Ultimatum to ban The Economist undoing the kudos to Abdullah  for lifting the ban on Iban Bible  and bad omen  for the 2003 World Press Freedom Day as well as Abdullah’s takeover as fourth Prime Minister

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Petaling Jaya,  Saturday): Acting Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is to be commended for lifting the government ban on Bup Kudus, which should never have been  proscribed as it had been widely used by churches in Sarawak  for the past 15 years since its first edition in 1988. 

When announcing the lifting of the ban in Johore Bahru yesterday, Abdullah said the Iban Bible was banned as the Islamic Development Department (Jakim) felt it had breached the guidelines for non-Islamic religious books. 

This should be a lesson to the Home Ministry that it should set a good example of respect and sensitivities of the diverse religions and beliefs in the country, highlighting the need for a revamp of the Home Ministry’s Film Censorship and Publications Control Division to ensure that there would be no repetition of the highly divisive ban on the Iban Bible to lay down a mechanism of fullest consultation with the religious groups concerned before any final decision and action is taken by the government which is detrimental to their rights and sensitivities.  

It is most unfortunate however that the kudos which Abdullah richly deserves for lifting the ban on the Iban Bible had been undone by none other than his Deputy Home Minister,  Datuk Chor Chee Heung, threatening to ban The Economist. 

The page 2 headline in today’s  Star  “Ban on Iban Bible lifted” had been completely nullified by the front-page headline in Utusan Malaysia, “KDN kaji semula permit The Economist jika gagal minta maaf”, which quoted Chor as giving The Economist the ultimatum that it would be banned if it does not apologise for its 16-page article in the April 5 issue of The Economist with the heading “The Changing of the Guard: A Survey of Malaysia”. 

It is also a double bad omen – for the 2003  World Press Freedom Day in a week’s time on May 4 and Abdullah’s take-over as the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia from Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in October after the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) Summit in October. 

Is Chor’s ultimatum to ban The Economist to be taken as a repudiation of the promise by Abdullah four years ago when he received a memorandum  by some thousand Malaysian journalists on the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day to give serious consideration to their representation to liberalise press censorship and control laws  and regulations in the country? 

Is Chor’s ultimatum a warning that nobody should expect a more open and liberal administration when Abdullah takes over from Mahathir as Prime Minister in October, whether on democratic freedoms,  human rights or good governance? 

Is Chor sending out a message that it is not only Mahathir  but also Abdullah who should not be criticized, particularly after the latter has become Prime Minister? If so, Chor is  doing Abdullah a greatest disservice! 

I am baffled by the current furore by UMNO Ministers and leaders over 16-page article in the  April 5 issue of Economist with the heading “The Changing of the Guard: A Survey of Malaysia”, in particular in the delay of over a fortnight before it burst into the open  – reinforcing the suspicion that what caused the delayed break of the storm was not so much their contents as the   increasingly ferocious political undercurrents in the  jockeying for power in post-Mahathir UMNO. 

Abdullah and the government should be reminded that they should  not discourage a public debate of the 23-year premiership of Mahathir, as it is better this is conducted in Mahathir’s  last  six months as the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia, instead of after he had stepped down from office in October this year.  In this way, Mahathir can also take part in any   assessment, national and international, of his premiership.  

Abdullah said on Thursday  that nobody, including the Western media, can dismiss Malaysia’s achievements under Mahathir’s leadership.  My interpretation of  Abdullah’s statement was that he was not suggesting a total clampdown on debate on the achievements and failures of Mahathir’s premiership, but expressing his confidence that in any such debate, Mahathir’s achievements will overshadow his failures. 

Or was I  wrong, and  what Abdullah meant was a total clampdown on any critical assessment of Mahathir’s premiership – leading to Chor’s ultimatum to ban The Economist? 

Abdullah should immediately clarify his position. For Abdullah’s own good and that of the country, he should not be content to lift the ban on the Iban Bible, but  should rein in Chor and tell his Deputy Home Minister that it was ridiculous for him to be issuing  any ultimatum to ban The Economist – which will send a wrong and the worst possible signal about the change of the guard in the transition of the Prime Ministership from Mahathir to Abdullah.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman