Saturday, February 19, 2011

Censoring Interlok


Interlok saga update

The independent panel set up to examine with a view to removing parts of Datuk Abdullah Hussain's novel Interlok described as sensitive by the Indian community met for the first time on Wednesday.

Panel chairman Distinguished Professor Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin said after the meeting that "no time limit has been given but we want to complete it fast".

Yes, please do that panel members. You have to think of the poor fifth-formers who have to spend time learning about the literature component of the subject Bahasa Malaysia.

My nephew is one of them. He is understandably confused about the whole thing and is annoyed that the dispute has dragged on for nearly three months. Fifth formers have to take an examination -- the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia -- later this year.

It is understood that students in some schools in Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan (these are the schools which are using the student's edition of the novel: see photo) have started studying the text but teachers are tactfully skirting around the sensitive bits.

The other panel members are Datin Siti Saroja Basri, wife of Datuk Abdullah Hussain, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka director-general Datuk Termuzi Abdul Aziz, University of Malaya's Malay Studies Academy director Professor Datuk Zainal Abidin Borhan, Universiti Putra Malaysia Malay Studies lecturer Associate Professor Dr Lim Swee Tin, Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris Aminuddin Baki Centre for Global Education director Professor Dr N.S. Rajendran, former education ministry officer G. Krishnabahawan and writer Uthaya Sankar S.B.

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Journalist Jehan Mohamad has an interesting piece on Censoring literature. Click here to read.

See also the following links.

Panel's findings 'out in a month'

Interlok in gridlock

Komsas reading list

Updates: Teachers make 'Interlok' changes manually

              Amended 'Interlok' to be reprinted

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Guest Post: Nasi lemak, sambal pedas and Coca-Cola!


The following post was written by Distinguished Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin (picture) -- his retort to John R. Malott's article entitled The Price of Malaysia's Racism (The Wall Street Journal, February 8, 2011).

Malott was the U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia, 1995-1998.

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I am quite certain we can savour Malaysia's famous nasi lemak (picture) in New York and Washington DC as well as in Paris, London and Tokyo. But I guarantee that the one with the hottest sambal (condiment) can only be found in Malaysia.

You can choose between the hot but sweet sambal (condiment) from Kelantan and the pedas (spicy or hot) cooked-in-coconut-milk sambal (condiment) from Negeri Sembilan.

Visitors to Malaysia would be impressed by the wide variety of sambal (condiment) on offer, a topic even the Asian Food Channel on ASTRO channel has not dealt with.

John R. Malott’s article (The Price of Malaysia’s Racism) reminded me of the nasi lemak in Philadelphia; when I tasted the rice dish, it was neither lemak (rich) nor pedas (spicy or hot).

If Malott's opinion piece was meant to be a "stinging" (pedas) attack on the Malays, the Malay-dominated ruling party and the Malay leaders in the present government, it did not come close to criticisms of the present-day regime some local bloggers have been dishing out.

But both Malott and the bloggers have a rather limited audience in Malaysia and abroad. And Malott is aware of this.

Malott's commentary in The Wall Street Journal was not meant for the Malay-educated rural Malaysian or the Mandarin-educated not-so-rich urban Malaysians. It was a 'high-impact' review for potential investors interested in Malaysia.

The moot question: “does Malott’s opinion matter to those who matter”? The answer is "no", if we take the Coca-Cola case.

When Coca-Cola decided to invest Malaysian Ringgit one billion for its new factory in Nilai, Malaysia, the company’s decision must have been based on a thorough research into Malaysia’s present and future economic growth and socio-political stability.

I am not surprised if Malott’s opinion did not matter at all to Coca-Cola. Why? Because it was not as pedas (stinging) as the Malaysian bloggers' critical comments about the Malaysian government which the Coca-Cola people must have read via a rehashed version, for example, the Economist Intelligence Unit country report.

And all nasi lemak lovers agree that the "stinging" fizzy Coca-Cola is an effective American-manufactured antidote to nasi lemak with sambal pedas (spicy or hot condiment).

