When a book is just a book

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It was Sunday, April 29. Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali was supposed to receive an award the following day for her autobiography, “Nama Saya Hasmah”, in what would have been a welcome respite from political campaigning.

But by lunchtime, her plans for Monday had to be changed. A man called Hassan telephoned her, claiming to represent the organiser, the National Book Development Foundation (NBDF). He asked Siti Hasmah not to attend the ceremony.

He said he feared that if Siti Hasmah mingled with the vice-chancellors of public universities who had also been invited to the event, members of the media would take this as a sign of their support for her. He also said he feared a backlash from the authorities.

Husammuddin Yaacub, the managing editor of Kumpulan Media Karangkraf which had published the book, confirmed that a request had been made by the organisers and that they would abide by it.

How preposterous is that? Why would the media even equate the presence of vice-chancellors at a book launch with anything else?

But of more importance is the disappointing response of the Karangkraf staff. Did Husammuddin have no choice but to agree to the request? Was there any external or business pressure on him to do so?

As for Hassan, why is he judging the audience and vice-chancellors? Either he has lost his marbles or he is under orders to make Siti Hasmah feel unwelcome. He is also making out that the vice-chancellors do not have a mind of their own.

I am an active member of a book club which comprises of many avid readers and helps promote many books. We have invited many authors and publishers to talk about their work. We do not judge the people who attend our meetings, nor do we turn away people whose political or religious affiliations are widely known.

Siti Hasmah is married to the country’s longest serving prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad. She is also known as “bonda negara” (the mother of the nation), and is famous in her own right as one of the first women Malay doctors in Malaya.

She was the first woman to be appointed as a medical officer in the Kedah civil service. She has championed family planning, placed great importance on women’s health, and worked tirelessly to tackle drug abuse.

It cannot be easy being married to Mahathir, who is known for his dedication to his work, but she has managed to raise her family with time still to spare for copious amounts of charity work.

Her autobiography, as someone who witnessed Malaya’s transformation into modern-day Malaysia, would undoubtedly make an interesting read. She would likely have charted her life during the time of British occupation when women, especially Malay women, were encouraged by their families to seek an education to escape a life of drudgery without skills or knowledge.

The tragedy is that by taking sides or falling victim to political manipulation, the organisers have failed many Malaysians, especially those who would have relished the chance to hear and meet with Siti Hasmah.

Malaysian culture teaches us to respect our elders. Siti Hasmah is one of the country’s pioneer women. Readers are interested in her experiences, not her politics. Our authorities could learn a lesson or two about respect and what makes a good book.

Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.