Thursday, April 26, 2007

The langkawi Book Village is dead!

The Malaysia Book Village (Kampung Buku Malaysia) project in beautiful Langkawi is now officially a flop, so says the Chairman of the Kedah State Executive Committee for Tourism, Youth and Sports, Datuk Othman Aziz.
And I am not the least surprised.

Around the time the project was launched in December 1997, I wrote in my then weekly op-ed column in Utusan Malaysia that the project is destined to fail – because it is ill-conceived, unnecessary and a gross waste of public funds.

I must have incurred the wrath of the organizers (i.e. the Kedah state government and the then Menteri Besar) and some Malay writers NGOs that supported the idea. Naturally they ignored the views of one columnist without political influence, and proceeded with the project with much fanfare.

Please don’t get me wrong – I am not against books or book villages. I love books, and one of the places on earth that I would rather be is the quaint village of Hay-on-Wye in South Wales, famous for its secondhand bookshops and barns, a place I would never miss whenever I get the chance to be in the area.

But this interesting “book village” developed naturally out of the people’s need for books, regarding them as essential and much appreciated cultural artifacts – not out of “unnatural” need to develop a tourist destination as a means of milking money out of the pockets of unsuspecting visitors.

And love of books, or even an appreciation of books as desired cultural artifacts, simply do not exist in our society. A series of “book reading surveys” sponsored and financed by a number of reputable local and international organizations have attested to this again ad again.

As always, however, most public policy thinking in our country is based on copycat thinking. If book villages in Holland, France, Wales and elsewhere could develop and prosper – in fact have become successful tourists destinations in themselves – why can’t we not develop the same idea here in Malaysia?

No further creative and critical thinking is considered necessary. Moreover, the then Menteri Besar of Kedah was an ulat buku himself (he has a house somewhere in Bangsar, it seems, just to house his enormous collection of books).

In our illiberal democracy scheme of things, who is to question a powerful person’s need to implement his private fanciful ideas using public funds? Even the writers’ NGOs – supposedly made up of thinking people – were quick to realize that they have everything to gain by just blindly supporting the ill-considered ideas of powerful public officials.

The village has within its compound six buildings (houses) to be used as exhibition halls and sales centres for books. But since the village was launched, it had hardly had visitors.

“The strategic position of the village at the foot of Gunung Raya, with its beautiful surroundings, would only go to waste if it is not visited,” says Datuk Othman Aziz. So he is sparing no effort to turn the village into a truly visited tourist destination which would also double up as a book centre.

For starters, he would enlist the “expert” advice of organizations such as the National Library, the State Library, the Education Ministry, and the local public universities. Not a very promising proposition, if you ask me, for the following reasons:

* The National and Public Libraries in this country are themselves hopelessly trying to promote public utilization of their own services – that the help “influential” entertainers such as Datuk Siti Norhaliza had to be sought;

* The Education Ministry is actually the culprit responsible for creating students who have no love for books and reading, whose only concern are to pass exams through using workbooks and attending tuition classes;

* The local public universities – well, one need only to have a quick peep at their high-budget libraries to find out if they are being utilized by students and lecturers alike in ways that they should.

Further, according to Datuk Othman, the Kedah state would be organizing a workshop for about 50 “thinkers” – representing organizations such as the Malaysian Book Development Council, Tourism Malaysia, and Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) – to propose ways to revive the village.

I do not know what thoughts these “thinkers” would be capable of, but the Malaysian public should be glad that there is no mention yet about these 50 thinkers going on a world trip – to Wales, Holland, France, Japan, and elsewhere – to study how book villages are being run in those places.

The simple truth is: books are not read in our society, nor reading is a way of life here. That has to be changed first, but that would take a lot of thinking and long-term efforts on the part of the Education Ministry. In the meantime, if Datuk Othman really wants the village to be visited, I have an idea to offer:

Turn the village into a pop concert ground for all sorts of musical genres such as the dangdut, nasyid, rock, rap, keroncong, asli, or whatever – a latter day Woodstock as it were. Have regular performances, with cheap backpack accommodation available, and people would come flocking from near and far – and hopefully have some time to appreciate the beauty of Gunung Raya as well.

Unlike the case with book promotion, such concerts would be very likely to get sponsorships from our "socially responsible" corporations as well. Let’s get real!

Extracted from Suara Rakyat Blog