A book not banned in Malaysia

Tonight I finished reading Michael Backman’s new book, ‘Asia Future Shock’ – it is an excellent book and one that I would strongly recommend that every expatriate working in Asia should read.

The thing that shocked me the most though was that fact that I was able to buy it in Malaysia in an election week. This is one book that I would have expected to be on the banned list. The chapter on Malaysia was the most scathing in the book, accusing Malaysia of having squandered everything that it had going for it since independence in 1957 through wasteful government policies and corruption.

Backman states that few countries are as good as Malaysia as wasting money, and highlights the fact that 35 per cent of the country’s budget is supported by oil revenues – but the oil reserves will be exhausted in 2025.

“The national obsession seems to be to extract the nation’s natural resources and fritter away the proceeds on projects aimed at helping to alleviate what can only be described as a national inferiority complex”, he says.

He then goes on to highlight that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi came to office in 2003 promising to clean up corruption, but “to date, his has been one of the most ineffectual efforts imaginable.”

Insightful opinions from a well-respected observer of Asian politics, but of course such comments would never see the light of day in the Malaysian media because that is controlled by the government (Internet blogs excepted!).

So why didn’t the government ban the book?

My guess is that if they did, there would be a risk of it generating a story on the international news channels, and that would have only piqued the interest of Malaysian readers to procure the book through other channels (banned books are often smuggled in from Thailand or Indonesia and sold for twice the price) and this would have only served to highlight Backman’s criticism of the Malaysian government at a time when the domestic media was telling the electorate what a good job the government was doing.

So I guess the censors thought it was better to quietly let it through, assuming no more than a couple of hundred people would buy it (and many of those, like me, wouldn’t be voting anyway).

My ‘theory’ is supported by the fact that in today’s International Herald Tribune there was a story on the front page about a group of opposition party members who tried to deliver a pillow to the Prime Minister “to make him more comfortable”, alleging that he sleeps in Parliament and sleeps in Cabinet meetings.

The story went on to claim that both members of the opposition and of his own party had described him as “sluggish and listless”, and that even if the government wins another term (which is a foregone conclusion), there would be pressure to replace him.

I was initially surprised that the censors had let that story through on the day before the election.

Normally the censors go through the International Herald Tribune with a fine toothcomb because on the arts pages they always paint black boxes over any photographs of paintings by old masters that might show bare breasts, or stone statues with exposed genitals (Michelangelo would be amused at what offends the Malaysian censors).

There is no way they could have missed the derogatory front page article about the Prime Minister.

So I came to the same conclusion that they must have decided that if they removed the article, then that might generate a story about government censorship on the international news channels – and that wouldn’t be good the day before the election. So I guess they assumed, like with Michael Backman’s book, that the few thousand people that read the International Herald Tribune in Malaysia are either expats who won’t be voting, or locals who are sufficiently well educated to either be government loyalists or members of the opposition – neither of which would be changing the way they will vote tomorrow.

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