What do they call it when your government tells you what to read?

March 31, 2010 § 2 Comments

I regularly buy books from Acmamall, the online Malaysian bookstore that allows one a wide variety of choice in book titles; something that you don’t necessarily get in local bookstores (even Kinokuniya, that treasure-haven of hard-to-find books). The reason for this, as explained to me by a helpful customer service representative of Acmamall, is because all its books are imported from the US, and delivered to Malaysia on a weekly scheduled shipment. (But as the rest of this post bears out, this means that a cornucopia of book titles are available for ordering in Malaysia – but whether or not you actually get the physical book in your hands is a more tenuous matter.)

Some time back I was told that my order of Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch Three Times was detained by the Home Ministry after I had placed the order and paid for it. Acmamall was most accommodating about issuing a refund, but I haven’t stopped foaming at the mouth about being informed that I simply couldn’t purchase any book I wanted as I initially thought I could. No, in fact, I may have an idea about what I want to read – but whether or not I get to read it depends on Malaysia’s Home Ministry’s whims on whether or not that book is suitable reading for a person like me – i.e. a Malaysian. They can either choose to: 1) ban the book, or 2) randomly confiscate it from bookstores, or 3) disallow it from entering the country.

The Home Ministry is guided by that very insidious law brought about during the time of Tun Dr. Mahathir’s reign – the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984. Read it in PDF format here.

I’ve been unable to fathom what makes Lips Touch Three Times, a young adult book that’s been critically lauded in most American press, a subversive book, or indeed, one that is a threat to national security or morals. Is it the goblins? Are they afraid that reading this book will prompt a rash of young Malaysians to want to make out with pontianaks? Are they afraid it will encourage a kissing epidemic?

I have no idea.

I told myself to calm down, life’s too short to get raging mad at EVERY damn thing (wrinkles, sour facial expression, etc.), and chalked it up to one very small loss as a result of being Malaysian. Other Malaysians were dealing with far worse problems – lack of income, land, home, citizenship; lack of access to rights to see their own babies, rights to a fair trial, rights to drink whatever they damn well please without being whipped. Not being able to read a book is no big deal, really.

Or is it?

I placed my next order for Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory with trepidation. I told a friend that it will most likely be ‘detained,’ but I really hoped I was wrong. I REALLY wanted to read it. But sure enough, I get an email today from the Acmamall customer service informing me that the book has indeed been detained by the Home Ministry. And if you head over to Acmamall’s website, you’ll see that the book is now listed as ‘Not for sale in Malaysia.’

I felt anger at that very instant – again, being told what I’m allowed to read and not allowed to read just makes me blindingly angry. Even my parents have never told me what I could and could not read.

What drives me really crazy is the uncertainty of it all. One day, you can read this. Tomorrow, you can’t tweet about that. Today, this book is allowed to be sold in Malaysia. Tomorrow, policemen enter bookstores to ‘confiscate’ it. The government says one thing, its ministers and their respective minions do the exact opposite. Ironically, for all of Malaysia’s careful bogeyman-monitoring, it’s a free-for-all country where anything can happen – and monsters suddenly crop up where you least expect it. I hate the uncertainty. I want to know for a fact that I live in a totalitarian state. Or I want to know for sure that I live in a democracy. I want to know that I can walk down the street without fearing that someone will come out of nowhere and slap me, and then take my handbag – but where I can read what I damn well choose. NOT the other way round. At this point in time, I can’t read what I damn well choose, but I can be certain of being robbed by a man on a motorbike if I walk down the street adjacent to where I live (it’s happened to every other woman who did.)

So… will someone please, for the love of God, tell me – who exactly are the Home Ministry protecting, and who are they persecuting?

The aftermath of anger is always sadness. With King Kong Theory, reviewers have said that the author, whether or not you agree with her stand, has presented a brash, bold and thought-provoking perspective on modern-day feminism. (You can read reviews here and here.) I mean, these are the subjects I like to think about and read about. Maybe I’m the only sad sod in all of Malaysia who’s upset about the Home Ministry detaining King Kong Theory because… well, what the hell kind of book is it anyway?!? But that shouldn’t be the point. I’m prevented from reading a book for reasons I don’t even know of.

I wonder what made the authorities deem this book unfit for Malaysian eyes – is it the fact that the author was formerly a prostitute, and made a highly-controversial (if not exactly acclaimed) movie on the complex interrelations of sexual desire, abuse, and power? Do the authorities even know this? (I’m of the belief that their brains are puny; small enough to hold only recycled thoughts and prosaic wishes – such as the nature of, “Harap boleh makan nasi lemak petang ni…”) Are they afraid that Malaysian women will, en-masse, decide to prostitute themselves in an attempt at self-empowerment? Are they afraid that Malaysian women will want to migrate to France and prostitute themselves after reading this book (the author is French)? Did they simply look at the title and conclude that King Kong, being the product of American capitalist Hollywood minds, has no place in Malaysia – that a King Kong theory usurps the revered position of our local orangutans?

Again, I have no idea.

Well, I’m not being honest here. I suppose I have an inkling. Books like this one make people think; but more alarmingly, it makes people question the status quo. Police states don’t want its citizens thinking and questioning anything – especially not if it’s a police state pretending to be a multicultural, peaceful, free-thinking democracy.

Postscript from the Department of WTF (Apr 1, 2010): Was informed on Twitter that the two books, while still unavailable in Acmamall after being seized by the Home Ministry, is apparently available in Kinokuniya. These books weren’t yet available for sale (or Kino was out of copies, I’m not sure) when I made the Acmamall order – indeed, that was why I ordered it from Acmamall in the first place. But ironically, bringing it into the country after it was ALREADY allowed into the country was, apparently, the wrong thing to do. There are so many kinds of wrong with this that I don’t even know where to begin. Perhaps, I should just say… kudos, Home Ministry. Let’s continue to bumble along in utter confusion. Malaysians deserve no better, right?


§ 2 Responses to What do they call it when your government tells you what to read?

  • Aishwarya says:

    What a mess! Though somewhat comforting to know that when the government is being totalitarian they’re also incompetent enough to fail at it.

    I did not know King Kong Theory existed and now I really want it. I hope you manage to get hold of a copy of Lips Touch though – I thought it was great (and Di Bartolo’s artwork is amazing)

    • Subashini says:

      Aishwarya – thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. 🙂 As it turns out, I have a copy of King Kong Theory sitting happily in my bookshelf right now, so yes, it is a mess. It’s still sort of partially ‘banned.’ Whatever that means. I read it and it’s amazing, whether or not you agree with her, because it pulses with a kind of angry, intelligent energy you rarely find in books written by women about women. I highly recommend it.

      I’m hoping to get my hands on Lips Touch: Three Times next. It’s still being sold in one of the bookshops, and I saw some previews of the artwork before the book was published on Taylor’s blog. It looked exquisite!

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