Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Interlok and Sensitivity

By Toh May Fook

On a trip to Australia many years ago, a colleague of mine from our London office was detained at the Sydney Airport for impatiently answering a routine immigration question:-

Immigration officer: Do you have any previous criminal record, Sir?
My colleague: Why? Do you still need one to come to Australia?

History of our past is indeed a very complex issue, many of us do not wish to accept the plain truth of our past. Most of us who are doing well now, wish that our past is like a roll of unstained shiny silk but in actual fact, it is most likely not.

In line with our unwillingness to accept our not-too-glorious past, we invoke the most abused term of “sensitivity” to warn others not to look our way, but when others are not allowed to look our way, there will be no meaningful mutual understanding.

My father came to the then Malaya as a migrant worker escaping from the harsh condition in China, the feudal exploitation, the wars and the famines. Most other Chinese migrant workers came to Malaya for more or less the same reason in search of better prospects and it is really not offensive for people like them to be referred to as kaum pendatang.

Therefore it is not wrong for my lecturer to talk about “kaum pendatang” during his political science lecture in UM, generally referring to the Chinese and Indian migrant workers in the historical perspective. But when that lecturer became a politician and still refers to the present day Chinese and Indians in Malaysia as kaum pendatang, he must be deemed mentally challenged. The same applies to those politicians or agent provocateurs using the academic cum historical term of kaum pendatang with the intent to belittle certain legitimate communities.

There will always be irresponsible radical elements in any society. How then shall we respond to the insinuation, insults or even provocation? More importantly, do we know how to distinguish an academic or historical reference from an insult?

In the book Interlok, was the term “pariah” applied by the author as a reference to a historical fact or as a term to insult a certain community? Is it appropriate for a certain community to feel offended because the term “pariah” applied in the literary work touches on their “sensitivity”?

Since when did we become so “sensitive”?

Brickfields where I grew up in the sixties is a very interesting place. Indians and Malays from the railway company, Chinese from some bus and transportation companies lived close together with some Punjabi families. There are many places of worship, our National Mosque, Christian Churches, Catholic Cathedral, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist temples, all in close proximity to each other. It is very much the same today except I think the toddy shop and the Lido cinema are not there anymore.

Those days we referred to those from other communities with all sorts of derogatory terms but really without any malice; at the same time those from other communities referred to us also with all sorts of equally flowery accolades and I believe equally without any malice.

With such daily mutual belittling and occasional fights in between, we were still able to play and work together most of the time because we were all not too “sensitive” then. In fact, having been so “insensitive” over all that meaningless name calling, we became immune and May 13 did not flare up in Brickfields but in Kampung Bahru where there was a high concentration of a single community.

It must be quite interesting to note that when May 13 flared up in Kampung Bahru, the multi-racial community in Brickfields took collective measures to protect each other. Why?

Let us all reflect if the word “sensitive” is being abused, heavily abused? Wither is the way forward for us to be one big Malaysian community?

Allow me to return to my favorite Australian immigration story.

Years after my London colleague’s disaster at the Sydney Airport, I was told that it had become fashionable for descendants of those crime-related migrant Australians to trace the history of their ancestors, especially the nature of their crime that won them free passage to the then penal colony.

I was relieved that these descendants are no longer outrageously sensitive about the truth of their historical past. I applaud them for even making the effort to search for further details to the extent that combing archival documents has transformed into a serious consulting business.

Many such descendants were more relieved and proud upon being “confirmed” by such ancestry consultants that their ancestors were immigrated to the penal colony for stealing just a loaf of bread to feed their starving children, just like the heroic Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

How I wish my father was a regal Mandarin sent by the Emperor in China to grace the local soil, a little bit like the fabled Hang Li Po and her retinue. The fact is that he simply arrived here as a migrant worker looking for a better life and I am not offended if he is being referred to as kaum pendatang.

I suppose, in the final analysis, when self-confidence arrives, conjured sensitivity departs very much like the way darkness departs when light arrives.


Post a Comment

<< Home