Censorship-Loving Malaysia and Malaysian English Paranoia

I’ve explored this topic some months ago during “Banned Book Week” and apparently it come to light again recently when DAP Zairil Khir Johari criticized KDN for banning certain books translations in Malay (notably, Charles Darwin’s the Origins of Species) but the ministry was fine about letting the original version being sold locally. Apparently, he blamed the ministry aggressive stance on book censorship on translations on the basis on oppressing Malay intellectualism.

I am and always against censorship of any sort and everything in this blog is of my own opinion. In simpler words, I’m living in a Fahrenheit 451 nation and I’m a Malay who read English books but fluent enough that KDN ban on Malay translations doesn’t even faze me but it is still disturbing nonetheless. As a disclaimer , I am a legit voter but I don’t support any political parties or politicians and this isn’t politically influenced post but whenever one discuss about censorship in this country, we’re talking about genuine government censorship. This post is mostly a reaction to this, this and this.

Malaysian seems to love censorship. We probably spend a lot of time and millions of tax money each year obsessing about censoring everything from selective curse words to classical nudes painting books to kiss scenes to Game of Thrones. It is amazing to see HBO Asia were able to G-rated Game of Thrones. Local film industry was one of those who suffered the most from these sort of laws that we even do commercials and tv programs that continuously extols the virtues of ministry censorship to preserve the harmony between races and culture. Sort of a losing battle right there.

Unfortunately, many are conditioned to accept censorship as a way of life. Because it is ministry sanctioned, many will think you’re anti-government and seemingly fine with letting the government think the average population doesn’t have an ounce of brain in them to decide what was offensive and what was not and everything bad that happened in this world was the result of western influences that was destructive to our eastern values.

Westernization in Eastern countries was an ancient propaganda. It was a sort of mythic  “save your children from the evils of the west” motto our parents grew up on. Nowadays, its more about Islamizing your life against the dark western influences (ironically, came from the west too). It is an oversimplification that people ate up and I try not to judge them by that. Of course, until they started to be offensive to my delicate sensibilities. So, this whole paranoia about English started from there. Since Christian missionaries often promote English here during since the colonial era, English language have often being referred to as “Kafir” language because the missionaries use Bible in English (and many many folks still think English language = Christian here). Despite that we still encourage English proficiency in public education and bemoan the fact that we have more graduates with abysmal English (no statistics here curiously) that there’s always a call for trying to make Malaysian better in English.  But there are still folks retaining close-minded stereotypes about English that many still do think that being proficient in English is a betrayal of our eastern culture and values. I see more of this types when I was at Terengganu where most of the population are Malay Muslim and apparently there are folks who was annoyed that I only read English books in front of them that they love to dis me about it. Ah, teenage life.

I said this again, I don’t live in an English-medium family. We speak Malay all the time in my house. While I’ve spent four years in an English-medium grade school (where I spent most of the time in last classes because I have some attention problems and stuff), I don’t really think they had anything to do with my interest in reading and English as I grew up. In the end, it was really just me and watching English subs movies like everybody else. Most of my family are proficient in English. My dad lived in Singapore when he was growing up and relatives there do speak in English most of the the time but his accent was out of the world. My mother also proficient to a degree that she can understand English and teach Science and Biology in English but even she had her limitations. My siblings are all fluent and able to comprehend English well in variable degree but so far I’m still the only one who are proficient enough that native English users (like some of my relatives who can’t speak Malay) can converse normally and comprehend me well enough and I can converse and speak normally to them too. Sometimes I also speak English to my sisters especially around English examinations time because hey, we all need live practice. Also I read bucket loads these girls still don’t touch (I tried) but what the heck right? Of course, I’m still learning English from time to time like trying to write grammatically correct sentences and I still mix tenses even when I usually score perfect with average English test and my vocabularies was fine and sometimes I’ve grown used to speaking Mangled English and that was fine too. So really, being proficient fluent took a lot of time and years of practice and it doesn’t came out overnight.

Now we’ve settle that, at the same time, I am one of UKM graduate. UKM, the Malaysian university who first pioneered teaching in Malay exclusively that almost EVERYONE think I was studying science only in Malay. Haha. Nope. We do learn some topics in Malay but that depended on the type of lecturers and topics but most of the time, we learn everything in English. Even if the slides in Malay, the lecturer do lecture in English and vice versa. I guess that might offend some of the Malay language proponent against teaching Science in English. (Yes, they exist.) But journals, academical literature and such are easily available in English and the only thing that you can get Science literature in Malay was grade/high school level and nobody really care about translating advance textbooks that go outdated easily. This bear repeating : Nobody care about translating higher level academical content. You can’t find translated journals or various recent medical textbook for your own use. English is now the world standard language in Science and Technology, embrace that. We aren’t like China or Japan or European countries, we have the advantage in this.

So yes, in this case, you are academically limited if you’re not fluent in English. That is why many university MUET requirement demand at least Band 3 for a lot of field of study. MUET itself is a rather unreliable marker of English proficiency but it was good as any ESL tests. However, Malay language proponents often argued that Malay language will die because its not actively being promoted in such academical settings. Well, four years of university education had taught me that it was a pain to translate obscure Latin-Greek-English words into Malay that sometimes you come out with nonsense and it was easier if you don’t confuse yourself with scientific facts when memorizing both Malay and English versions. So, having ugly prejudices on English as a language doesn’t help at all with academical folks.

I am not the definition of an “intellectual” being but since I am a scientist (even if I don’t go to the labs anymore), I do agree about many things intellectualism stands for like natural curiosity, logical thinking, knowledge expansion and rationalization. Sad thing is, many of these publicly influential folks argued that one should always look to the Islamic intellectualism rather than western version of intellectualism and ignored the values of being intellectual itself. I have a problem with these folks who could only accept everything through their version of filtered concepts and attachment with the word “Islam”. They only see the Islamic history as correct, Islamic science as perfection, Islamic economy as appropriate because they couldn’t see anything ahead without the word “Islam” in it Problem is, they couldn’t see the world outside their box and still insist that everyone should alter their thinking of everything. I am a Muslim myself but all I see is that they’re appropriating Islam to suit their version faith and belief and deny that for others as well and they often do this ruthlessly and blindly without consideration of others who don’t share the same belief system as they are. They couldn’t dissociate themselves to accept that and that denialism was destructive as well. One shouldn’t appropriate their religion to begin with.

It is a fact that book censorship laws here are abused for mostly religious reasons. If you walk into any of local bookstores, you can get almost every books you want but recently only specific books are targeted by censorship mobs was anything Islamic related. Specific as in, everything that divert someone’s version of Islam which includes Muslims from western worlds who had unconventional life or western commentary or other sects like Syiah or books about satirizing religious figures or anything that strike the moral police’s mood including anything that had the word “Allah” that doesn’t relate to Islamic version of “Allah” (despite the fact that Allah literally means “the God” in Arab and Arab non-Muslim do use the word to refer to their own version of God). Instead of discussing it like average people, the ministry just slap a ban on the book and immediately, you’ll get folks hoarding the books from publishing house, warehouses and bookstores and they accuse the sellers of apostasy for selling religiously conspicuous products and what not and then they pulp these banned books or burn them somewhere in their special book burning place. Why they can do this? Because this country have separate laws and anything Islam-related have a greater immunity than some other issues. Why again? Somewhere along these paragraphs probably have that answer. I don’t know, Malay Muslims are curiously the easy victims in this situation because its easier to impose religious persecution upon Muslims here that non-Muslim do get off easy. It is factual and there’s no rationalizing these issues and we still argue about it all the time and if you’re Muslim, just wait until someone point finger at you and call you a “bad Muslim” and off you go somewhere for religious rehabilitation. Yes, I’m living in a dystopia. Weirdly enough, you can see more folks get off easy publishing anything supernatural and pseudoscience as long as you dress it with Islamic words and boom it became bestsellers.

The past few years, government had tighten the law on all sorts of media publication that translation services became one of those field that had an invisible line between successful venture, public ignorance and active persecution. But English books have a certain immunity of some sort. Ironically, nobody would look twice at a rack full of erotica with chains and handcuffs and bodice-ripper cover but if its about some liberal muslims writing about her issues with cyber-bullying that revolve around her faith, that was banned book material and we all should mob about it. I guess, the current issue with Darwinism is that many still think its a book about a mad English guy thinking human descended from apes. That’s why I safely assume that people who censor books don’t even read these books.

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Look at this picture. Congratulations, you’re a pro at evolutionary theory.

I haven’t read Origins of Species fully myself but I have learn about it because heck, I am a Biochemistry major and that include Genetics. Evolutionary theory can be applicable in real life. Charles Darwin was a naturalist and geologist. He observe and use scientific methods to come up with his theories. It wasn’t flawless but it spark the study of natural science and expanded it to various field. Geneticists do use his theory in disease studies for genetic drifts. Microbiology uses his theory to study about microbial evolution, pathogenicity, virulence and genetic divergence and many more stuff that had some basis to Darwin research. He wasn’t some shepherd with no basic education who go to people and preach about how he heard something in his head and he write a book about that. Nope. Oh, by the way. Charles Darwin’s The Origins of Species is a public domain book. You can easily read it off the web. Score one for internet.

