Sunday, November 05, 2006

Banned Books Malaysia 101

I'm writing this because there seems to be confusion still about the two different categories of "banned" books in Malaysia and what the implications of each are, and because I keep getting asked the same questions over and over.

It is a complicated business and it's taken me a while to cotton on. This is a sort of summary of the posts I have written in the past and which are indexed in the sidebar of this blog.

I do not pretend to have any kind of expert knowledge - everything I know comes from talking to Raman, folks from the marketing departments of the bigger bookstores, distributors, and from getting tip offs from friends when they have found themselves unable to buy books. I also apologize in advance if I get anything wrong - these are the facts as I understand them. There is much I do not know and much I am not in a position to find out (it would take probably a good investigative journalist to unravel the situation).

The Home Ministry or Kementarian Dalam Negeri (KDN) has the power to ban books that it feels are in some way "detrimental to public order" or liable in some way to"contribute to immorality".

But, it seems, there are two different systems of banning and you need to understand the difference between them.

The first category of banned books is as Raman says:
... the official ban with the papers signed off by the Home Minister or his Deputy
These books are listed on a document which is usually made public through the press. (Raman has put up a pdf of the 2006 list.) Says Raman:
.. this is quite clear-cut (even if you don't agree with it).
Many of the books banned were to do with religion. Reasons have never been given for the banning of particular titles - particularly worrying as many of them are books which were openly available previously.

The DAP asked for an explanation of the bannings, but never received one. (I checked back some time later with MP Theresa Kok and she said she had had no reply to her letter.) It is possible only to guess at the political subtext.

The penalty for possessing books officially banned books is severe, as Erna has pointed out. However to my knowledge, no-one has yet been prosecuted for possession, and no premises raided. (My knowledge, it has to be said, does not extend very far.)

The second category of banned books are those which are referred to by the KDN as "restricted books". Raman quite rightly calls this method of banning "arbitrary and unpredictable", and describes it as "pure Kafka". In a sense this makes it even more dangerous, particularly as large numbers of books are involved and there are serious implications for the whole book retailing industry (and at a time when another ministry - that of Culture, Arts and Tourism - is enlisting the help and goodwill of the industry to promote reading in Malaysia!)

Let me go back a step and explain a little bit of what I understand about how the book industry in Malaysia works.

Most of the books that come into Malaysia come from the UK because of an exisiting trade agreement. Publishers ship orders to Singapore where the distributors warehouse them for distribution to the both the Singaporean and Malaysian markets.

When the bookshops in Malaysia want books from Singapore, those books have to pass through customs at Johor Bahru. And it is here that the problem lies.

The KDN officers in JB go through the consignments and confiscate any books on the spot that they do not feel suitable for a Malaysian readership.

Who are these guys? Ordinary civil servants with the kind of educational profile civil servants typically have (i.e. not really the best folks to judge the merits or demerits of literature written in English, and with probably very little background in reading even in their own language.) Raman describes this kind of civil servant rather more colourfully as:
... some barely literate little Napoleon
and perhaps we can give him the benfit of the doubt since he has had some experience of trying to clear books through JB customs himself.

Why are the books deemed unsuitable and confiscated? In most cases I have no idea and neither has anyone I've spoken to, including the distributors and the bookshops! The KDN send a form letter to the distributors which states no reason for the confiscation.

I don't know what happens to the confiscated books, but I believe that the distributors receive no compensation. As one of them told Raman - you simply don't make a fuss, or you risk losing the whole consignment. They lose money, and I wouldn't be surprised if this cost gets passed on eventually to the consumer.

Raman listed the books from just one distributor. A few weeks ago I visited another distributor (on quite different business) and she showed me a whole file of the form letters for books that had been confiscated!

The distributors inform the bookshops about which books are "restricted". I'm sure the marketing departments of bookshops in KL must feel very angry about this issue, since it eats into their profits and stops them providing the full service for their customers they pride themselves on.

However (and this is why some of you are totally confused and say "The book's not banned I saw it on the shelves ..."):

you may still find copies of these books which the bookshops had brought in before the ban was imposed


you may find copies of the book they were brought in via a different port of entry. I suspect that books ordered from the US (by Kinoukuniya and Borders in particular) come in via either Port Klang or via KLIA where the officers may be less strict.


the book may be banned under one ISBN number, but a different version may get through (as in the case of The Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood where it was only the bikini tops worn by the women in one paperback version that appears to have given offence)


at least one novel has two different titles, and only one is "restricted"!


sometimes a book is banned in one language but a foreign language version gets through. (The Karma Sutra was apparently listed in the past as officially banned but there are apparently places where you can get an Indian language version.)

All this creates a kind of slippery banned-but-not-banned territory where no-one - bookshops, distributors, or readers know where they stand. Bookshops and distributors become more cautious about the books they order because they don't want to lose money, and they don't want to be on the wrong side of the law. But so many books have become restricted in the past few months - and so arbitrarily - that they must be wondering where the banning ends!

