Thursday, May 02, 2013
I hope this clarifies the question once and for all, though it probably will not. I'm the one without the mobile phone, but my friends, for some reason, are the ones who feel the pain. Some have been on a virtual crusade, with the evangelical zeal of Jehovah Witnesses, to 'save' the recalcitrant non-believer. Others take delight in saying, "I told you so," at the slightest inconvenience arising from my 'stubbornness'.
Truth is, stubbornness has nothing to do with it. I simply value my time and sanity more than others do, I guess. I did own a mobile phone some twelve years ago, but then someone did me a favour by stealing it. I have never been more thankful since.
First, a quantitative analysis. To say that the mobile phone is a 'bloody waste of time' would be an understatement. Let's assume that one makes five phone calls a day, and receives another five. If each call takes ten minutes, that would result in 100 minutes a day spent talking on that stupid instrument. Do I have one hour and forty minutes to waste everyday? What do you think? No, I don't play golf, either. What if each call takes 15 minutes? 20, 25, 30 minutes? (I know of people who can talk for up to an hour each time!) You have a calculator? Figure it out. I think my time and my life is far more important than that. Furthermore, I think it should be made a criminal offense to talk more than one minute on the phone during any call, and waste other people's time. A mandatory death sentence should do it.
Next, a qualitative assessment. It's eight thirty in the morning and I'm in the toilet, doing whatever it is that people do in toilets. The phone rings in the bedroom. Ring! Ring! Pick me up, pick me up! Right now, you moron! Right now! I ignore it, but it has already annoyed me. Then it stops. Thank God, I think. Then, a minute later it starts again. Same thing. Ring! Ring! Pick me up, pick me up! Right now, you moron! "Damn it," I swear, hurry up, wrap a towel around my waist and go out. "Has someone died?" I want to scream into the phone, but I know I will not, because I don't want a divorce, and I'm not that badly brought up, although sometimes I wish I was. Besides, if someone was already dead, it wouldn't be urgent, would it? Anyway, I'm sure the call is not be important, and it isn't. (99% of all calls are not important, in my estimate.)
The mobile phone is the new ball and chain, the electronic ankle bracelet. It is the new dog collar of management. We had a temp called Mohan one time; a delightful young man with some other qualities as well. One day he came to work with a brand new mobile phone. (He didn't have any before.) "My girlfriend bought it for me," he explained sheepishly. "Hahaha! You're dead, man! Your girlfriend has just put a dog collar around your neck." "I know," he admitted, with even less enthusiasm.
Bosses like their employees in dog collars. No matter how shiny they are, how many games you can play on them, or videos you can watch, and no matter what else it can do with them, they are nothing more than dog collars, man. If your boss wants to unload a monkey onto your shoulders at 2 o'clock in the morning, or whenever, you're 'it' man! That's what mobiles phones are for. Passing monkeys. Slightest problem? Scroll down the 'contacts' list and look for someone to unload it on. Bosses, friends, relatives: they all do it. "It's their problem, now. I've done my job." Have they? What do you do when someone unloads a monkey on you? Scroll down name list and pass in on as quickly as you can. And on, and on, and on in an endless game of shirking responsibility.
As for me, I'm not playing that game anymore. Send me an email. I strongly believe that the email is a most civilised form of communication. It allows the recipient to respond in good time without being impolite, giving the person sufficient space to think of a reply. That's why I hate it when some insist I speak to them on the phone about their manuscripts, and call my staff all sorts of names when they can't. Look, send me your manuscripts by email, okay? I'll will read it (promise) and reply. If it's suitable, I'll say yes. If not, I'll say it's not suitable for our list. No amount of snake-oil salesmanship over the phone (or in person) is going to make me change my mind. It will only annoy me and take me off the work I'm focusing. (Note to writers: do yourself a favour by not annoying potential publishers.)
Yes, I'm focused when I work. Like hell, I do. In fact, I get so zoned out when I'm doing something, that I jump when the phone rings. There's nothing worse than a telephone call to interrupt a creative thought process. Now, double that with the annoying sales pitch from the other end and my endless struggle to remain polite. Triple that for time required for recovery and getting back to work, usually 20 minutes. Now, calculate the amount of productive time wasted.
Multitasking? I don't believe that's even possible. (Sorry, fire-fighting is not multitasking. It's only one task -- passing monkeys around. See above.) I like to do only one thing at a time and give it all. (But that doesn't mean I cannot work on five different projects simultaneously -- when I'm on one, the others don't remain in my head; I have an on/off that works.)
Okay, a confession: I was tempted like hell when the iPhone first came out, because I am a gadget junkie, and have been an Apple user since the late seventies. But, was it something I wanted? If truth be told, I was quite disappointed with my favourite tech company. It was like the time when Bobby McFerrin sold out and went commercial with Don't Worry Be Happy, and all the plebeians lapped it up, having never heard of his Blue Note records.
