Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Malaysian government allocation for writers

A Bernama report on 13 December 2011 said, “The government is prepared to provide allocation so that writers will be more active in producing books to help Malaysia achieve developed nation status by 2020 … Second Finance Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Husni Hanadzlah said Malay literature works could illuminate the literary world and mould the people's thinking.”

The report added: "In an effort to improve the country's status as a high income economy, the government is prepared to help Malay literature writers," he said. And guess who wants to put up the paper? Utusan Publications and Distributors Sdn Bhd. I will say, no more.

Then on 17 December 2011, The New Straits Times carried this report, “Local young writers are getting assistance from the government to have their literary works published … This would be possible through a RM5 million allocation announced by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak last night …” This will be handled by National Institute of Translation (ITNM). "It will be involved in publishing original works to help promote the book publishing industry and the nation's literary scene," the PM said, adding that it would be renamed Institut Terjemahan dan Buku Malaysia.

Its unclear if the two initiatives are linked.

The second one announced  by the PM appears similar to the allocation by the National Book Council in Singapore that initially gave money to publishers, but now given to the authors. Or is it the other way round? It doesn’t work in either case. There will be quantity aplenty, but no quality. If one gives it to the publisher, they’ll only want the money regardless of the standard of the work. If the money is given to the writers, there is no incentive for good writing, editing and control by the publisher who will only inflate costs. It will reward mediocrity; the Malaysia Boleh way.

A system that could work would be to have more transparency in book buying by the National Library and other government institutions; to buy and distribute widely the best works. Unfortunately, the buying machinery is so broken and biased, so politicised, with so many vested interests, that it would be impossible to fix.

There will be many who will be quite happy to exploit the situation but for genuine publishers and writers, handouts will be another disaster, another NEP. What they need is fairness and equal opportunity. As it is, we cannot even sell a pencil to a government department without being registered with the Ministry of Finance or going through an ‘approved’ contractor (not that it stops government agencies approaching us for donations for their sports club, hari keluarga or whatever).

Thursday, December 01, 2011

First-class whore book banned

The Malaysian Home Ministry’s ban, with immediate effect, on an explicit sex guide published by the Obedient Wives Club (OWC) has reportedly drawn much amusement in the world media.

Those found in possession of the material will be liable for a fine of up RM5,000, the ministry added, while reproduction or distribution will attract a maximum fine of RM20,000 and a three-year jail sentence.

The OWC says that the book titled, “Seks Islam, perangi Yahudi untuk kembalikan seks Islam kepada dunia (Islamic sex, fighting Jews to return Islamic sex to the world)”, is a guide -- with explicit graphics -- for Muslim brides on how to pleasure their husbands in bed. It says its studies showed women only gave their spouses 10 per cent of what they desired of their wives. (The club’s vice-president, Dr Rohaya Mohamad, advises women to behave like “a first-class whore” if they want their marriages to succeed.)

But according to the ministry’s Al-Quran Text and Publishing Control Division, the book was banned because of its links to the outlawed Al-Arqam movement and for violating the Department of Islamic Development’s (Jakim) censorship rules.

Al-Arqam, an Islamic sect branded as deviationist and banned by the government in 1994 (and their commune in the outskirts of the city Kuala Lumpur shut down) was founded by Ashaari Mohammad who died of illness in May 2010 at the age of 73.

The OWC is seen by some as an attempt to revive Al Arqam, but some say the organisation never died; the ubiquitous black turban, green robes and kohl lined eyes, once visible all over Kuala Lumpur, just gave way to normal clothes so they could blend in, using sundry shops and other businesses as fronts. Although its members have been detained for long periods without trial under the draconian ISA laws, the Al-Arqam have never been linked to terrorism.

Considering how the government is very prickly about anything it considers deviationist, book importers routinely avoid importing books with titles that include the words Qur’an, Islam, Muslim, Sufi, and the like, to prevent harassment. Booksellers, too. (One can import Fanny Hill and sell it to children, but not Islam.) Often, locally published books on Islam manage to remain under the radar for a while but, once they are outed and found to be not in accordance to the ‘official’ version, they are quickly banned.

The Malaysian Insider

The DBP/Dawama marriage - comment

So, Dawama Sdn Bhd is taking government publisher Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) and its director-general to court for defamation, following claims that the latter suggested on a radio show on 21 April 2011 that the company was being mismanaged.

Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Malaysia (or literally, the Malaysian Hall for Language and Literature), was established (in 1956) to promote the use of the national language in the country. Somewhere along the way it became a sort of a language police to regulate (and, ostensibly, to protect) the national language. Then, they went into translation and into publishing (not sure which came first) selling books at incredibly low prices ‘for the benefit of the people’. For a long time DBP was the Malaysian publishing industry, period.

Dawama was formed in October 1999 and, in September 2002, it signed a 12-year privatisation contract to print and market DBP’s books and magazines, ostensibly to strengthen DBP marketing. Earlier this year, both parties started accusing the other of breach of contract. Now, the courts will decide.

So, what went wrong?

In the absence of transparency, one can only speculate, and many do. Fact: DBP was set up to promote and facilitate the use of the national language. Fine. Second, it assumed a policing role. Many would argue that no language police anywhere in the world have succeeded in stalling natural evolution and progression. But, never mind. Then translation. It is arguable that the cost of translation would be too prohibitive for the private sector, and some sort of Government intervention would be beneficial, but one has only to visit Jakarta to see how dismally DBP has failed in this respect.  Finally, and most controversially, publishing.
It started with literary journals and magazines, then general books and, eventually, school text books. One could argue that this made books cheap for the public. Yes, so cheap that it killed competition and the industry. It can be speculated (and argued) that with money (and time) being no object, and fuelled by hubris and incompetence, what incentive was there for the inevitable not to happened, for DBP to choke on its own bureaucracy. Rumours ran rife: manuscripts were not read, writers were not paid, retailers could no longer obtain their titles, creative staff was replaced with clerks and managers, and sales disappeared. (At Silverfish, we, have been trying to buy DBP books without success for years.)

So, now there is a lawsuit pending. It will be a soap opera, but will it solve anything? Probably not. Not until a thorough examination of DBP is undertaken, to root out the empire builders and go back to basics. And, stop competing with the private sector in publishing: if you are not going to be help, get out of the way. The Malay publishing industry deserves better.

But then, this is Malaysia. If a private company follows a policy for five years and sees no progress or returns, it makes drastic changes and heads roll. If a government organisation fails in a policy after fifty years, the whining starts: oh, fifty years is too short, its too early to say, let’s do it for another fifty.

In Frankfurt last year, I met a gentleman from the Presses Nationales Haiti who was trying to explain his ‘new’ venture, at a seminar organised by the Invitation Programme: to publish books cheaply and distributor it directly to the people. One of the participants asked, “How will the private publishers and bookshops survive then?” There was some huffing and puffing, but no answers. It sounded very DBP.

I hope he’s reading this. Good luck to you.

Innovative insults

If you are tired of the same old insults, you may try some creative ones we found in, mined from ‘Green’s Dictionary of Slang, a 6,200-page lexicon spanning more than half a millennium’. You probably know and have used the term oxygen thief for someone who is completely useless. How about flaba-flaba? Guess the sound says it all. What do you call these? Onomatopoeias?

There are others in the category like Shabberoon n. A shabby person from 1650-1700 or Gollumpus n. A large, loutish, uncoordinated person from 1750-1800 with are quite easy to guess meanings of, as would Beef-witted adj. Stupid, simple. But, we don’t quite get Chafe-litter n. An impudent, cheeky person (1550-1600); Lerrycometwang n. A fool, a simpleton (1600-1650); or Crow mcgee adj. No good, unreal, false (1900-1950). We love Sir Posthumous Hobby n. An obsessive dandy (1650-1700); and Demi-rep n. A woman of doubtful reputation (1700-1750); though we have no idea of the origins of these term. Does Abrahamer n. A tramp, have anything to do with Abraham, or is Fhawkner n. A thief who steals poultry related to Faulkner or to the word fowl?

An abstractionist n. is a pickpocket. Sounds like an artist. And why is Cakey-pannum fencer n. A street-seller of pastries, an insult? Don’t quite get that.

In Malay, kayu (timber) is a useful word to describe someone who is clueless. What if one comes across a room full of clueless people? We like the term rainforest for that: an entire forest of hardwood timber. One only has to walk into some government offices, banks or call to complain about your broadband to understand what that means. Variations of the term include sawmill and lumber yard. Other useful permutations include blur central or like sotong (cuttlefish).