INTERLOK and the Rot of Racism: Offending Malaysian Indian psyche
by Waytha Moorthy Ponnusamy on 27 Feb 2011 4 Comments

[Today, 27 Feb. 2011, Malaysian citizens of Indian origin, mainly Hindus, are marching in solidarity against the racism of the ruling UMNO regime – Editor]


You wake up in 2011 from a deep slumber beginning in 1957 and look around and see. You are appalled by what you see. What had been the natural order of things while you were deep in slumber now begins to look like a terrible scheme to deprive you of your dignity, your pride, your identity, your everything. You are appalled. You have to stand up and say NO! For, if you do not the future is lost.


What is this so-called natural order of things of the appalling past:


1) The Indian in this country is the dark, scraggy, oily, drunk, and most likely a criminal Indian.

2) The Indian is unavoidable baggage to be carried by the nation. They do not exist but for the profits they produce.

3) They do not possess anything material or moral, of any value to the nation.

4) They are the filth of this country, and they came from the filth of India.

5) Call them filth, call them Pariahs, call them Indians, call them anything, it does not matter, they do not matter.

6) They should be grateful for what they have got in this country – a 1000 times more than they could have got in India.

7) The ordinary Indians can be bought for a little rice and samsu and their leaders for a bagful of money and some meaningless Datukship.


Ask any UMNO Malay – Muhyiddin Yassin, Ibrahim Ali, Asri the Mufti of Perlis, ask any UMNO Civil Servant. Ask ex UMNO stalwart –Anwar Ibrahim. Ask the scion of the Chinese rich Chua Soi Lek, they will tell you, “This is after all the natural order of things, nothing amiss here. What’s all the fuss about?” 


Only when something is a natural order do we not sense something amiss despite the emphatic noises around. Therein is the crux of the issue. It is this nonchalance resulting from the worldview of this natural order of things that characterizes the rot in our system. That is just the way the system has to work in Malaysia, we are told.


The disgust of Indians about the Interlok (Interlock) novel, authored by a reputed Malay writer, Datuk Abdullah Hussain, is not just about one word or a few words, as so many would have us believe. It is about that deep rot in our system – the rot of racism. It is about something totally and fundamentally wrong with our system.


Our disgust is as much about the novel as it is about the way the whole Interlok episode has been handled after it erupted. It is about the way this book was chosen and prescribed as compulsory text for all Malaysian young (fifth grade students) in the name of national unity. It is about the way UMNO’s racist policies are perpetuated. It is about the continuing exclusion of minorities. It is about that which has become the natural order of things for the Ketuanan Melayu UMNO Malays.


This novel is only the tip of that iceberg.


What began optimistically as a Government of the Malayan people in 1957 has in the passage of time transformed into a subtle, systematic and pervasive Ketuanan Melayu racist Malaysia – a very well reinforced regime of racism.


To the uninitiated, this claim of a systematic and pervasive racism may look excessive. That is exactly why we say racism in Malaysia is subtle, very subtle. The pervasive racism we talk about is not an overtly visible phenomenon. There is a saying that you can kill by a deep cut across the middle or you can kill with a thousand small cuts, in which case the killing becomes slow and subtle. That is the brand of racism we have in Malaysia. A slow and subtle killing off. What we are looking at is the potential death of the Indian minority community by a thousand cuts.


This Interlok episode is not an isolated incident. It is just one in a big picture of many other that look like innocuous isolated occurrences. The racist scheme is not seen so readily when these are seen as isolated occurrences. But put them all together, along with what is happening to the other minorities, and you immediately see the unmistakable Ketuanan Melayu racist scheme. And I can see the potential demise of the Indian minority community as a proud and identifiable community in all of this, some time out in the future.


Barn-like primary schools for half the Indian children in Malaysia, problematic student years for the Indian young because of a combination of circumstances mainly relating to poverty, 40% of them involved in crime and a large number in prisons or in the Simpang Renggam detention centre. Rampant alcoholism to drown out the miserable and hopeless lives offered by this racist system. Then top it all up by stereotyping storytelling of a past like this from novels like Interlok [excerpts at end].


All this then seems to justify the natural order of things. The low life they belong to just perpetuates itself till this day. The storytelling in Interlok of 1910 fits in with the low life experienced by the Indians in 2010 and caused by their low ways and background as in the story one hundred years ago. The Indian becomes permanently relegated to this serf-like status, devoid of dignity, of pride and having their past of extreme poverty and dispossession thrust into their faces at every turn as the reasons for their continuing poverty and dispossession. They are subtly and constantly reminded that they have nobody to blame but their past. Anyway, this life in this golden land of Malaysia is a thousand times better than anything they could have had in India. Something they are constantly being reminded of as part of the Ketuanan Melayu philosophy.


That is the real issue!


Interlok is just a trigger for all of that. It is, as I have said, the tip of the iceberg. This UMNO government does not care, they want to go right ahead and institutionalize such material into the educational curriculum because they must push their Ketuanan philosophy to succeed. Ask Mahathir about the logic of it all. He is the author of that Ketuanan Philosophy.


So, for our part as proud Indians who will not compromise dignity, we now have to take the bull by the horns. We just have no choice. We say the book must be withdrawn - or the UMNO government must face the wrath of the entire Indian community. This book represents for us an opportunity to turn back, stand up and say no to RACISM. We all have to say no, not just to the inclusion of the Interlok novel into the curriculum in schools, but to the WHOLE FABRIC OF KETUANAN MELAYU RACISM that is the root cause of all of this. This is a matter of great significance to the future of all the minority communities in the country.


Let all democracy and justice minded Malaysians stand up. We need to eliminate this KETUANAN MELAYU racist system and that can only come when we all stand up. We, the minorities, can live with dignity and pride in this country only when we eliminate this racist system.


Look at what the people of Egypt and Tunisia have just done. They have stood up and said NO!


Let us stand and say NO! NO! NO!


Interlok: The storyline


The novel refers to the experience of three migrants from different ethnic background coming to Malaysia. The author’s description and treatment of each migrant exemplifies the political stance of Malaysia’s ruling political party, the UMNO, which for the last 53 years has vigorously propagated racism, arrogance, ignorance, and bigotry towards non-Malays. 


The alleged novel describes Indian migrant Maniam (M) thus: he is someone who speaks the Dravidian language, Tamil, a common language for other Indian travellers aboard a ship heading to Malaya.  He describes them as being comfortable with each other as they belong to the same low caste race of Pariah (hereinafter, referred to as the P word). Thus, M and the majority of Indians are not afraid to ‘dirty each other’. It is stated that in India, M had suffered trauma and agony for being treated as something lower than an animal whilst in the new land called Malaya, M found freedom, dignity and humanity.


The references to the Chinese migrant and the Malay characters regarding their ethnicity or economical conditions are markedly different.


The author states that like other Indians, M has no worries about his wife’s welfare or wellbeing in India. M is said to have a slave-trapped mind as a lower caste because of his refusal to do small business and prefer to work as a labourer/coolie or a barber. M is said to eat betel leaves like a cow or a goat. No such animal allegories describe Malay characters, though the author tells us that the Chinese characters “sat huddled on the narrow deck like pigs in the shed”.


M is constantly referred to as ‘black skinned’ as is another Indian character named Malini and the rest of the Indian community on the farm, as against the white skinned man. There is direct inference to Indian women as promiscuous in the absence of their men. There is no such judgment about Chinese or Malaya characters.


The Chinese characters – father (Cina Panjang or Cing Huat) and son (Yew Seng) (YS) - are portrayed as greedy and the father as a cruel man whose own son had to oppose his father’s cruelty against the Malaya character, Seman. The Chinese father is described as being skeptical that the Malays are lazy and not progressive.


In contrast, the Malay characters are described as hardworking and good hearted; both Seman (S) and his father work hard all their lives for the greedy Chinese character, but later the father dies and looses all his wealth to the greedy Chinese. The mother of S is described as very kind, caring and non-racist for helping and accommodating Yes’s sister. 


