Why don’t we just burn books then?

Why don’t we just burn books then?
By Zan Azlee

To be honest, I do not believe in censorship. I am of the opinion that information and content should flow freely with no restrictions. However, I do think that defamation and lies should be curbed. But we have laws for that.

If there were to be any form of censorship, then societal censorship should be the most that we practice. And even then, that doesn’t mean that content is stopped from reaching the public. What it means is if society doesn’t agree with the content, then they just don’t consume it.

This brings me to what I am referring to – the recent speech by the Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (which was read by the Education Minister Mahdzir Khalid) at the National Book Awards on Wednesday.

One of the key messages in his speech was that Malaysians should practice self-censorship in order to stop our society and our lives from falling under the influence of negative elements.

He also added that once Malaysians self-censored themselves, then there wouldn’t much of a risk for Malaysians to make wrong decisions. To move forward, he advised Malaysians to only refer to books and sources that are reliable.

Zahid goes on to say that Malaysia needs to produce more books. As it is, records from the National Libraries ISBN (International Standard Book Number) shows that only 16,000 to 18,000 books have been produced between 2010 and 2016.

This is well below the national target. In fact, it is roughly half of the national target. Zahid says that the country needs to produce at least 30,000 a year if Malaysia wants to achieve the target of becoming a developed nation status.

I see the deputy prime minister’s advocating for self-censorship as something dangerous for Malaysian society. This would mean that writers, or any content producer, would have to worry about what the authorities might find unacceptable.

And if they have to start worrying about things that may not even happen (because that is what self-censorship really is… anticipating something unconfirmed), then thought control would have already been achieved by Big Brother.

So, the deputy prime minister is really contradicting himself when he says that everyone in Malaysia needs to practice self-censorship, yet still trying to encourage the society to double the number of books that is being produced.

How can he expect writers to write freely and comfortably when in his same speech, he is warning them to watch what they write and produce? It’s like saying, “Please feel free to do what you like. But if we don’t like it, then you’ll be in trouble!”

A marketplace of ideas

In order to create a society that is highly intelligent and mature, we need to be able to freely discuss a variety of ideas, thoughts and opinions. And this is especially so for contradicting ideas, thoughts and opinions.

It means that society will have the mental capacity to be able to handle intellectual discourse and also the maturity to debate and see things from different perspectives. If they do discover that certain ideas, thoughts and opinions can’t be accepted, then so be it.

Once we have a highly intelligent and matured society that can think for itself and make the right decisions when faced with a variety of challenges, only then will Malaysia be able to achieve developed nation status. A society of programmable robots won’t help to achieve that.

If the authorities want to control our thoughts and minds by telling us that self-censorship is good for us, then why don’t we all just start burning books and locking up the intellectuals?

So I say no to self-censorship. We need to be free to write and create content without having to worry of what might happen. In fact, I say no to any form of controlled censorship. Really, we don’t have to worry because I have faith that Malaysians can think for themselves.

If there is any content that is dangerous or negative, then we need to be able to have a line of defence. We need to be able to create content that intellectually confronts and challenges these negative ideas. That holds more weight and has more integrity. So let writers write.

Let me share with you one of my favourite quotes from the Prophet Muhammad which goes something like this:

“Whoever conceals knowledge would be muzzled on the Day of Resurrection with a muzzle of fire.”

[This article was originally written for and published at Malaysiakini.com]

Get Zan Azlee’s latest book ‘JOURNO-DAD: The chronicles of a journalist who just happens to be a dad!‘ today!


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