Friday, November 03, 2006

Malaysian book banning: how to look stupid in the eyes of the world

[The Beauty of Chinese Yixing Teapots and the Finer Arts of Tea Drinking : pix courtesy of Amazon.com where you can read an extract to see why it is banned. Or maybe you can read the extract and NOT see why it was banned.]

This blog post is all true, or based on things I believe to be true. I just thought I would make this clear, because you are going to have trouble believing it.

Let's go back a bit in time, to 1992. I am sitting on a large cardboard packing box on the wharf in the port of Tunis, North Africa. There's a truck behind me with a container. The contents of the container have been unloaded and are piled up around me - boxes, furniture, all out household goods. We are moving to Tunisia from Austria.

It's a hot day and the truck driver has been sitting on the wharf for seven days, guarding our load and eating packaged junk food because he dare not leave the truck unguarded. He hasn't showered in a week...but there's hope. Finally things are moving. The Tunisian customs men have arrived to check our things. I had chosen my seat judiciously; it contains the contents of our bar, which I thought might arouse some problems, this being an Islamic country even though they have their own vineyards...but they weren't interested in that.

A customs officer points to a box and asks us to open it. It is full of books. He takes out the one on top. It is a coffee table book, a gift from someone who lived in Papua, and it portrays the face art of tribal people. The customs officer looks through the book, staring hard at the pictures. Luckily there are only faces and not penis adornment. Then he picks up the next book, which is a Malay dictionary. He stares at that a long time, puzzled by the language. How is he going to tell if it is worthy of being banned? He tries another book, I can't remember which one. And then another. And another.

The sun is hot, and we are all wilting. My husband says, poker-faced, 'We have six thousand books." A slight exaggeration, but I translate it anyway for the customs men. My husband waves a hand at the many unopened boxes around us in illustration of his point. You can see the customs officer thinking - how the hell is he going to check for banned books when none of our library is in a language he can understand?

Finally he brightens. "Avez-vous un télécopieur?"
"Oiu," says I. "Nous avons un télécopieur."
"Get it out," says he. "You cannot import a fax machine until it has been tested."
So, after some rummaging, we extract the fax machine and, after much filling in of forms, we and the truck are on our way.

It is three months before we get the fax machine back, but that is another story.

Down in Johor they do things differently. Book distributors have to run their imports from Singapore through the officers of the Malaysian Ministry of Internal Affairs. And they have a remarkable system of "restricting" books they don't like, which can be anything from most books by Salman Rushdie to the obviously subversive book pictured above, about the pornographic art of sipping tea while discussing terrorist subversion. Or something.

For a look at the list of books that one distributor had restricted, see here and read Raman's comments here .

And if you want to laugh - or cry - here are just a few:

Robert Jordan's "Knife of Dreams"
Lots of things with Religion/Sex/Gay in the title - we mustn't be well informed on any of these things, of course. And that can mean everything from "Introduction to Islam", to "Poems and Prayers for Children" (I'm not kidding, remember), or the Kama Sutra.
Anatomy for the Artist: The Dynamics of Human Form
Mao: A Life
Feel: Robbie Williams

Sigh. I wish they'd just take a dislike to fax machines instead. Subversive things, faxes.

6 comments:

ink paw prints said...

everywhere in the world there are silly little people... you're just unfortunate enough to have them in positions of authority. Pity power doesn't just appeal to the goodhearted.

Oxymoron In The Tropics said...

Ah, Glenda...let's not forget witchcraft and vampirism. Books written by Sherrilyn Kenyon (basically about vampires in love) are either banned or sold openly. It depends on what colour the moon was when the decision to ban was made. Harry Potter must've given them twitches. But I have faith in the Malaysian love of a healthy economy. So far that's held sway over the majority of the decisions.

Gillian said...

I looked down the list and there was one book that said everything: a Wiggles book.

hrugaar said...

LOL! The Enlish have long known that a nice cup of tea can lead to all sorts of interesting and compromising situations, heh.

The book you show was no doubt bannned not because of the tea drinking, but because the pots are Chinese. Clearly the Chinese must be considered cuter, smarter, sexier and more industrious than the average Malay, and infidels to boot, and should be oppressed and marginalised at every opportunity. (Hmm, why does that sound scarily plausible? :o\ )

And that teapot lid is remarkably nipple-like, heh.

Oxymoron In The Tropics said...

But although I've been a Malaysian civil servant for more than 14 years, banning stuff like Spongebob Squarepants, Read Aloud Children's Classics, Music for Sleepy Babies and the Wiggles Shop Wiggly Jukebox kinda makes me wonder ...

Must be some pretty powerfully controversial stuff in the books..:/

Glenda Larke said...

Oxymoron - this is the silliness of the whole "Restricted" books thingy. The decisions are made completely arbitarily by small-minded functionaries (who perhaps don't speak very good English?) who don't have to justify their decision to - as far as we can make out - anybody at all. Perhaps they don't like that particular book distributor and decide to punish him by banning ten percent of his shipment, who knows? Maybe they just took exception to the nipple on the teapot, as Hrugaar suggests…

There is no way of telling. No explanation is ever given, and complaints are apparently met with that distributor being unmercifully hassled next time around (see silverfishbooks.com)