An illustration of overt racism can be seen when the author refers to M’s God by using little ‘t’ for ‘tuhan’; while capital ‘T’ is used for the same word when referring to the deity of the Malays. This is significant as over-zealous UMNO members/Malays often demean Hindus by saying Hindus pray to demigods while the Muslim God is the true God. This has been and continues to be a subtle form of Islamizing young innocent minds into accepting Islam.  


The author goes into torrid political rhetoric, alleging that the Chinese and the Indians came to Malaya to make money with the idea of returning to their country, and that non-Malays refused to send their children to Malay schools for fear that their children would become like the Malays. The novel pursues a political agenda in claiming that Malaya is a prosperous country and its very generous and philanthropic Malaya community, having accommodated the immigrants, had to be careful with the land or else it would be robbed by the ‘faithless and disloyal immigrants’, especially the Chinese.    




-        On this ship, he didn’t face any difficulties. A vast majority of passengers on deck with him could only speak one language, Tamil. Those from the more northerly region spoke Malayalam or Telegu, but almost all of them knew Tamil. Malayalam and Telegu too are from the same Dravidian language root. One major thing that helped them to socialize was the fact that they were all from the same caste, Pariah. They didn’t have to be afraid of dirtying anyone they were in contact with. They were able to mix freely. Accommodation on the ship was not well arranged! (p. 211)


Di dalam kapal ini dia tidak susah. Sebahagian besar daripada penumpang dek yang bersama-samanya itu dapat bercakap dalam satu bahasa sahaja, Tamil. Mereka yang dari arah ke utara sedikit bercakap bahasa Malayalam atau Telugu, tetapi hampir semuanya tahu bahasa Tamil. Malayalam dan Telugu pun berasal dari satu rumpun bahasa Dravidia. Satu perkara besar yang membuatkan mereka senang berkaul adalah kerana mereka tergolong dalam satu kasta Paria.  (p. 211)


-        They squashed together like goats. (p. 211)


Mereka berasak-asak seperti kambing. (p. 211)


-        Maniam had no children. He believed one day, god will give them a child. (p. 214)


Maniam tidak ada anak. ... Dia percaya suatu masa nanti tuhan akan memberi kepada mereka cahaya mata. (p. 214)


-        Seman was shocked because….He remembered God. Maybe his mother was praying to God that I would be save. ….Who knows the power of God. Maybe that was also God’s power. …Maybe that was also God’s power. That was the first time he felt like he was really close to God. Only then, he felt like his prayer was accepted by God. (p. 293-294)


Seman terperanjat kerana .... Dia teringat akan Tuhan. Barangkali ibu sedang meminta doa kepada Tuhan supaya aku selamat ..... Siapa tahu kuasa Tuhan? Barangkali itupun kuasa Tuhan .... Barangkali itupun kuasa Tuhan .... Baru kali inilah dia berasa dirinya benar-benar dekat dengan Tuhan. Baru kali inilah dia berasa sembahyangnya diterima oleh Tuhan. (p. 293-294)


-        Here, there were no jobs that differentiate castes. (p. 216)


Di sini, pekerjaan yang membezakan kasta tidak ada. (p. 216)


-        He didn’t know why the Chinese coolies were better preferred. It could be said that in almost all the ships which were arriving, the Chinese coolies were the ones who were given opportunities! Maniam admitted that they were faster in their work and talked little. (p.217 218)


Dia tidak tahu sebab-musabab kuli-kuli Cina lebih disukai. Boleh dikatakan hampir setiap kapal yang masuk, kuli-kuli Cina itulah yang lebih banyak mendapat kesempatans. Maniam mengakui bahawa mereka lebih pantas bekerja dan sedikit bicara. (p. 217- 218)


-        Maniam, like other Indians, had never worried about his wife’s safety. (p. 218)


Maniam seperti orang India yang lain, tidak pernah khuatir tentang keselamatan isterinya. (p. 218)


-        He was happy to live in this country because, for the first time in his life he felt like a human being like others. (p. 218)