I now have an iPod Touch, which is really an iPhone without the phone. Problem solved.
Monday, April 01, 2013
A news report in FMT on March 23 said that Berjaya Books Sdn Bhd, which owns the Borders bookstores in Malaysia, and two others today succeeded in their attempt to quash the decision by the Federal Territory Islamic Department (Jawi) over the seizure of Irshad Manji’s Allah, Kebebasan dan Cinta in May last year.
Justice Zaleha Yusof said at the time of Jawi’s action, the book was not subjected to the prohibitory order that was only issued three weeks later.
So is that the end of another sordid episode in the annals of book publishing in the country? Not by a mile, no!
Store manager Nik Raina Abdul Aziz still has a Syariah court case pending: she was charged on June 19, last year, with distributing and selling the book, said to contravene Islamic law, at the Borders Bookstore, The Gardens Mall, between 8.41pm and 9.45pm on May 23 – before the book was 'banned'! (The copy of the Gazette notification that we have is dated May 29.)
This story might illustrate why Silverfish Books had a visitation from two officers (no names mentioned) from JAKIM, the federal religious police who were polite and threatening at the same time. One of them asked why we were still selling the Irshad Manji book. My reply was that a book was not banned until it was signed off by the minister and gazetted. I said we'd follow the law stop selling the book once it was, but not until then. Then the officer asked if I knew that if we had a Muslim staff working for us they'd arrest him or her and charge them with selling the book even, if they were only employees. I was furious, but there was nothing I could, except stare at them. There was nothing they could do either, except stare back.
That afternoon two others showed up panting up the stairs, this time from the Home Ministry, with a copy of the gazette notification (of which they gave us a copy), and we surrendered our copies of Allah, Kebebasan dan Cinta.
Freedom to Publish
I got an email last month from an organisation called Freedom to Publish, a program of the International Publishers Association (IPA) asking some question regarding censorship in Malaysia under the Universal Periodical Review (UPR) Working Group of the UN Human Rights Council mechanism that reviews the human rights records of all UN Member States. It was one of those emails that made one want to cry and laugh at the same time. Another survey by a bunch clueless civil-servant box-tickers, I thought. Do they have law A? Yes. Tick. Do they have Law B? No. No tick. Jeez! Equating the existence of laws to human rights is like equating elections to democracy. How naive can one get?
This is a gist of my reply:
1. There is censorship by law, where the publications that are judged prejudicial to public order are proscribed by the Home Minister after a debate, or none. Most bookshops will not carry books on the list (not openly anyway), but as the list gets longer it becomes more difficult to comply.
2. Censorship by harassment. Government employees walk into bookshops and seize books which they (arbitrarily) deem offensive, not necessarily on the list. The newspapers will carry the stories, and all other bookstores will start to act defensively by removing them from their shelves, effectively 'banning' the title. When confronted, the Minister will argue that the books are being investigated, after which the matter will be duly forgotten. (Yes, it's that predictable.) If a bookseller or dealer protests, he can be punished by arbitrary withholding of his future shipments at the customs, inspect every single one of his 100,000 titles, with more raids at the bookstore designed to scare away customers, having all his mail scrutinized, and more.
3. Censorship by refusal to protect the victimized. This case was highlighted when the office of the publisher of the Malay translation of a book by Canadian writer Irshad Manji was 'raided' by a group of twenty from a religious department. This was clearly illegal intimidation, but the authorities refused to take action, or to protect the publisher. Most publishers, booksellers and distributors in the country live in fear of arbitrary seizure and prosecution, and know that they cannot depend on protection from the Government, and, worse still, could be subjected to more harassment.
4. Censorship by those who consider themselves the law, whose actions the Minister is indifferent or afraid to question. A Heinemann, 1992, edition of The Prophet by Khalil Gibran is banned in Malaysia. (So, technically, only that edition is banned.) Silverfish Books imported 300 books (other titles) by Khalil Gibran and had them all seized by the Home Ministry officers at the airport once (who made several unmentionable remarks about the ministers and the PM of the time). Later, we got a a letter from the Home Ministry saying that all the titles had been proscribed (although none of them were on the 'banned' list). We never saw the books again (nor did any of the titles show up on the infamous 'list'). Knowing the consequences of further protest we decided to accept our 'fate'. (An inside source told us that someone in the Ministry didn't like how the books were written. A literary critic in the Home Ministry! Brilliant!)
Censorship laws exist in Malaysia like in many other countries. One could argue about it, say it's out of date, call the censorship board names, or whatever, but unless a major change, or enlightenment process takes place, there's nothing one can do about it. It's something that will be fought over for a long time. What is of more concern are those who operate from outside the law.
First, we have outlaws, those criminal types, both blue and white collar; pirate DVD sellers, drug dealers, illegal bookies, conmen, bribe takers, robbers, buglers ... you get the idea. Their operations are clear-cut. They fight to win too, but they know they are breaking the law and are prepared for the consequences if they lose.
