Sweet Satsuma, Sour Censorship

One night last week Leen and I were bored and had to get out of the house, so we went to the Curve in Damansara. We browsed around in the Borders bookstore and, as usual, I ended up in the language section. I just can’t help it, I always end up in the language section. It doesn’t matter which store, MPH, Kinokuniya, wherever…it happens every time. One minute I’m looking at tremendously interesting novels and books on history and photography and biographies and books on current affairs and oh all those wonderful books—and then angels start singing and a bright light beckons me to the language section and I almost seem to float towards it.

This time I held on and walked away without the Living Language Arabic set that kept begging me to take it home. Oh God, it was hard. But I’ve got Living Language French sitting in a box in storage somewhere. And I haven’t even looked at my Living Language Spanish set. And I never did finish that Hugo Advanced Portuguese book. And that Gaelic course. God, the Gaelic course. Yeah, I really wanted that Arabic set, but I need to take care of unfinished business first, you know? Well, that and the fact that money’s a little tight these days, what with the baby coming soon and all that.

So yeah, I held on. But I had to get something. You know, just to make myself feel better. So I bought a magazine. It was the latest issue of Men’s Fitness. The RM23 price tag stung a little, but at least I wasn’t shelling out a hundred bucks. Leen bought a parenting magazine that was considerably cheaper, about RM10, and a Malay book for new mothers for about RM14, and we also bought a little book for the baby. You know, one of those plush books with about six pages of high-contrast colours and cute little pictures. Then we went to have dinner at Kenny Rogers Roasters. I’m not sure why that place went out of business in North America. The food is great.

Anyway, Leen was thumbing through her parenting magazine and I was going through Men’s Fitness, and then I saw it: several pages had been ripped out of my magazine. According to the contents page, it was supposed to be an article about sex. The article began with a two-page spread showing an attractive young woman with blonde hair and…I couldn’t see the rest because it had been ripped out. I thought they might have been torn out by some official government censor or something, but then I laughed at myself for thinking such a silly thought. Men’s Fitness doesn’t show naked women. Half-naked, yes, but you can see them on Astro or hanging around outside the clubs in Bangsar.

We finished our dinner quickly and rushed back over to Borders, because I was not about to walk out of that mall with an RM23 magazine that had pages missing. The store was already closed and the doors locked but I caught the attention of one of the guards and he opened the garage-style door a bit to find out what I wanted. He showed the magazine to one of the clerks and then motioned for me to come inside. The clerk looked at the magazine and right away said the pages had been torn out because of censorship. She asked if we wanted our money back and of course I said yes. For whatever reason, either because there was a scantily-clad woman in the article or because it was about sex, the government censors had torn out the entire article. The clerk unwrapped another copy of the magazine just to confirm it, and lo and behold the same article was missing, leaving only jagged edges and incomplete words. Since we’d paid with a credit card we couldn’t get any money back and had to settle for a gift certificate instead.

Now I suppose I should point out that this is not a post about how the Malaysian government is wrong to censor things. Let’s not pretend there’s no censorship in western countries. In every country there are rules governing what we can see, who can see it, where, when, etc. No, censorship is not bad in and of itself—at least not in a limited form and for the right reasons. Actually, I censor myself all the time. Anyone who knows me well will know that I sometimes swear quite casually during the course of a normal conversation. For this I blame my mother, who could turn the air blue at the drop of a hat. Well, my Tourette Syndrome might have something to do with it (that’s bullshit; I do have Tourette Syndrome, but the truth is that coprolalia—the swearing that people often associate with TS—is a rare symptom of the disorder that is over-represented in films and TV shows). Whatever the cause, I do make an effort to tone down the language here in my blog, but occasionally I slip, and for this I’m really fuc—ahem, sorry. Anyway, like I said, I don’t think censorship is always wrong, but I still have a problem with censorship in Malaysia, not simply because it exists just like in every other country, but because it’s often silly and sometimes inconsistent.

Anyone who’s watched a movie in a Malaysian cinema knows what I’m talking about. The hero leans in for a kiss, and suddenly the screen looks like my Men’s Fitness magazine, the scene ‘ripped out’ with less than surgical precision, and then we see the hero and his woman putting their clothes back on. And then there’s TV, where thankfully the editing isn’t as sloppy, but it’s still painfully obvious. I frequently find myself saying, “Oh look, darling, awkward slow motion!” Sometimes it’s a real mystery what was cut; other times the only mystery is why. The other night I was watching Fear Factor and had to laugh when they kept bleeping out the word pig, while the Malay subtitles clearly showed the contestants were eating just that. Yet the next day, I heard the word shit several times during an episode of the Canadian series Cold Squad, on the very same channel.

Magazines, TV shows and movies aren’t the only things censored in Malaysia. Sharon Bakar has written several posts about censorship in general and censorship of books in particular. Worth a few minutes of your time (her posts always are) if you’re interested.

And what post on censorship in Malaysia would be complete without mention of the fact that Malaysians aren’t even allowed to talk or write about certain issues in public? The racial violence of May 13, 1969 is one example of this; the Prime Minister’s recent call for Malaysians to refrain from discussing religious issues is another. Both are disturbing because they show an unwillingness to confront major issues out of fear that doing so might stir them up beyond the government’s control. The reality is that not discussing the issues is what will stir up trouble. A moratorium on public discussion of certain issues won’t make things better, nor will it keep people from discussing them anyway. It will only create resentment as the problems at the core of those issues fester under the surface.

It does seem that a lot of the censorship in Malaysia is self-imposed, not due to government regulation but instead because of a general reluctance to overstep sensitive cultural boundaries. Overzealous government censorship certainly doesn’t help, though. It also seems, in fact, that the government over-emphasizes the importance of those cultural boundaries, for whatever reasons.

So anyway, the whole magazine episode was a bit depressing, but by the time we left the Curve we were both feeling much better, after passing by Body Shop and noticing they actually had Satsuma products. I’ve loved that scent for years. Seriously, I love it. No musky perfumes for me, I like the fruity, citrus scents, and I just love Satsuma. You could put it on a toothless old crack whore and I’d swoon. OK, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I really do love it. It seemed for a while there it was hard to find Satsuma in Malaysia, but now there it was. So Leen bought a little bottle of the perfume and I bought a bar of soap. I’m not going to use it though, I just want to smell it. Mmmmm…Satsuma….Hopefully it won’t become unpopular and get discontinued. Or you know, get banned or something.