Books in a bind

By Terence Fernandez, The Sun

THERE is little comfort to gain from the release of the Bahasa Malaysia Bibles that had been languishing in the warehouses of Port Klang and Kuching Port since March 20, 2009. It is also inevitable that this episode sees a prolonged conflict between administrative practices and religious sensitivities; but more acutely, even a clash of cultures between the authorities and the aggrieved community.

If one sees it in that context, then one can forgive the chicken-and-duck talk that seems to dominate the news on the holding of the holy books and the Christian community’s belief that the Bibles had been “desecrated”.

One likes to believe that it was not the intention of the authorities to “desecrate” the scriptures when it ruled that it would need to be serialised, stamped with the official seal and words that explain the books are restricted to Christians by order of the home minister.

If that were the case, the Holy Quran would not also be subject to the same procedure, where every copy also needs to receive a stamp of approval to ensure that it is the accepted text among Malaysian Muslims and not the versions espoused by different sects not recognised by the nation’s religious authorities and the Conference of Rulers.

So what happens next? The Christians have declined to receive the Bibles, but now that they have been stamped, one cannot return them to the printers. They cannot be left in the warehouse for another two years. What would their condition be then? Would not letting the books wither and rot in a cold dank store also not be a form of desecration?

See the dilemma?

From the Christian community’s point of view, accepting the stamped Bibles would mean acceptance of fickle government policies. The issue was supposedly “resolved” last year, but the moving of the goal posts means this will continue to be a thorn in everyone’s side.

And with elections to be held soon in Sarawak, where almost half the electorate is Christian, it is going to be a hot, albeit uneasy topic. And what’s worse than turning religion into a political pawn?

It’s time to look at the bigger picture. Even the prime minister had last week warned against those who manipulated the 1Malaysia policy for selfish means.

It would not be doing this well-intentioned policy any justice if there continues to be attempts to undermine it by unreasonable and inconsistent guidelines – the kind that change according to the political whims of a few.

Perhaps a more secular approach should be the guiding force in ending the impasse – maturity to accept the fact that on earth, the law of man dictates that there must be regulations for publications; but more importantly that when one comes to the negotiating table, one must be willing to compromise and keep one’s word.

And this brings us to another book which had gotten the Indian community in a furore. This time, there are demands for the withdrawal and ban of a school textbook. While the Chinese and even the Malay communities were painted with less than complimentary descriptions in Interlok, it was a racial slur that got the Indians up in arms.

And all this over a book which was not even in the initial short-list of literature texts. The argument for retaining it is that it promotes unity. Saying that’s an irony is an understatement. Never has there been a piece of literary work that seems to work against the national interest.

Again, this time, the way the matter is being handled makes it seem the authorities have been asked to ban a holy book. Unless it is another game of one-upmanship, all that needs to be done is to withdraw the book from schools. Otherwise, we will continue to be mired in unproductive bickering when we should be focusing on developing this country which is lagging behind our neighbours who are watching with amusement. They had gotten their act together and realised what is important, while we are still fighting in the sandbox.