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 DeputyThese 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 Napoleonand 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!!)