Second, are those who believe they are above the law, that they can get away with anything, that they have so much influence that they are untouchable.
Third, there are those who think they are the law. Like little governments within a government. Like pocket Napoleons out of control. Like warlords with private armies. In the case above, Nik Raina Abdul Aziz was randomly victimised and mentally traumatised, one of many. Those who victimised her will not be punished. Nothing will happen to them, because they don't think they are not obliged to follow the law, because they are not accountable, because they are only 'doing their job', because those in power don't have the testicular fortitude to stop them. They will go on to victimise others, and the whole process will be repeated (as we have seen in the past). But so what?
What's worse is the Malaysian civil service mindset that anyone running any business is kaya, so it's all right to inconvenience them, or if they lose some money. It's only an extra cost for doing business. (So, is it a surprise that so many look for jalan to kow thim?) They don't know, and don't want to know, what a struggle it really is.
Should have been a pirate DVD seller. The only requirement would have been coloured hair-dye and some bribes.
The rules for illegal businesses are clearer. Those who live by the law, will continue to live in disgrace.
(The record of the gazette notification can be seen here amongst a total of 1519 titles, including Conan Saga Vol.1, No. 27 July 1989. You can read a story about it in The Malaysian Insider story here.)
Monday, March 04, 2013
Tash Aw was here in Silverfish Books to read from his latest (and third) book on February 23. Interestingly, Silverfish Books was the only bookshop he read at, although his KL tour was organised by MPH. Something like this would have been unthinkable just a year ago: an independent taking precedence over a mega-store. (But then, there are far fewer of those in the city now.) We believe Tash himself prefers to read in a cosy setting than in a 'supermarket aisle' of a big store, and he (apparently) told the organisers that. Still. Thank you, MPH, for giving us the privilege.
About 60 guests turned up to see and hear Tash Aw, and to get their books signed. We had received 30 RSVPs. (Many who said they were coming, didn't; and many who didn't say, came). It was a good session, and Tash e-mailed to say he enjoyed it. He wished he had more time, though.
Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng (who was also present) are Malaysia's two leading writers on the international stage at the moment (they are having a pretty good run), both self-made, both living overseas much of their time. Tash Aw won the 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award, as well as the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel (Asia Pacific region). Tan Twan Eng was short-listed for the Booker and the Man Asian Literary Prize 2012.
It's tempting to think that only Malaysians who live and get published overseas are successful. There are some advantages to that, of course. More money for marketing and promotions. Better environment for writing. The downside: it's almost impossible to penetrate that world, it's tough, and most authors will last as long as the flavour on a ice-cream lolly. The books will be remaindered and will turn up in BookXcess within two years, while authors are tossed aside like used Kleenex. It's brutal. The entire Anglo-American book industry (AABI) is run by accountants. It is an industry that shamelessly panders to the lowest common denominator (while others try to reach for the sky.) The AABI lives in a vacuum (no translations, please, we're English), although traditionally they have been the most open. There are, certainly, many extremely creative independent publishers there, but they are forced to play the game to survive. (Does anyone still remember Yang-May Ooi -- The Flame Tree, Mindgame?)
Writing whilst living in Malaysia is a drag (made even more difficult for people who want to become famous authors without reading). You'll have to work like a slave in your day job, you won't get rich , and write 'with a cat crawling on your back, while the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment, flood and fire'. (Apologies, Charles Bukowski). The upside: enough exciting happenings around here every day for anyone who wants to write (the cusp-of-history thing, so to speak); books have longer shelf life here; a good chance the books will be read in universities and colleges; you'd be a famous Malaysian writer for a much longer time -- you'd be at the beginning of the fame curve, not at the end of it; and you'd be writing about your own people, for your own people and not about an exotic non-existent stereotype for foreign consumption, which, at Silverfish Books, we call the New Orientalism, a sort of a literary Black and White Minstrel Show -- white people imitating black people imitating white people. (Is this what's called post-colonial in academese?)
Shih-Li Kow is a chemical engineer, now in real estate management, and a mom; Rozlan Mohd Noor is a HR consultant and a single dad; Iskandar Al-Bakri is a practicing lawyer; and between them they have appeared on five short- and long-lists of international awards since 2009. Not bad for galley slaves, huh? And when we speak of Malaysian writing, we cannot ignore those who write in Malay and Chinese. Malay fringe writing is quite vibrant at the moment, and exciting. One can't help but enjoy their enthusiasm and vibes when one is with them at one of their events. The same can't be said of 'classic' Malay writing, though. The ultra-defensive, incestuous, stand it has assumed does not augur well. Its refusal to absorb any outside influence, condemns it to be forever trapped in a 'bahtera cinta' spiral. (Indonesians are way past that.) As for works written in Chinese, we hear that its pretty cutting-edge, but that's from a secondary source.
All told, writing in Malaysia has had many springs in the last six decades or so, but the present one feels like it might stretch into a nice long summer, with more new local heroes.