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MALAYSIA: Banning of Books Alarms Freedom Advocates

Baradan Kuppusamy* - Asia Media Forum

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 22 2010 (IPS) - The confiscation and banning of books by Malaysian authorities is sending alarm bells ringing among activists, who want the repeal of laws that the government is using to suppress freedom of expression.

Home Ministry officials last week continued to raid numerous bookstores to confiscate books and publications by ‘Malaysiakini’, an independent news website that has been critical of government policies.

The ministry says it needs to “study and review” these books for content deemed to be against national security. But for ‘Malaysiakini’ chief editor Steven Gan, the action amounts to harassment of writers and booksellers.

Two publications by Malaysiakini, ‘1Funny Malaysia’ and ‘Where is Justice’, have virtually been banned because bookstores are afraid to sell them and people are afraid to buy because of official harassment, he said. Thus far, a dozen bookstores across this South-east Asian country have had their stocks of the two publications seized for “study and review.”

“According to Home Ministry officials, the books were suspected to cause harm to public order, morality, public safety and international relations,” Gan told IPS. “The books are not banned, but they want to seize the books for review purposes.”

“They can get the books from us,” he said. “There is no need to harass the bookstores.”

This follows the banning by the publication division of the Home Ministry of books that include works written by human rights activists and Muslim feminist academics.

Even the use of particular phrases like the word Allah, the Arabic word for God, is banned in some publications, with officials arguing that these words are exclusive to Islam.

“These works (Malaysiakini publications) are about current issues and written to arouse critical thinking and encourage healthy debates,” said political humourist Zunar, author of ‘1Funny Malaysia’, a collection of his best-known political cartoons that lambast the ruling power elites.

The title is a pun on the ‘1Malaysia campaign’ by Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is hoping to recoup political losses by convincing the public that the government is for all of them and not just for the ruling elite.

“It is a violation of press freedom, freedom of expression and the principles of democracy,” Zunar told IPS. The spate of raids and confiscations is being done under the Printing Presses and Publications Act, a law enacted to defeat a communist insurrection in the late 1940s.

While it remains in the books, opposition lawmaker Murugesan Kulasegaran said: “The law is outdated. It has no place in a liberal and progressive county. It should be repealed entirely.”

The mere possession of a banned book can lead to a jail term and fine of 5,000 Malaysian ringgit (1,470 U.S. dollars).

Meantime, the judiciary, which media and civil society hope to turn to for redress, has given mixed signals on the issue.

While some judges have ordered the government to lift the ban on books, others have supported the home minister in their judgements, arguing that the minister knows better and has the power to use his discretion to preserve “public safety and national security”.

In two conflicting judgements in the first two months of 2010, one judge lifted a ban on the book ‘Muslim Women and the Challenges of Islamic Extremism’ by Muslim feminist academic Noraini Othman and another confirmed a ban on ‘March 8’, a book by lawyer K Arumugam about the origins of a 2001 riot between Hindus and Muslims in the city.

Deputy Home Minister Fu Ah Kiow justified the ban as “just ordinary procedure”. “We have to act to because some books are unfavourable for the public, cause ill feelings among the races,” the English-language daily ‘The Star’ quoted him as saying.

Discussions of race and ethnicity are sensitive in this country, where racial tensions have simmered under its multi-ethnic surface since independence in 1957 and where laws discourage inflammatory statements and publications.

Some 55 percent of Malaysia’s more than 28 million people are Malay, most of them Muslim, while 25 percent are Chinese, 12 percent indigenous peoples, and nearly 8 percent Indians.

Records in the past two decades show that some 7,000 books have been banned, the bulk of them from abroad. “Most of these books never enter the bookstores because they are vetted first on arrival,” said a senior manager of a leading publishing company, requesting anonymity. “We simply follow the Home Ministry orders.”

The current crackdown on books and publications comes after a lull during the 2003-2008 tenure of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. During that time, there was greater tolerance for dissent, arbitrary arrests were suspended and media enjoyed greater freedom although none of the repressive laws that curb free speech and assembly were repealed.

The Kuala-Lumpur based Centre for Independent Journalism says the government is abusing the Printing Presses and Publication Act to harass the legitimate political opposition.

“Publications that challenge views propagated by the government are targeted. Writers whose books are banned are often not informed,” said the centre’s executive director Gayathry Venkiteswaran. “Publishers are vulnerable and the public and civil society are kept in the dark over what can be read and what is banned. This law needs to be repealed entirely.”

But the government has no plans to repeal the law and is in fact tightening its clauses administratively, political analysts said.

“Free speech and freedom of expression are under attack,” Kulasegaran said, adding that the government is more insecure following the massive losses that the ruling party Barisan Nasional suffered in the 2008 polls. “They are shaken and hope to recover political losses by curbing free speech. Intolerance is on the rise and they want everyone to toe the line. Alternative views that can undermine their status are strongly discouraged,” he said.

Often, books stay in limbo for months or even years and are officially classified as “being evaluated” by the Home Ministry until it is no longer economical to place them in bookstores.

One such book under ‘evaluation’ is ‘Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times’, written by Australian journalist Barry Wain.

The book arrived at the customs’ warehouse on Dec. 24, 2009 and is still “under evaluation”, even though former prime minister Mahathir himself has appealed to the authorities to release it. He has said he is not “afraid” of anything in the book, which accuses him of mismanagement on a grand scale during his 22 years as prime minister.

Mahathir’s own book, the controversial ‘The Malay Dilemma’, was banned in 1968. The ban was only lifted years later, after he became prime minister.

*Asia Media Forum (

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