Kuala Lumpur: After a Malay language novel evoked criticism from the ethnic Indian community, a group of non-governmental organisations have urged the Malaysian Government to drop it from the high school curriculum saying that the book portrayed a "negative stereotyping" of the two minority races in the country.
The Education Ministry last week said that all discussions over the novel had been concluded after a decision to drop the word "pariah" from the book which had been found offensive to ethnic Indians, who felt that it connoted a caste system which they said did not exist in Malaysia.
A panel was set up by the government to look into the controversy and after going through various proposals, it had decided on some amendments before the book could be put up as senior school curriculum reading.
Multi-ethnic Malaysia has a majority population of 60 percent Muslim Malays while ethnic Chinese, who are mostly Buddhists and Christians, form 60-25 percent and ethnic Indians, mostly Hindus, form eight percent of the population.
The selection of the novel `Interlok` is linked to an agenda that reinforces the idea that ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians in this country are immigrants and negatively stereotypes the three main racial groups in the country, a joint statement by a loose coalition of 47 NGOs was quoted by a local media report as saying.
The 47 NGOs are made up of mostly Indian and Chinese civil groups.
"Some defenders of `Interlok` have claimed that the main characters in the book are mere individuals who cannot be extrapolated as representatives of their race.
“But this is a mistaken line of argument as the `Interlok` lesson guide produced by the Education Ministry`s curriculum development department clearly state otherwise," the statement said.
The lesson guide states that the theme of `Interlok` is the integration of three main races - Malay, Chinese and Indians in Malaysia - and the challenges they face in order to live together in an independent and sovereign country.
"Because it is the ministry itself which has dictated that the characters in the novel are allegorical, therefore it will be wrong for us to now view them as atypical.”
“Rather, the Pak Musa, Cing Huat and Maniam personas are indeed symbolic of their races," said the statement.
`The Sun` paper quoted the statement as saying that `Interlok` in its totality conveyed the central message that Chinese, Indian and other minorities are second-class citizens.
The group felt that the portrayal of the Chinese and Indian characters in the book was extremely negative.
For the sake of a harmonious multi-ethnic society, "all textbooks approved by Education Ministry must not allow slurs that hurt the sensitivities of the various communities to be uttered with impunity", said the group.
The statement also said that `Interlok` violated five out of six criteria outlined by the secondary school new curriculum textbook guidelines.
"Our stand is that we respect the author Abdullah Hussain`s freedom of expression and we do not object to his novel being sold in the bookshops.
The upshot is “’Interlok’ should not be a textbook in school”, the statement added.