(© Jerome Bei / sxc.hu)
IN Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 (not to be mistaken with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911), fire fighters are tasked with starting fires, not putting them out. More specifically, fire fighters are agents of the state charged with the burning of books. The destruction of knowledge. Books that would inspire ideas and ignite imagination. And encourage the development of thoughts that could potentially be antithetical to those of the powers-that-be.
In truth, we have no organised book burning in Malaysia. But what we do have is book banning. Earlier this year the banning of two books — Pelik Tapi Benar Dalam Solat by Ustaz Abdul Rahman Mohamed, and Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism, edited by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia-based sociologist Norani Othman — was prominently highlighted by the media.
Of course, this was heavily criticised. The latter was the product of a three-year research project featuring eight essays on the experiences of women’s groups from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa in challenging Islamic extremism.
The former title was said by the outgoing Mufti of Perlis not to contain anything at variance with the Quran or the sunnah. The book may have contained perspectives on issues over which there are legitimately different viewpoints but that were certainly not, according to the learned mufti, contrary to Islam.
And not only do we ban books in Malaysia. We effectively ban newspapers by refusing to renew their publication permits. We censor speech by renewing the publication permits of newspapers and other periodicals subject to conditions that they do not contain articles using certain prohibited words.
We are living in a time in which the amount of information available is simply exploding. I spent Sunday afternoon on 16 Nov 2008 walking through the corridors of The Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands. One of the showpieces in the Mauritshuis is the renowned 17th century Dutch painter Johannes (Jan) Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, a most delightful portrait.
Girl with a Pearl Earring (source: Wikipedia.org)So it was truly a pleasure to read in the following Friday’s Guardian that the painting will be one of “millions of books, artworks, manuscripts, maps, objects and films from the most important libraries, museums and archives” to be digitised as part of the European Union’s Europeana project. These digitised items will eventually be available for download from a single website. According to the article, among other material that will be digitised and uploaded are the Magna Carta of 1215; the original musical score of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; manuscripts of Rene Descartes; and footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In the face of such an explosion, can books or articles that are not to the liking of the powers-that-be be prevented from reaching us? What if tomorrow Norani or Sisters in Islam decides to upload the entire contents of Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism online for free access and download? What then?
The 40-something percent of Malaysian schools that are supposedly online, from Arau to Johor Baru, Kudat to Kuching, will be able to read the contents of this otherwise banned book. Thoughts and ideas that we try to repress will eventually come out, however inconvenient it may be to the powers-that-be. At best, these powers may only retard dissemination.
Again, with internet access, we can test, for example, a statement by a certain chief police officer of a certain state. If he claims his force did not charge into a group of protesters while they sang the national anthem, we can compare this with online footage showing the force doing precisely that. The truth will eventually come out. Again, this may be inconvenient to the powers-that-be, who are then shown up to be, well, liars.
There are those who feel that, in light of such overwhelming information, the best approach to deal with this phenomenon is to sound the retreat. Circle the wagons, pull up the drawbridge, batten down the hatches. Protect and prevent unwanted information from infiltrating our societies and infecting our people’s minds. Ban this. Censor that. Restrict internet access.
So we see a nation, a community, a race, or a religion deeming itself to be under siege from the outside world. And so, like a wild animal that is cornered, it lashes out in self-defence and self-preservation, caring not about the hurt and damage that it can cause. Survival comes at any cost, and all damage is collateral.
It is said that the best defence is offence. In the face of The Da Vinci Code, some communities called for the banning of the film. Others said no, go ahead and show it. Show it and we will debate the issues that arise. We will confront the challenges head on, and not hide behind some ban. Let the light of truth shine forth.
But in Malaysia we are afraid of light. Even candlelight. Imagine a police permit being issued for a public gathering on condition that the lighting of candles is prohibited. Is this what our great nation has been reduced to? Cowering in the shadow of candlelight?
Some time ago, a book was written about the closing of the American mind. What we have in Malaysia is an attempt to close the Malaysian mind. There are things we should not see, books we should not read, films we should not view, knowledge we should not know, thoughts we should not have, impulses and instincts we should not indulge.
This may indeed be true generally. Only that we don’t get to decide these things for ourselves. Big Brother, who looks over us and after us, decides for us. But at the same time, Big Brother wants us to grow up to be strong and mature. Big Brother says we should be able to stand on our own two feet, think for ourselves, and be competitive, creative, entrepreneurial, imaginative, and ambitious.
How do you reconcile the two? It is indeed an inconvenient thought.
Andrew Khoo is an advocate and solicitor in private practice, and an aspiring columnist and commentator.