This is the fallacy of general knowledge of average folks here. This is the knowledge you gain from hearsay. That is why I am frustrated by these sort of people who also have opinions but based their knowledge from the things they saw or hear from others rather than the things they read and analyse. You get non-science major discussing these theories because it doesn’t fit into their belief system and it convenient to just focus on that rather than studying the whole field. Just because Darwinism trying to think outside the Creationism conundrum, it doesn’t mean its false.

But the real issue is, people who have the power to impose book banning are in constant paranoia of the content that they choose to burn books instead. That was by definition of regressing into dark age mentality. Burn a library because it have stuff you’re offended about. Instead of trying to create an open discussion, they just slap a ban on it on their own whim without thinking. While many urge people to read, these people are actively trying to discourage others from doing so. These specific censorship on translations can only mean one thing, they’re just doing it because they can and the victim is those who couldn’t read in other language.

Censorship does nothing except giving more publicity to the books and most of the time, it wasn’t even worth mentioning. There’s millions of books out there and all they do was thinking that they’re doing public service by constantly doing the thinking for others. The problem is, they don’t even read. Yes, that is why readers reviewer are needed in these case because you need us more in this Bradbury world we’re in.

Weirdly, they don’t even make an issue about locally publishing Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf here (also a public domain book). Then again, I know people here who aced school level History who still don’t know who Adolf Hitler is. That discussion is for another day apparently.

Oh, should I translate this post in Malay just to make my point across again? I guess, I could make a list of books that these people should censor next. In fact, I don’t think everything I read is Syariah-compliant to begin with. Hail Hydra.

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The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

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I guess I should put a disclaimer out that I did not rate this book low because I’m a Muslim. Satanic Verses have its own potential but it possibly is the most overrated controversial book of all time. 3/4 of the book was a schizophrenic contemporary drama and 1/4 was a religious fantasy and it was deathly disjointed from multiple of narratives without its own characteristics that was unique to each narrators. Admittedly the only interesting part was the actual controversial part but as a whole, I don’t feel the book was written with a structure in mind in the midst of word vomitory that it end up being flaccid. The writing style was just as confusing and disorienting. It was until I finish the book that the author admitted about drawing inspirations from many literary figures that gave the chaotic jungle of words some clarity. Basically he rip off words and phrases and then crafted this patchwork. Which is why I found a lot of archaic words being used and then repetitions and then the part reshuffle again.

The concept of it being a Satanic Verses seem to converge on the dream sequences which did include the stories of the pagan arabic goddesses and the poetic use of name of the city “Jahilia”. Jahiliyyah which literary means ignorance. Most of the part, I’m not certain of the whole point of the book itself other than giving me schizophrenic nightmares whenever I tried reading it and fall asleep while reading it. But I think it was meant to be a social commentary and criticism toward the bollywood and traditional values and somewhere in between it romanticized the idea of being an immigrant while insertion romantic “grass is greener at the other side” and some anglophile fantasy.

Some part of the book itself reminded me of Yoshitaka Amano’s Arabian Nights. There was an ethereal quality to it which made certain parts of the book appealing. But it was the characterizations of its multiple narratives that made it problematic. None of the contemporary characters was meant to be likable, in fact they were all rather despicable and the writing is rife with satire. But as far as magical realism goes, it was dearth of actual realism and even a show of humanity. There was a vein of dystopia quality in it but it was too unstructured to make it sensible.

Then there was the fact that all of the female characters seemed to be in complete submission to every male characters in this book. Most of the time the author skimp on expanding the female roles over the conventional mother figures, failed mother figures, whores, independent women in constant need of male companion, girl-child on the verge of sexual maturity and etc. In fact, he simplified the idea of Harem into a sanctioned brothel and name it as Hijab. Great way of trying to subtle the use of hijabs as a sign of female subjugation and self-exploitation than actual sexual exploitation by people without the use of any hijabs. I know that its an interpretation of sexual representatives and parts of polygamy but the chapter was poorly done without any depth even with grandois use of vocabularies. In contemporary settings the female characters became very one-dimensional over the male-centric narratives which made them a caricature of humans rather than a representative of the gender. I guess that he tried to be progressive but it does come out dry and very superficial. I try not to be complete feminist in everything I read but when people over-praised another dick lit for being feminist and giving a show of female empowerment, it made me want to scream.