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ties that do not bind

Former ambassador to Malaysia John R. Malott's piece on the One Malaysia concept and its attendant problems (The Wall Street Journal, February 8, 2011) did not shed anything new on the subject.

He merely regurgitated information acquired from here and there. For those who wanted new insights into the state and study of ethnic relations in Malaysia, Malott's article was disappointing.

The recent Interlok controversy prompted me to ask Distinguished Professor Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, founding director of the Institute of Ethnic Studies at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, to explain the recurring ethnic tensions in Malaysia, a point which Malott elaborated with relish.

See the article (Learning Curve, New Sunday Times, February 13, 2010) below for his views on the subject.


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The tourism industry has managed to flaunt Malaysia's diverse cultural life. But this diversity has never been really captured research-wise, writes FAEZAH ISMAIL



The last bibliography on ethnic relations in Malaysia was published in 1992.The compiler was Tan Chee-Beng and the title, appropriately enough, is the Bibliography on Ethnic Relations with Special Reference to Malaysia and Singapore.

Regrettably, an updated version has yet to appear. “Bibliographies tell a lot about the state of a discipline at a point in time. Can you imagine the level of our knowledge about ethnic relations in this country?” asks Distinguished Professor Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin (picture), who is the founding director of the Institute of Ethnic Studies (or KITA) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Malaysia’s inability to bring up to date an important text such as this one suggests “a deep-rooted knowledge problem”, says Shamsul, who is also the chief editor of the ethnic relations module. And a thorough knowledge of Malaysia’s ethnic diversity is sorely needed to deal with tensions that occur every now and again, he adds.

The failure to update the 1992 ethnic relations bibliography and the frictions that arise as a result of differences in a plural society — the Interlok dispute and the hair-trimming incident involving a Sikh teenager being the most recent — are a sad commentary not only on the state but also the study of ethnic relations in Malaysia.

The clashes “will continue because we do not seriously prepare ourselves to deal with them”, says Shamsul. “When a conflict emerges we make a lot of noise hoping that it will go away but it will persist unless we choose a mature approach to ethnic tensions.”

The quarrel about the move to adopt Datuk Abdullah Hussain’s novel Interlok as a Malay literature text for fifth-formers, or any others of that ilk, illustrates the “stable tension” theory that Shamsul posits. The theory holds that ethnic tensions will take place from time to time but they are manageable provided Malaysians take measures to ease them.

For Shamsul the first step towards becoming "mature” is to have a sound grasp of the issues in question. “We cannot make sense of the situation without deep and researched-based knowledge. We cannot survive on racial prejudices and communal stereotypes,” says Shamsul. Malaysians tend to view their “other” through racial prejudices, ethnic slurs and stereotypical images of the other’s behaviour.

How do you deal with disagreements among the different ethnic groups in Malaysia? “You are asking me a question about a disease that has not been adequately studied. We can only make an accurate diagnosis after a careful study of the malady. “Have we thought of the tools for finding solutions to the problem. We have to develop a plan to deal with this because it keeps returning.”

KITA is ideally placed to craft a framework for problem-solving. One of its projects in 2009 was the Monitoring Ethnic Relations System (MESRA for short) which acts as an early warning system for issues linked to ethnic relations in Malaysia.

The Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), which produces the annual Global Peace Index (GPI), is interested in the scheme. The two institutes will sign a memorandum of understanding soon to collaborate on endorsing a part of MESRA as a Country-based Peace Index to complement the GPI.

KITA also hopes to study Malaysia’s intellectual history besides finding out how “mundane activities” such as inter-racial and inter-ethnic marriages play their roles in fostering national unity.

It wants to do more and Shamsul is brimming with ideas. But KITA faces financial and manpower constraints. “We are only a small institute in UKM. If the government is really interested in resolving ethnic conflicts, it should elevate KITA to a national body.

“We have lots of ideas but we need dedicated people and generous funds to do our work. If we do not invest time and money in this, the psychosocial traumatic impact and the economic cost of worsening conditions are too awful to contemplate.”

A discussion on ethnic relations raises many important questions but there are no easy answers. In the case of the Interlok squabble, it has nothing to do with the novel, says Shamsul, who is a member of an independent panel to amend Abdullah's work. Instead, it has to do with the “dividedness” of Malaysia’s ethnic groups, as Shamsul puts it.

