Keeping an open, diverse mind in Malaysia

Keeping an open, diverse mind in Malaysia
Opening up minds: Buku Jalanan encourages the reading of every and any type of material, but priority is given to books that can generate intellectual discourse through analysis and group discussions.

READING alfresco with Buku Jalanan in Taman Tasik Titiwangsa is something that student Arni A. looks forward to every fortnight.

"They even had readings and discussions of books by our National Laureates including Keris Mas, Shahnon Ahmad and Usman Awang.

"There are magazines too, but it's all mainly literary and people just come here to read," says the 20-year-old.

Arni was shocked when the free book library movement was red-flagged as subversive by the National Civics Bureau (BTN) recently.

"Yes, most of the books at Buku Jalanan are thought-provoking, but I have not come across any that are overtly revolutionary or radical or extreme," she shares.

In a series of leaked slides, BTN had reportedly accused Buku Jalanan of being one of the "master­minds" of an anti-establishment movement influencing youths on how to vote in the 14th general election.

This allegation has made Arni wary of being called for the controversial BTN course.

"I've already heard so many stories about its political propaganda and was hoping that I will not have to attend it. Just think, if they find reading anti-establishment, I really don't want to know what they consider acceptable," says Arni.

First held in 2011 in Shah Alam, Buku Jalanan is growing popular nationwide, especially among tertiary students.

As it states on its Facebook page, the open-air reading activity is aimed at cultivating a reading culture in the country by "bringing books down from exclusive shelves and out to public spaces for all".

According to Buku Jalanan ­co-coordinator Zikri Rahman, although they encourage the reading of every and any type of ­material, ­priority is given to books that can generate intellectual discourse through analysis and group discussions.

"In that sense, you can say that Buku Jalanan is political, but it is not partisan to any political parties," says Arni, adding that she feels that she understands more about Malaysian society and its workings after joining the free library.

"I now feel ready to become a voter when I turn 21 next year, but isn't that good for the country? Now at least I know how to get the information I need to make the right decision at the polls. It is also up to the candidates in the next elections to prove that they deserve my vote," she says.

Alternative voices are only good for the growth and development of the country, agrees Faisal Mustaffa, managing director of local indie book publisher Merpati Jingga.

Faisal is another one of the ­movers and shakers in the local indie arts and literature scene to be branded by BTN as "enemy of the state".

First exposed by a local English daily which reported that BTN had highlighted in its course the Malay subculture deemed as a threat to the Malay community, from publishing house Studio Anai-Anai to Sinaganaga of Sindiket Sol-Jah, Amir Muhammad of Buku Fixi, Aloy Paradoks of Selut Press and Sang Freud Press, Aisa Linglung of Lejen Press and Mutalib Othman of Dubook Press.

With BTN getting rapped as an alleged racist and indoctrination mechanism by its critics, the leaked slides looked suspiciously like an attempt to stifle freedom of expression and freedom of thought.

The authorities should have nothing to be scared of with alternative voices, says Faisal.

By definition, "indie" means independent from the mainstream movement but it does not mean that it is anti or against the establishment.

"The indie or alternative voices can open the minds of individuals and stimulate their intellectual thinking.

"Unfortunately in Malaysia, we are used to listening to the voice of authority and following their orders, and our main knowledge is still distributed from one official source.

"But now you can't do that any more with all the sources of information available online - it's out there, regardless whether the facts are real or not. The old tactics of controlling information and telling the young what to think do not work any more," he says.

Crucially, not all of the so-called subversive indie Malay voices highlighted by BTN are politically tinged.

Buku Fixi, for one, reportedly counts Kelabu as one of its best sellers - and the "urban Malay" pulp fiction tells of a girl who hires a fake boyfriend to make her current one jealous.

Lejen Press is known for Awek Chuck Taylor by Nami Cob Nobbler (pen name), which is about a college dropout playboy who got his comeuppance when he falls in love with a mysterious girl (awek) in a pair of Chuck Taylors (sports shoe brand by Converse).

The most "anti-establishment" aspect of the two novels is probably the casual language they are written in which contains a lot of Malay street and online slang, and its frank take on sexuality in a Muslim society.

Ultimately, the powers that be need to accept the fact that Malaysia is multiracial and even the Malays are diverse, not homo­genous, Faisal opines.

"Having different opinions and thought does not mean that we are betraying our race, religion and nation.

"The Malays need to lose their individualistic and egoistic notions that the Malays 'are the supreme race in the world', which make us think we are greater than others, putting off the other communities in the country, including some of the Malays themselves."

To be fair, BTN has tried to clarify that the leaked presentation slides critical of the Malay arts and literary groups were used only for internal "academic discussions".

Urging them not to "feel slighted" for the "anti-establishment" tag, BTN director Datuk Raja Arif Raja Ali stated in a press release that the slides were merely for a discussion module.

"All must be clear about it. It was only a subject for internal academic discussion and I am baffled because it was spread publicly."

Faisal and his fellow publishers and writers, however, are adamant on making a stand against what he calls "defamation" by the bureau, especially when their allegations are "baseless, not based on facts with research not from valid sources".

For Faisal and some of his fellow indie book publishers, however, the damage is already done.

"Calling me a 'dangerous element', even as an academic discussion, is a waste of time and money, so we need to make a stand against it, we can't just keep quiet - it's not a question of 'feeling slighted'," he reiterates.

Earlier, they had sent a legal letter demanding for an apology from the BTN within two weeks for their "false allegations". Now that the two-week deadline for a public apology is up, says Faisal, their lawyers are working on the next course of action, which is a possible defamation suit.

With a new batch of government scholars at various levels raring to begin their studies, many have been registering and attending BTN courses.

While the indie publishers may not have been on BTN's agenda, as claimed by its director Raja Arif, Faisal strongly urges the Government to scrap the bureau.

"I strongly believe it's a waste of public funds."

Crucially, the idea of a state-funded course to instil nationalism and patriotism is just out­dated, he stresses.

"For Malaysia to be developed and civilised, it's not based on race, but our mindset and maturity. The Malays should stop blaming other people for our failures or lack of success and development," Faisal says.

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