thousands of years in India. Mulk Raj Anand criticizes this practice and the injustices suffered by the Pariahs. ‘Pariah’ in its true sense refers social outcasts. They are not a part of the caste system and Hindus are forbidden from touching Pariahs. However, through the diversity of religions in India, Pariahs are able to get paid for working and spending their money, just like others. Thereforem, Pariahs are able to possess whatever they wish, if they can afford it, like everyone else. In Paria, it is stated that Bakha buys ‘Red-Lamp’ cigarettes and jelebi costing four anna, and wears shorts given to him by an English soldier. In fact, the novel tells that Bakha’s father had once owned a buffalo given to him by a wealthy Hindu merchant:

Teringat olehnya (Bakha) dengan patut menurut diri sendiri bagaimana ketika ayahnya mempunyai seekor kerbau yang disedekahkan kepadanya (atau lebih-lebih kerana tahyul) oleh seorang saudagar Hindu yang kaya, yang menginginkan anak dan yang dinasihatkan oleh orang-orang Brahmana untuk menyedekahkan ternak kepada tukang-tukang sapu, mereka biasa memberinya makan sehari-hari dengan padi dan memeliharanya sedemikian baiknya sehingga menghasilkan dua belas seer susu sehari.

[He recalled with great self-righteousness, how when his father had a buffalo given him in charity (or rather out of superstition) by a rich Hindu merchant who desired sons and was advised by the Brahmins to bestow some cattle on the sweepers, they used to feed it daily with grain, and tended to it so well that it yielded twelve seers of milk a day.]

(Mulk Raj Anand. Paria, 1964, p. 64)

This paragraph explains that Pariahs may possess property, as it shows that Bakha’s father, even though a Pariah, possesses a buffalo and keeps it for its milk. This buffalo is Bakha’s father’s personal property. Also, Bakha and the other Pariahs are able to buy whatever they want with the income they earn as sweepers, toilet cleaners and the like. This means that Pariahs are entitled to the right of property, according to their means, like other people. It is not impossible for Pariahs to own buffaloes, cows and other possessions as their personal property.

Several parties have alleged that Interlok is factually wrong when depicting Maniam as coming from the Pariah caste as it is stated in Interlok that he sells his cows to come to Malaya, whereas Pariah are not allowed to own property. The argument that Pariahs cannot afford this and cannot own property is totally incorrect. Mulk Raj Anand has much more accurately depicted the situations of the Pariahs and explains that Pariahs can earn an income, and therefore can own property according to their means. Thus, what is presented in Interlok about Maniam as coming from the Pariah caste and selling his cows to gather funds in order to come to Malaya and live a better life is plausible. In fact, in India itself, some individuals from among the Pariahs have become successful and well-known through their own effort and struggle to forge better lives for themselves. Although there may be some small inaccuracies, it must be understood that Interlok is a fictional reality. The same goes for calls to drrop the word ‘paria’ from the novel. In Paria, these people are referred to as ‘orang-orang Paria’ until the end of the novel, where it tells about how, in the 1930s, Mahatma Ghandi introduced the term ‘Harijan’ to refer to the Pariahs. The term ‘Harijan’, meaning ‘children of God’ has been used since then to replace the term ‘pariah’. The novel Interlok depicts the coming of people from the Pariah caste to Malaya in the 1910s. During this time, the terms ‘Harijan’ or ‘Dalit’ (another term used to refer to the Pariahs) were not in use then. Furthermore, Abdullah Hussain does not use the term derogatorily; instead he describes Maniam as good and hard-working in nature. There is no connection between the identity of the ethnic Indian community in Malaysia at the present time, in the context that is understood in India. This is because the term Pariah in Malaysia carries no negative connotation and the group is treated like any other ethnic group. As the caste system has never been practices in Malaysia, the discrimination against the Pariah caste is unknown and not understood in Malaysia. Therefore, the terms ‘Paria’ or ‘Khek’ or any other terms carrying negative connotations outside the Malay world are not associated with any negative identity in Malaysia.

The Reality of Malaysia’s Multicultural Society

However, this is not the issue that is discussed here. What is the main issue is the reality of Malaysia’s multicultural society that is still shackled by racist issues as used by politicians and certain parties within the ethnic Indian community. This shows that the national identity depicted in the novel Interlok on the whole does not exist in Malaysian society. Therefore, the identity created in the novel is a false one. The process of multiculturalism as seen in the narrative is at times at odds with the reality outside the text. Therefore, the understanding of the multiculturalism narrative as displaying the formation of an identity also faces the issue of false identity. Nolan also realizes this regarding the identity presented in They’re a Weird Mob. There are a number of matters concerning multicultural identity as presented in the novel which do not reflect the actual situation taking place in Australia’s multicultural society. Just as in Interlok, the multicultural identity that is depicted does not really exist. Nolan (2009) says about They’re a Weird Mob (p. 102):
“Anectdotally, They’re a Weird Mob was popular with migrants as well as its vision of Australian as egalitarian, simple minded and open-hearted. Even at the same time, reviews of the book suggested that its vision of Australia wa manifestly false.”