“We are not a homogeneous society. The Malays are one group of people but there are many types of Malays, and the same is true of the others.” Even among the Indian community there is no consensus on the choice of Interlok as a text for the literature part of the subject Bahasa Malaysia for fifth-formers. Some are against it while others are not.

Similarly, every Malaysian has his or her own vision of a national identity “based on a particular ideological framework” and the various attempts to construct this from the perspective of each public interest group represent “many nations-of-intent”.

The non-Malays prefer a definition that accords the “culture of each ethnic group in Malaysia a position equal to that of the Bumiputera,” writes Shamsul in his essay “Nations-of-Intent in Malaysia”. The suggestion that “Chinese language and rituals be an integral part of the national identity” is a case in point.

Interestingly, the tourism industry has managed to explain Malaysia’s ethnic and cultural diversity through traditional dances, folk songs and construction of ancestral villages, among others. And the main beneficiaries of this are the tourists.

“But this diversity has never been really captured research-wise,” says Shamsul, who recently examined a PhD thesis on the Indians in Malaysia. The postgraduate had assumed that the divisions within Malaysian society are straightforward and did not show any understanding of the “dividedness” that exists in each community.

“My comment was to rewrite the thesis. For a PhD candidate not to have recognised the diverse dissenting voices in each ethnic group does not augur well for the future of ethnic relations in Malaysia.”

Monday, February 07, 2011

Shan's perfect Monday

The following post was inspired by the frequently asked question: how was your Sunday?
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My friend Shan works at the weekend. He gets two days off -- Monday and Thursday -- in a week. It has been like this for the past 10 years.

He likes the current arrangement and would not have it any other way. There would be an amused look on his face when people asked him about his Sunday.

"I work on Sunday," he would say.

The response was entirely predictable: "Really! How sad. I never work on Sunday."

Those who regard Saturday and Sunday as days of rest can never understand how doctors, nurses, journalists, waitresses and musicians, among others, work very long hours everyday including over the weekend.

Oh, that's a pity, they say. These unfortunate souls have missed out on the pleasures that create the perfect break.

Shan disagrees.

He says that Monday is his perfect Sunday.

He wakes up early, goes for a walk, starts the day with a breakfast of local coffee and toasted bread doused in soft boiled eggs (picture), mucks about with his other half and cooks dinner for his family.

He does not think that he is missing out on all the fun just because he does these activities on Monday.

Journalists can relate to that.

As a junior reporter I used to work on Saturday and Sunday and took my two-day break in the week.

I, like Shan, created my own ideal of the perfect Sunday either on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. I did not feel a pang of envy at the thought of my friends who had Sunday off.

When it was my turn to take a break on Sunday it did not seem particularly special.

The important thing is to have at least one work-free day.

Times have changed since Grandma was young and it is difficult to keep up with the rapid pace of change.

Haven't we heard of some people getting out of the rat race and adopting a lifestyle change that embraces the simple pleasures, such as reading, walking, cycling and parent-child bonding. These are things that we do on our days off and vacations.

In the end, what it all boils down to is the quality of life, or the lack of it.

A perfect Sunday or Monday helps us to forget at least for a while about our demanding bosses and impossible deadlines.

There is also the matter of looking good and the effort we have to put in to stay young for as long as we can.

No wonder we are stressed out, we have been punishing ourselves in the week.

We need at least one day in a week to let loose.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Year of the Rabbit


Gong Xi Fa Cai!

May fortune, wealth and good health be with you!

The Lunar New Year is almost here and most Chinese in Malaysia and elsewhere will celebrate the occasion tomorrow by offering mandarin oranges or red envelopes stuffed with cash to family members especially children and close friends.

The 12-year cycle of the Chinese calendar returns to the Year of the Rabbit and people expect good fortune throughout the year.

Chinese tradition views rabbits as social, sensitive creatures and their homes and families are important to them. They symbolise beauty, composure and wealth.

If you are a Rabbit, click here for more about yourself.