Yesterday, Malaysian police arrested the editor of a controversial 2020 book that was banned for including on its cover a caricature of Malaysia’s coat of arms. According to a report by Free Malaysia Today, which cited the human rights group Suaram, journalist and editor Kean Wong was arrested while visiting the Immigration Department and is currently being held by police on suspicions of sedition.
“He was nabbed at the Kelana Jaya immigration office while he was applying for his passport renewal earlier today,” Sevan Dorai, Suaram’s executive director, told the news outlet yesterday. The arrest was later confirmed by Rusdi Mohd Isa, the deputy chief of the police’s Criminal Investigation Department.
Kean Wong’s book “Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance, And Hope in New Malaysia,” a collection of essays and reports about the 2018 general election, which marked the end of the Barisan Nasional coalition’s six-decade-long tenure, became a subject of controversy in 2020 due not to its contents but to its cover.
This featured an image similar to the national coat of arms, stylized with the interpolation of a naked child into the crescent and 14-pointed star symbolizing Malaysia’s state religion (Islam) and its states and federal territories. This was flanked by two red tigers with humanoid faces stepping on a red crocodile, with the escutcheon bearing the insignia of the Malay states replaced by a woman’s face.
After numerous complaints, the book was officially banned in July 2020. Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin said that the publication was likely to be prejudicial to public order, security, national interest, alarm public opinion and contrary to any law, and therefore is “absolutely prohibited throughout Malaysia.”
At the time of the ban, the rights group Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) criticized the investigation, stating that Malaysia’s Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act 1963, under which the investigation was carried out, only outlawed the use of the official coat of arms without written permission from the minister.
“The law did not prohibit any artistic rendition inspired by the nation’s coat of arms, such as the one used on the book’s cover, which no sane person would mistake for the country’s actual coat of arms,” LFL said. The book’s publisher, Gerakbudaya, later apologized for the design, but said it had no intention of insulting or ridiculing the national symbol.
During the investigation, Kean Wong was reported to be in Australia, where he holds permanent residency.
While Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s administration was not in office at the time of the initial investigation and was not responsible for the banning of the book, the arrest is the latest sign that freedom of expression in Malaysia is tightly circumscribed, by both law and politics.
In a statement, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) condemned Kean Wong’s arrest and said that it was “indicative of how the state has used its authority to censor fellow Malaysians’ freedom of expression.”
“The arrest of Kean Wong after three years since the publication of the book showcases the state’s commitment to suppressing the public’s ability to both inform the public and to speak out no matter how warranted,” CIJ said, according to a report by TheVibes.com.
“CIJ implores the authorities to release Kean Wong with immediate effect so that they may demonstrate that they continue to uphold the rights bestowed upon the public by the federal constitution of Malaysia.”