The actual interesting part of the book was Satanic Verses in the historical context. You can read about it elsewhere but it was a lot harder to read anything about it without the topic being related to Salman Rushdie. Whatever justification and bias you might bring into these type of writings, it was just a fiction and an interpretation. Anyone with actual mind would know it to be just as that and it was extremely subjective. It doesn’t rattle my faith but sadly, the extreme reaction and death related to the existence of this book doesn’t seem to justify the actual content. To be honest, the publicity around this book was undeserving despite its notorious reputation.

Time for a Tiger (The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy #1) by Anthony Burgess

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I genuinely think this book is brilliant and it genuinely made me laugh and I totally get why this book remained banned to this day. Not many realize how it was intentionally a cultural and political satire of pre-Merdeka days masquerading as literary fiction. There’s no denying that Anthony Burgess understood Malaya and its people well in this book. His fluency and the ease of use in several different language told a lot about his skills as a linguist. Unlike “The Clockwork Orange”, I didn’t find myself having a problem reading through this book and the use of the local language and dialect was fluent and believable. There was mild Urdu in several part of the story which Burgess accompanied with subtle translations unlike some of the untranslated Malay in it. Malaya Malay is much different version than the current Malay that Malaysian use but the Malay is still understandable although outdated. But his occasional use of the Manglish and “-lah” in dialogues pretty much made everything legit.

The book uses stream of consciousness that work well as it was centered mostly on the characters of this book. The narration focus much the characters in this book : Victor Crabbe, Nabby Adams, Alladad Khan and several lesser narrators.I don’t think Burgess think he was being subtle in this book. The name “Lanchap” was another word for masturbation . He called the town Kuala Kangsar as Kuala Hantu and I know it was Kuala Kangsar because its also a royal town (with his not so subtle mention of a certain Iblis along with some delicious gossips which are totally relatable to this day) and the unsubtle mention of infamous boy college.  

As for the theme of alcoholism in this, it was titled “Time for a Tiger”, (duh), even the author explained in in the beginning of the story about it being a brand of cheap beer. Alcohol still remain expensive and heavily taxed in Malaysia so Tiger beer still remain moderately expensive and it made sense how most of the characters in this book was bed-ridden with debt. That was why there’s some several mentions of moonshines in this book. I’d suspected that Nabby Adams was another word for the malay usage of the stylistic “Anak Adam” which technically an anonymous name you give to a person if you’re unsure of the name or if you don’t know the name, which work well since he’s a hedonistic Malay Muslim and in this country, you can easily get persecuted for selling a drink to a muslim.  As much one would cry ‘cliche’, the problem is still real and apparent still persistent to this day despite strict laws and high alcoholic taxes. Apparently nothing much change since the 40s and 50s.

But narrating characters themselves was ever interesting. Since Burgess himself lived in those times, it was technically a historical novel although it was written in a contemporary style. Even Crabbe was a caricatured version of him and probably as well as the characters in this book. It was really a slice of history. How the people are alive and vibrant in those days where the British Empire dwindled. People who have their own problems and issues as we do today. The characters were ever vibrant even with multiple of flaws. They have ignorance, they have lust, they feel too strongly and regret as well. Sometimes they feel guilt, proud, sickly, depraved, perverse but ever alive. These are genuinely more refreshing than the flowery-all-environment-descriptive-and-vacuous-characters-and-no-plot-and-forever-WW2 historical fiction about Malaya that tend to be repetitive nowadays. It was a slow moving book with plot centered around the characters more. It was a time where we could appreciate the basic modern amenities we had today like the smooth road, refrigerator, the time when 50 cents can keep you fill. Those time when my grandparents lived and also those people who had once live and forgotten in modern graves. 

In the midst of it, I adore Burgess’s prose. The way he narrate travelling in fear of the things in the  forest in those times when communist drive people into terrorism. The way he describe music : “It started : strings rising from A to a long held F, through E to E flat, when the woodwind came in with their bittersweet chords. Wagner’s prolonged orgasm.“. Often I became enraptured by his storytelling and the ease of his use to voice his characters which I never was good at. The dialogues were ever exciting and funny and truthfully it deserve a proper adaptation at least in audiobooks. If the copyright holder would consider it, it would be amazing to hear them coming alive. But I don’t see anyone going to do it anytime soon. I even had a harder time trying to gain a copy of this book due to the ban and there’s no e-book version of this. Which is sad, since Burgess is in every way,  capture the essence of Malaya even better than the authors we have today trying to write about the long days that had waned.