‘The context of my comment on Interlok’ – Tony Milner

letterOn 7 June I was invited to meet with a Kairos group to discuss issues relating to the Malaysian national history curriculum. As an outsider to this country I would of course not want to make public comment on these issues, but was happy to exchange thoughts with a group of friends. I was surprised and disturbed to see a report of the event in The Malaysian Insider.

At the meeting I spoke about problems and debates around the Australian national history curriculum, and then turned to Malaysia. I mentioned the difficult task of creating a national narrative that would help to satisfy a range of Malay aspirations, and the current concern (as I saw it) to change the curriculum in ways that would provide more emotive content for non-Malay students, particularly in the light of the Government ‘1Malaysia’ commitment.

I suggested (almost as an afterthought) that, ironically, the novel ‘Interlock’ – which has been much criticized by non-Malays – appears to me to make more effort than the history text books to incorporate Chinese and Indian experience in the Malaysian narrative.

I pointed out that I’d only been able to obtain the English translation, and would certainly not wish to comment on the issues of language that have been much discussed in the media (or on the way the novel is currently taught in schools). From what is said on the CPI website about the book, the English translation must be a violent distortion of the real text. It was on the basis of the English text that I expressed the view that the author was – in his own way – attempting to promote an inclusive national story. It may be of interest that only a couple of people in the room said they had read Interlok, either in Malay or English.

As I’ve suggested, creating a national history curriculum is a matter for insiders. In my Australian experience it can be a divisive and emotional process, but might just contribute in the long run to social reconciliation. It seems to me that there are elements in Malaysian history that do have the potential to help build an inclusive narrative – and mentioned a couple of these at the Kairos meeting. But I may be too optimistic, and simply do not have the local experience to contribute seriously to this Malaysian national conversation.

I regret that the unexpected reporting of my thinking aloud has caused offence.


See also:

Where in the world has a fiction been used as a history book?