Thursday, 29 September 2011

A Week To Remember

This week is Banned Books Week? Shame on me for not noticing.

Could it just be some mental fatigue on my part, the blasé-ness of living for so long in a country where the media is controlled and policed, to the point where everyone starts to self-censor their opinions?

No, I'm not Singaporean. But thanks for asking.

Banned Books Week, says Molly Raphael, President of the American Library Association, is a reminder that one's freedom to read should not be taken for granted. She suggests that one will not be aware of the significance of this freedom until books start disappearing, e.g. banned.

I suppose it can be argued that censorship of reading material is ineffective or insignificant in countries where the populace doesn't have a reputation for being voracious readers of Everything Under the Sun. But Ms Raphael thinks differently.

...Such censorship matters to those who no longer can exercise the right to choose what they read for themselves. It matters to those in the community that cannot afford books or a computer, and for whom the library is a lifeline to the Internet and the printed word. And it matters to all of us who care about protecting our rights and our freedoms and who believe that no one should be able to forbid others in their community from reading a book because that book doesn't comport with their views, opinions, or morality.

Suddenly, her message becomes clear. Had her article been banned or blocked, I wouldn't have learnt a new word: com·port, which means 1) conduct oneself; behave or 2) accord with; agree with.

New words may not be a good reason to abolish book bans, and some may argue away many of the reasons given for the total freedom to read anything. As we have learned, book bans don't always accomplish their aims.


Public hanging
For writing a book that criticised the Singaporean judicial system and its seemingly arbitrary application of the death penalty, mostly in drug trafficking cases, British journalist Alan Shadrake was found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to six weeks in prison.

Though Once a Jolly Hangman wasn't banned outright, the advisory issued by Singapore's censors put the fear of Harry Lee into book sellers. You can't buy the book in Singapore, but I suspect Malaysian book sellers stocked it up with a certain amount of glee.

The book has seen four print runs and sold about 6,000 copies as of last year, making it the Strategic Information and Research Development Centre's (SIRD) top selling title. It still drifts in and out of MPH's list of best-selling non-fiction.


Royal smash
Sometime ago, a book about then Princess (now Empress) Masako raised the hackles of the Japanese establishment, including the shadowy Imperial Household Agency. Once could perhaps understand why something called Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne would not be warmly received in the Land of the Rising Sun.

An edition of the book, apparently sanitised for the Japanese market, was eventually not published. The author, Australian freelance journo Ben Hills, seemed glad about that. "Their version of my book was something I'd have been ashamed to see my name on the cover of," he said.

Publishers outside Japan, however, were interested. At one time, Princess Masako topped Amazon.co.jp's list of best-selling foreign-language books, ahead of the new Harry Potter (back then) and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. When he tossed the phrase "shooting themselves in the foot", you can almost hear the bullet go in.

North of our borders, an American citizen of Thai birth became among the latest to run afoul of Thailand's strict lese majeste laws with a blog post that had translations from a book the country had banned. Look for "Paul M Handley, US freelance journalist" (see a pattern here?) on the Google to learn more.


Body snatching
Mid 2010, copies of a book billed as the first "Malaysian queer anthology" were seized by the Home Ministry. Published a year earlier by Amir Muhammad's MataHari Books, Body 2 Body was a collection of stories about the Malaysian gay community. About 2,900 copies had been sold since publication and the publisher has stated there will be no reprints.

At the time, given the vigour in which the Home Ministry moves to contain various subversive elements in the media, the one-year lag was kind of surprising.

I'm certain interest in that book peaked around the time the news came out.


We are the power
It's quite plain that book bans suck, mostly because they don't really work, and when they do, not very well. Now that books are going digital, it would be interesting to see how the book bans of the future will be implemented. Will this also affect the much-touted no-censorship pledge for the Internet in Malaysia?

Governments and institutions will always ban books, and although we may not agree with the rationales for banning books, we should nevertheless respect the decision and the laws behind it.

A nation and society is ultimately responsible for its own growth, and that growth - and change - must come from within to really work. We'll just have to hope that people of, say, Thailand, will eventually see that there's no need for such harsh laws to protect their monarchy.

Words, like images, draw their power from the reactions of those who read or view them.

The fate of the books we read is determined by our responses to their contents.

For the time being, all we can do, in our own backyard, is to read more, and be thankful for the books we can access. And learn to control our reactions to published ideas and opinions that may offend or disturb us. If we can do that, the "subversive" nature of many books would vanish.

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