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Sunday August 15, 2010

The silver lining

What happens when a book is seized by the authorities?

SOMETIMES, the best thing that could happen to a book is the worst thing.

When Malaysia’s Home Affairs Ministry withheld Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times in December last year, it sparked such ferocious interest in the book that it became an instant best-seller when it was finally released locally earlier this year.

The book (reviewed below), written by 66-year-old former Asian Wall Street Journal editor Barry Wain, takes a critical look at Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s reign as Malaysian Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003. Wain is currently writer-in-residence at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Palgrave Macmillan has a publishing relationship with the institute – and that is how Wain’s manuscript came into Steve Maginn’s hands.

Steve Maginn

“I thought it was an excellent piece of work,” says the Palgrave Macmillan executive director, East Asia, via telephone while he was in Malaysia recently.

He sent the manuscript to Britain for fact-checking with independent advisors and the book was eventually printed in Hong Kong late in 2009. The first batch of 500 copies was shipped immediately to Malaysia and should have arrived in local stores in December, but Maginn received a call from Palgrave Macmillan’s Malaysian distributor informing him that the books were being held by the Home Affairs Ministry so that officials could check the contents.

“I wasn’t very happy, of course, because we believe in the freedom of the press and speech. We thought it was not a very good idea to disallow a book to be read,” says Maginn with dry British understatement.

But he quickly realised that there would be a “knock on effect” from the decision: “Interest would be sparked in the book and people would try to get their hands on it however they could,” he says.

And that’s exactly what happened.

Malaysian Maverick became a hot topic in online forums, blogs and even offline, in the political arena: Opposition elder statesman Lim Kit Siang called on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak to set up a royal commission of inquiry to investigate Tun Mahathir over the book’s allegations while PAS vice-president Datuk Mahfuz Omar said that there was no reason to detain the book. Tun Mahathir himself said that the book should be released to the public.

As a result of the brouhaha, there was, in Maginn’s words, “a huge pent-up demand” for the book.

The Government initially requested to hold the books for 60 days. Palgrave Macmillan decided to be patient and wait.

“We, as foreign publishers, accept that each country has the right to decide whether a book is acceptable or not. But we would expect any decision made to be based on true facts of the true content of the book rather than simply using the book as a political foothold,” says Maginn.

The company wasn’t particularly worried because it believed that there was nothing wrong with the book.

While these are explicit comic books and novels seized because they are clearly illegal, some books are held merely because authorities are wary of the contents and want time to check them.

“Books can be controversial for a number of reasons. We personally didn’t think that the book was particularly controversial. We think the book gives a very balanced account of Mahathir Mohamad’s political life. But we accept that different countries have different policies towards certain content,” he says.

At the end of the 60 days, the Home Affairs Ministry said that it needed a further 60 days to continue its study of the book. Maginn felt that this was an “inordinate delay”.

“I think we could have written to the ministry to ask why it was taking so long to come to a judgement but we just thought it was better to wait and see what the results would be,” he says, adding the Palgrave Macmillan was always confident that the ministry would be reasonable.

Finally, a few days after the second 60-day period, the ministry gave Malaysian Maverick a “clean release”, and the book became available in Malaysia at the end of April. It quickly became the No.1 best-selling non-fiction book in the country and has remained in the top 10 lists of most Malaysian bookstores till this day.

Although Maginn, in his experience, had not (until Malaysian Maverick) dealt with books being held at customs before, from time to time, his company has published books that were not allowed to be sold in certain countries.

“It’s not that the government would ban the book. What happens is that the book importers simply would not import a book that they consider politically unacceptable. ...I wouldn’t expect to sell a book calling for Tibetan independence, for example, in China,” he says.

A few years ago, Palgrave Macmillan published a book about Asia that had a chapter about then prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra.

“It wasn’t a very complimentary chapter. It was comparing Thaksin to the (former) Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, talking about how they made all their money ... and how they both bought their way into power,” says Maginn.

The book wasn’t banned in Thailand. However, “One of the bookstores there returned all their stocks to us because they had been ‘advised’ that they shouldn’t be selling the book,” he says.

“From time to time we do publish books that are controversial, but our intention is not to cause controversy. Our intention is to publish a piece of scholarly research,” says Maginn.

Meanwhile, Malaysian Maverick continues to sell well. And the company has just finished printing a further 7,000 copies, of which 5,000 will be coming to Malaysia and the remainder will go to Singapore and other countries.

“Bizarrely, (withholding the books) probably meant we sold more books. We wouldn’t have done this well otherwise,” says Maginn.