You can tell there’s pre-election tension in Malaysia when they start locking up writers. On Tuesday, Australian-educated political publisher Ezra Zaid was arrested and brought in front of a judge, where a date for him to be charged was set for July.
For Malaysia observers, a move against Ezra’s ZI Publications was hardly a surprise. In a country where official censorship remains heavy-handed, ZI releases the kind of books that politicians would prefer were not available.
It is not strictly an advocacy publisher, offering short story collections, trivia, even a memoir from Prime Minister Mahathir’s daughter on her vigil during her father’s illness. Among them, though, are critical discussions of Malaysia’s political and social systems, parliament, and internal racism, along with translations from contentious overseas writers. Last year I edited Zan Azlee’s Operation Nasi Kerabu, about the Islamic insurgency in Thailand’s south; Zan’s documentary film on the subject had been banned in Malaysia, leading ZI to propose a book adaptation. It is emblematic of the publisher’s approach: where government frowns upon access to a subject, ZI has moved to facilitate it.
The other reason for ZI to attract political displeasure is perversely also one of the factors protecting it. The company’s initials represent Ezra’s father Zaid Ibrahim, a former MP, senator, government minister, and founder of the country’s most powerful law firm, who opened the publishing house in 2007 before relinquishing ownership on his promotion to the ministry. Zaid’s formidable reputation and influence have played their part in keeping the publisher’s efforts unhindered. At the same time, he has attracted more political opprobrium than perhaps anyone bar opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Zaid was originally a federal MP for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, and was made senator and Minister for Law in 2008. Six months later, the government arrested journalist Tan Hoon Cheng, opposition politician Teresa Kok, and political blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin under the Internal Security Act (ISA), a colonial-era law instated for use against communists, that allows indefinite detention without charge. Zaid sensationally resigned in protest, an unprecedented move for a senator, and initially joined Anwar’s opposition, before eventually leaving to take charge of a third political party, Kita.
Resentment of Zaid by his former party retains the intensity reserved for turncoats, while he has become something of a folk hero to Malaysian progressives. Of course a publishing house run by his son would be closely watched, especially one that has published three of Zaid’s books, including a critique of Malaysia’s sprawling monarchies launched just last week. Nor is it surprising that, despite Zaid’s profile, intimidatory moves are finally being made against ZI. What was unexpected was that Ezra’s arrest was not carried out by civil police but by religious authorities, in a system where the two operate independently.
The charges threatened against Ezra are not over political material, but would be made under sharia law, over Islamic scholar Irshad Manji’s book Allah, Liberty and Love. The daughter of Indian and Egyptian parents, born in Uganda and raised in Canada, Manji has written several books encouraging the liberal development of Islamic thought. Her religious critics are less concerned with her ideas than the fact that she is openly gay. People like these, says The Jakarta Post, will only view Manji “as an avid promoter of homosexuality in Muslim communities”.
Yet the book’s English version was released in Malaysia — where English is so widely spoken as to be a de facto official language — almost a year ago without incident. Foment only began with ZI’s recent release of a Malay translation. In the first fortnight of May, events on Manji’s promotional tour of Indonesia were attacked by hardline Muslim protestors, and others were forcibly cancelled.
By May 19, Malaysian minister Jamil Khir was ordering that Manji should not be allowed to hold her planned tour events there either. Other critics joined in. Ezra, speaking at Zaid’s recent book launch, responded that “these comments are based on an absolute fact that none of these persons had read the book and therein lies the problem”. Zaid dismissed the possibility of the book being banned. “It is not something a modern democracy does… Only North Korea bans books.”
Two days later the Home Ministry announced the ban, on the basis that the book was “believed to have elements that can deviate Muslims from their faith, Islamic teachings and elements which insulted Islam”. Religious authorities (JAWI) began seizing copies from bookshop shelves.
Ezra was on the offensive the same day. “[We are] considering all legal options, which includes filing a suit for judicial review against Jawi’s actions, together with a claim for damages arising from the sales the publisher has lost as a consequence of their illegal actions,” he said in a press release. “[W]e published this book in the spirit of free inquiry — incidentally, something which Islam itself cherishes — and acting strictly in accordance with our right to free speech and expression as guaranteed by Article 10(1)(a) of the Federal Constitution.”
On May 29, Selangor’s state religious police (JAIS) arrived at the offices of ZI Publications. Ezra’s immediate defence was to get the word out on Twitter. “Selangor getting in on the act,” he tweeted. “JAIS hv just dropped by office. In a group of 20 (fashionable that way). Taking books, n maybe me too.”
They did both: 180 copies of the book in custody along with its publisher. The latter kept his cool, tweeting updates from custody. “They must’ve gotten the friendly, professional types to send from JAIS. All suited up, slick facial hair — oddly impressed.” Then later, from the courtroom, “Thx for the good wishes. Lawyer @nizambashir will be here with me. Hope this wraps up soon, hvnt had lunch.” Released on bail, he now has to hold his good humour for at least another six weeks, to see where these charges end up.
Whatever the justifications, it is hard to see this as anything but a case of political opportunism. While Malaysia’s federal election could be called as late as next March, it was expected to come in the next couple of months, with Prime Minister Najib Razak’s popularity rebounding after weathering various scandals. Nonetheless, his BN colleagues would be nervous. 2008 was bad for them, as five state governments and over a third of parliamentary seats fell to the opposition.
These unimpressive-sounding numbers were in fact of great significance, forming BN’s worst election result in history. The same coalition has ruled for Malaysia’s entire 55 years of independence. Since that first Merdeka Day in 1957, the country has had just six Prime Ministers. 2012, at last, sees the very real prospect of BN finally being levered from power.
This means that whatever tactics can be used probably will, and Ezra’s arrest could benefit BN in several ways. First, where Zaid is a well-known face for progressive politics, arresting his son for supposedly disrespecting Islam is a solid divide-and-conquer move. The opposition is based on the uneasy alliance between Anwar’s progressive PKR and the highly conservative Islamist PAS, whose only real common ground is the wish to finally be rid of Barisan Nasional.
Second, even targeting less religious voters, moral outrage is always welcome in the lead-up to election time. Our values are under threat, our way of life is being eroded, things that change are scary, vote for stability. It’s a political condom, donned in a hurry to desensitise both sides and keep the wielder safe. And like a condom, even something so transparent can be amazingly effective.
Third, it sends a timely warning to those writing and thinking in ways that the government might not appreciate. In Malaysia, the intimidation of writers and journalists is a regular occurrence, but a little refresher course never goes astray. The result, as Zan Azlee summed up in his book, is that “self-censorship is more the problem than any official counterpart. Editors, news producers and journalists all tend to censor their own stories … The way the ISA has been used against journalists is a calculated and cynical attempt to intimidate everyone in the media.”
For now, Ezra Zaid remains free on bail. But with the charges against him yet to be made, the voice of dissenting opinion being further muffled, and an election that could be a national turning point yet to come, it will pay to keep a close eye on the Selangor religious authorities in the weeks and months to come.