And if you can ban literary classics (like Midnight's Children and Things Fall Apart) and Sponge Bob Squarepants, where does the banning logically end?? When there are no more books left in the bookshops?

Book buyers don't know which books are banned and don't realise that their consumer choices are being limited in this way. Most probably don't care. But it is I think part of a wider issue, that of basic freedom of speech and thought.

As far as I know there is no illegality about possessing or selling "restricted books": full official ban would only be in place if the Ministry decided to gazette the titles. As Raman notes:
... none of the books that have been proscribed by the KDN this year (according to the distributors) have been gazetted.
So there you have it, in a nutshell. (A pretty big nutshell!)

I don't know if the Ministers and policy makers of 1) the Ministry of Home Affairs and b) the Ministry of Culture Arts and Tourism are aware of the problem. But they should be. And it would be good if they could find the time to sit down and talk through the issues raised by a group of people who love both the country ... and books.

(Hmmm ... nice banner but can't remember whose blog I lifted it from. Plagiarism!!)


midnite lily said...

lainie did that banner ^_^

i'm wondering where all the books go after they've been confiscated too. i've heard someone tell me that other confiscated goods in customs gets sold, or customs officers keep them! what's the point of confiscating if it goes back into the market?! =( but can you imagine the stacks of books just stored there?? *sigh*

idiots cause inconsistency.

Argus Lou said...

It's the powers given to the Customs Dept - so arbitrary. The Customs officers can make use of their 'authority' to
1) make money from selling off confiscated 'restricted' books,
2) make your life as an importer/bookseller miserable.
A third reason could be outright corruption, of course - they hope a stressed importer would offer them mullah to 'close an eye' and let the whole consignment through.
Now it's up to Pak Lah's Government to have the political will (sigh, it affects so few political grassroots, doesn't it?) to restrict the Customs officers' powers and clean up their Napoleonish act.
Malaysia Boleh or not?

bibliobibuli said...

okay then, thanks lainie!

books are actually perishable commodities. a mass market paperback has a shelf life of only 6 months in this climate before pages discolour

i can't accuse anyone of selling off the books, argus lou. that would be another case entirely. 2) seems to be happening already. bribery? unthinkable! (i don't think it would be economically viable anyway for distributors ...)

yes something need to be done at a higher level ... but i agree it needs political will. and with so much else going on in the country, and frankly bigger issues ...

anyway, did this explanation help? sorry it was so lengthy

eyeris said...

dzaman said...

i've registered with blogger but cant seem to post anything!

petty detail - having 'bloggers against book banning' sounds great but would that deter other book lovers too? should we open to writers as well as readers? 'malaysians against book banning' et al.

let's register with petition online and create one, forward the link to all our friends and send it to the powers that be. i would also love to see writers/bloggers/readers get together and come up with literary activities to show that reading any book (except the weekend mail haha) is the best food for the mind and soul. blogging, petitions - they're two mediums to get the message across. but we also need to prove that books are very much part of a nation's psyche.

maybe we can do a reading at the Customs :)

midnite lily said...

d: i was thinking the same. "bloggers" does make it sound limited.

i like the readings at the customs idea... hahah... but what would we read? breastfeeding for babies? =P

nice catch eyeris.

what argus says makes sense. knowing the obviousness of our customs dept. =(

savante said...

Finally someone's stepping up to say something :) I'm so glad! Definite link.

bibliobibuli said...

agree with dina ... i guess it began as bloggers because we are the ones with the web pages. maybe don't change the buttons but add some that say "readers" or "writers" ... i prefer "readers" actually.

we could have a reading ... from the "restricted" not from the "officially banned" books for obvious reasons. from sponge bob, and the breastfeeding book, and malayan trilogy ... a whole variety of texts. we should do it for ourselves first and then perhaps take it public. i like the idea of reading on the steps on the home ministry!

i want a t-shirt!

thanks savant!

lainieyeoh said...

hah....i put "blogger" simply because this is a website button and most people who will add such a campaign to their websites are, well, bloggers - for stickers or anything else, just get anyone to bell me online I can change the word

nylusmilk said...

this post has really shed a light on how the book banning works (or doesn't), thanks for a good read!

bibliobibuli said...

true lainie. very logical

nylusmilk - glad you found it informative. like your blog btw ... and it's nice to meet another librarythinger!

ikanbilis said...

Why would they want to ban books when not many bothers to read? only small numbers of us love books! i just don't understand the reasons for banning it. even for religious books, once you ban it, how would people learn the good and the bad side of it? also, why ban the divine secret of yaya sisterhood when the movie was stunning? urgh i just hate those who love to ban books!! whatever you guys doing here, i'm just soo IN!! =) Keep it up!!

bibliobibuli said...

thanks for the support ikan bilis! (what a nice nickname!) said...

Like I say in my blog, we should change the rules :P

Moem said...

I'm supporting this initiative. And I'm supporting people's rights to read and learn.

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