They’re a Weird Mob
presents an angle of the immigrants that is in line with the vision of the country as being just, open and accepting. However, in reality the opposite is true. The same can be said about Interlok regarding the multicultural society that is just and accepts diversity with an open mind and in the end, leaving behind the identities of their ancestors through the formation of a new identity as citizens of the new country. However, racist attitudes such as were raised concerning the use of the term ‘Paria’ in Interlok show that it is the immigrants who are prejudiced and racist, and who remain caught in between dual identities, that is, and Indian and a Malaysian identity, and whose point of reference remains to be India and the Indian culture.


Interlok was Abdullah Hussain’s vision that he aligned with the theme of a novel –writing competition held in conjunction with the tenth anniversary of Malaysia’s independence. It shows the vision of the formation of an ideal national identity for the multicultural society of Malaysia in the existing multicultural space. Indirectly, this narrative is aimed at defining and understanding multiculturalism, and cannot be deemed to be incorrect, seeing as Interlok is a work of fiction, not a political doctrine. What exists in Interlok is artistic freedom in creating fictional realism. It presents a narrative that is not subject to definitions or political doctrines. Abdullah Hussain has moved far in freeing Interlok from the traps of political viewpoints. Instead, he draws the outlines of a vision of a multicultural society in the context of forming a fair and just identity for all. Interlok is an attempt to move away from the reality of politics, and with that it tries to avoid stressing cultural hegemony or dominance by the majority group in authority. For Interlok, the reality of cultural politics suffices to be represented in more symbolic ways. However, it is this ‘gentle’ approach that leads to a tendency in Interlok to see multiculturalism as equality to the extent that it rejects assimilation, and, in fact, the integrity of the rights of the indigenous inhabitants. It is obvious that Interlok does not directly stress the special rights of the indigenous people and that a national identity should be based on such a premise. This makes Interlok very much multicultural in nature. However, it must be understood that Interlok attempts to free itself from the political realm as well as the existing reality in order to create an ideal multicultural identity. Basically, Interlok is not there to stress anything, nor to indoctrinate anyone, but to act merely as a mirror to reflect an ideal vision without forcing anyone to accept or reject it.

Conversely, Interlok is faced with the creation of a false identity, one that is imaginative because in reality, the social situation is such that the ethnic identity is still strong and still authoritative in all social decisions. The ideal multicultural social identity depicted in Interlok does not exist in the actual social reality of Malaysia. The evidence can be seen by the series of objections against Interlok itself that arose out of a social situation still trapped in operations based on racist thinking. If the identity of ‘Maniam’ truly existed among ethnic Indians in Malaysia, the term ‘Paria’ would not have been a big issue where identity is concerned as Maniam himself does away with this identity and identifies differently, and no retrospection of history causes him to take back that identity. This is what makes Interlok successful in suggesting a vision of the formation of an ideal multicultural identity, while at the same time creating a false one. This is because the ideal multicultural identity does not exist in the social situation in Malaysia at present. However, the false identity that emerges in Interlok is also a representation of a social situation in a multicultural space. This makes Interlok unique when seen as a multiculturalism text or narrative.

In an overall analysis about Interlok, it can be seen that it is a multiculturalism narrative or text that not only presents interesting angles about the formation of an ideal identity but also issues regarding domination, subordination and social acquiescence in the multicultural society of Malaysia in the present, when seen in relation to the reality outside the text.


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Appiah, Kwame Anthony. 1994. “Identity, Authencity, Survival: Multicultural Societies and Social Reproduction.” Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Ed. Amy Gutmann. Princeton NJ: Princeton UP. 149-164.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. 2006. Cosmopolitanism: Ethic in a World of Strangers. New York: USA: W.W. Norton & Company ltd.

Anand, Mulk Raj. Terj. 1964. Paria. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

Heywood, Andrew. 1998. Political Idealogies: An Introduction. London: Palgrave Foundation.

Hor, Khoo Kheng. 2007. Nanyang. Subang Jaya. Selangor: Pelanduk Publications.

Hussain, Abdullah. 1971. Interlok. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

Nolan, Marguerite. 2009. “Mistaking Multiculturalism: Cullotta, Demidenko and Khouri.” Culturalism; New Literature Review. Ed. Diana Brydon, James Meffan and Mark Williams. University of Tasmania, Australia:The Centre for Colonialism. 95-112.

Taylor, Charles. 1994. The Politic of Recognition. Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Ed. Amy Gutmann. Princeton NJ: Princeton UP.25-74.

Wessendorf & Vertovec, Susanne & Steven (eds). 2010. The Multiculturalism Backlash: European Discourses and Practices. London: Routledge.

Translated by Tanja Jonid


Werewolf said...

If you already read this novel, would you kindly answer this survey ????

Unknown said...

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