Reading KL: Pang Khee Teik
Time Out KL is starting a new series called ‘Reading KL’ which aims to study reading cultures among KL-ites. In our first interview of the series, we speak to prominent art consultant Pang Khee Teik about the kinds of books he likes to read and what we can do as Malaysians to handle the issue of book banning. By Surekha Ragavan
What are you reading now?
I’m reading four books at the same time. This series I’m reading is a graphic guide series about some of the major theories in the last century. And I just completed semiotics. And this one [holds book up] is of critical theory. Just to clarify, this is a graphic guide. It’s not a dummy’s guide. So it doesn’t really make it that much simpler (but) it’s cute and easy to follow.
Do you feel it’s important for KL-ites to familiarise themselves with such theories?
I do feel that everybody should be interested in this. A lot of the problems with the Malaysian way of conducting public discourse are because they are limited by vocabulary and their knowledge on theories and the universe in general. They’re unable to deconstruct an argument or language or even a cultural paradigm.
What’s next in your graphic series of theories?
My next will be cultural studies. Uhm, I should probably try Jung. Linguistics. I’m not looking forward to Logic but I think I should do it. A lot of people don’t realise but logic is actually mathematical. Uhm, Marxism too definitely because it’s the foundation of most of our contemporary thinking.
I know enough lah [laughs]. The rest I’m quite okay, I know my quantum theory and my Stephen Hawking.
What does reading these books confirm about you?
I mean, it’s just very basic you know? For example, reading semiotics kind of affirms that there are a few books out there that I should really try to read. For example, ‘Mythologies’ by Roland Barthes. Which I have found excuses not to read for so long.
Do these books help justify your rationale when conducting discourse?
Yeah sure. For example, one of the things which is very good about reading semiotics is it confirms what I’ve developed about culture.
What exactly has it confirmed?
In Malaysia, we are stuck in a cultural paradigm. Culture here is a form of prescription. This is not our culture, this is our culture. Therefore culture is something we aspire to achieve. Right? So even that idea of culture itself, where did it come from? I have formulated some of these things through many readings in the past but the semiotics book I read, at a very basic level encapsulates and gives form to some of these thoughts I have.
So how much are each of these graphic guide books?
Not cheap. RM30 each. That’s why I could only afford four [laughs]. But take two or three you think will inform you best. In each, they will recommend a few reading materials so just develop from there lah.
What types of books do you usually read if not books on theories?
I’ve not read a lot of books for a long time. I started on the ‘Harry Potter’ series when it first came out. A young cousin came over for Chinese New Year and brought his copy. I found it quite charming. I have a habit - once I start a series, I have to finish it. The same way I finished ‘Lord of the Rings’. Last year, I finished ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ trilogy. I was so unproductive for the whole month. You know he (Stieg Larrson) doesn’t have great prose and neither does J.K. Rowling. They’re quite prosaic to put it very crudely but to their credit, they can move a plot.
The issue of book banning is quite hot at the moment. What can Malaysians do to curb this from happening in the future?
That’s a very hard question to answer because I’m thinking of how we even challenge the politics that determine this banning? You can say, I’m not going to bother with this banning, I’m just going to get my hand on this book and read it anyway. And it’s possible nowadays to do that. I mean honestly, all the things that are banned in Malaysia, do they really not exist in Malaysia? The same with books as it is with oral sex. Just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean people are not doing it. I’m sure the authorities know that banning something doesn’t wipe it out.
So what are the authorities aiming for?
I think on some level, it’s not so much the actual banning but the articulation of the banning which reinforces the public’s role to do what is told. To align ourselves to the political will of the authorities. Laws are used to protect the innocent, but sometimes we look at law as more to punish the guilty. So what we can do is promote our democratic rights and I think that is happening more and more nowadays with projects like SUARAM and Loyar Burok.
If you could recommend one book we should read in this current state of turmoil, what would it be?
My all-time favourite is ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It’s a very short novel but I think it’s very powerful for Malaysians to read now because it’s a story about a man in a gulag. It’s in the middle of Siberia, it’s cold and they’re breaking stones or whatever. It’s one of those imprisonment without trial settings lah. So this story is just one day in the life of this guy there, it starts in the morning and ends at night. The most poignant thing I’ve ever read. And strangely enough, the most liberating testament I’ve ever encountered about life at large. For a book that’s set in prison, it’s one of the most optimistic and hopeful things you’ll read.
Shifting to the KL Alternative Bookfest, how has it grown over the years?
I believe it’s been four years now. It just started from a conversation between me and Amir Muhammad. We run Art For Grabs four times a year. It’s an art bazaar, very popular. Once a year, we organise concurrent events alongside the bazaar like a little fringe festival. Of all the Art For Grabs, it (KLAB) gets the most people. There have been more and more independent publishers so Amir wanted to give them a push. So this is what it’s for lah.
The KL Alternative Bookfest will take place this weekend. See event listing for more info.