Dia gembira hidup di negeri ini kerana untuk pertama kali dalam hidupnya dia berasa dirinya sebagai manusia seperti orang lain.  (p. 218)


-        Here, he was not only free to mix with others who were of the same race as him, but also was not afraid of the taboos and prohibitions found in his country when an Indian from a lower caste touched another Indian of higher caste. (p. 218 – 219)


Di sini dia tidak sahaja bebas bercampur gaul dengan orang lain sama sebangsanya, malah dia tidak takut dengan pantang larang yang terdapat di negaranya apabila seorang India daripada kasta rendah menyentuh orang India daripada kasta tinggi. (p. 218 – 219)


-        He was not only berated and reviled with very abusive harsh words, but was also isolated from the society until he and the others of his caste became more opprobrious than animals. (p. 219)


Dia tidak sahaja dimaki hamun dengan kata-kata yang kesat, malah disisihkan daripada masyarakat sehingga dirinya dan orang-orang yang sekasta dengannya menjadi lebih hina daripada binatang. (p. 219)


-        In this country, people from the higher caste, (Brahma) wore the sacred thread across their bodies, but he wasn’t afraid of touching them. (p.219)


Di negeri ini, orang  daripada keturunan kasta tinggi, kasta Brahma memakai punul melintang di tubuh, tetapi dia tidak takut menyentuh orang itu. (p.219)


-        He could buy things from the hawkers and pay the money from hand to hand; unlike how it was in his country where he must place the money somewhere and the hawker will sprinkle the money with water before putting it in his box. (p. 219)


Dia boleh membeli barang daripada penjaja dengan memberikan wang dari  tangan ke tangan; tidak seperti seperti di negaranya, dia mesti meletakkan wang itu di suatu tempat dan penjaja itu akan menyiram wang itu dengan air sebelum diambil dan dimasukkan ke dalam petinya. (p. 219)


-        Moreover cow is a sacred animal for the Hindus; and if the cow died, it was like his own mother had died. (p. 220)


Apatah pula lembu ialah binatang suci bagi orang Hindu; dan kalau binatang itu mati, seperti ibunya sendiri yang mati.  (p. 220)


-        It didn’t matter if he had not eaten lunch as long as he could chew the beetle leaves like the cows and goats champ cud. (p. 224)


Tidak makan tengah hari tidak mendatangkan masalah, asalkan dia dapat mengunyah sirihnya seperti lembu atau kambing memamah biak. (p. 224)


-        After going through some tiring rituals, Maniam’s and Malini’s wedding fiesta came to an end.  (p. 229)


Setelah menjalani beberapa upacara yang meletihkan, maka pesta perkhawinan Maniam dan Malini pun berakhir. (p. 229)


-        The white man looked down, at the lying black skinned body. (p. 251-252)


Orang putih itu melihat ke bawah, pada tubuh berkulit hitam yang terbaring itu. (p. 251-252)


-        He just snarled at him, this black skinned guy will surely be terrified. (p. 253)


Dia gertak sahaja, orang kulit hitam ini tentu takut kecut. (p. 253)


-        She just watched. She didn’t want to touch the black skinned body. (p. 253)


Dia melihat sahaja. Dia tidak mahu menyentuh tubuh berkulit hitam itu. (p. 253)


-        Suppiah surged forward and prostrated at the feet of the white man. The white man became furious. He didn’t want the black skinned people in the surrounding area think that he was an idiot, shooting people without any investigation. Straight away he kicked Suppiah. Suppiah tossed up. (p. 256)


Suppiah menerpa ke hadapan dan sujud di kaki orang putih itu. Orang putih itu naik radang. Dia tidak mahu orang-orang berkulit hitam di sekitar tempat itu menyangka dia dungu, menembak orang tanpa usul periksa. Lantas, dia menendang Suppiah. Suppiah terjungkir. (p. 256)


-        He felt very proud that the white man’s dog was tame to him. (p. 276)


Dia berasa bangga kerana anjing orang putih itu jinak dengannya. (p.276)


[The author is HINDRAF chairman and Barrister at Law, Lincoln’s Inn, London. For more information, email or visit and]

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