A Note On Government Support For Public Libraries

This paper was presented at the Joint Conference the Role of Public Libraries in National Development” held at the Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka on the 21st and 22nd October 1967


The purpose of this paper is to examine the nature and scope of Government support for public libraries in Malaysia today and to outline a strategy for greater participation by the Government in the development of a national public library service.


Any effective strategy for public library development in Malaysia, as elsewhere, requires an acceptable philosophy, capital to sustain it, and men competent to implement it.

In Malaysia today the public library in philosophy, in finances, in qualified personnel is either a primitive institution, a colonial anachronism, or an extension of a foreign powers propaganda machinery.

The library function appears in the State List in the Constitution as the states are primarily responsible for local government.

The Town Boards Enactment and the Municipal Ordinance provide for funds to be expended on public libraries, but it is a permissive function rather than a mandatory one, and one suspects that the very inclusion of the public library function in local government is due probably to a fit of absentmindedness on the part of the colonial authorities such as it is the result of practically wholesale introduction in Malaysia of sometimes outmodes legislation totally out of context of the local needs. The vast majority of local authorities have not even begun discussing the provision of public libraries.

The library function also appeared within the portfolio of the Ministry of Education but was transferred to the Prime Minister's Department in 1962 on the recommendation of the Ministry of Education as it was felt that in was related to public records and archives. It is ironical that this function was merged with the archives. The most important document advocating public libraries must be "A Memorandum on the Public Library Service for the Federation of Malaya submitted by the Malayan Library Group". The Malayan Library Group Newsletter of November 1958 contains the full text of this Memorandum, which marks a milestone in the struggle for a public library service and serves as an excellent basis for discussion.

Further appeals have been made time and time again since then, and every publication of the Library Group and its successor, the Malaysian Library Association, does not fail to mention the urgent need for a public library service. It is 11 years since that Memorandum was submitted and nearly a decade since it was published.

Various attempts were made to urge the Government to set up a National Library, the most striking being an offer in 1960 by the Lee foundation to the federal government of $500,000 if Government would invite donations from the public and matched them dollar for dollar. This offer was not taken up. It is a tragedy that in the decade we have run our own affairs

i. Such a powerful weapon for national integration and national development has not been utilized;
ii. So much money spent to educate the public falls so much short in achievement because of the many who have no means to continue their education, to enlarge the sum of human happiness because of the lack of access to avenues of improved education and books to supplement part-time and private study;
iii. Such an important means of promoting the development and usage of National Language has hardly been exploited; and
iv. A powerful force of education of the rural people in the new physically developed environment does not receive the priority and attention it deserves.

The greatest tragedy of all is the tidak apa attitude taken by the vast majority of the public towards this problem - by the administrators, the intellectuals, the professionals, the politicians and last but not least the, the parents. They have failed and it is their responsibility more than anyone else's that Malaysia has one of the poorest local public library services in the Commonwealth. It is imperative therefore that Government must now take over this responsibility so that this powerful force for popular education, for cultural and social advancement can be harnessed for national development.

In recent years two encouraging signs of Government's interest in libraries have come to light. First, plans for a National Library are in an advanced stage of preparation, and second, Government has made grants to an encouraging number of libraries. Basically, however, Government support for public libraries continues to be ad hoc and public libraries continue to receive less priority than roads and drains, radio and television, public dispensaries and toilets, parks and gardens, sports and games, and even mosquitoes. It is a fact that in Malaysia the public library has not hey, in the eyes of the Government, achieved the dignity of a problem.

Scope, Timing and Scale

The task of setting the lead and pace must rest initially with the Library Association. They need to organize and campaign for mass support for public libraries and simultaneously convince the Government that:

i. Public libraries are an essential community service;
ii. Public libraries have an important part to play in national development;
iii. It is the Government's primary responsibility to provide for this service and it is in the nation's interest that it be developed on a national basis.

The Library Association must present to the Government:

i. A public library philosophy related to the immediate neds of the country in the light of existing national policy;
ii. A realistic plan for sound financing of the scheme in the light of the financial problems facing the country;
iii. A realistic proposal for the training of staff to run the service.

A Malaysian public library philosophy must include the following amongst its basic aims:

i. Rural education as supplementary to the Rural Development Programme, perhaps based on properly designed Balai Rakyats which could act as study centres;
ii. The promotion of the National Language. How many people in this country know what good books are available and who will guide their reading?;
iii. The provision of books for the vast numbers receiving part-time formal training and vocational education, i.e. act as "The Peoples' Universities";
iv. A centre for the integration of the races and the development of a Malaysian culture through coordinated cultural programmes and through intermingling of the various races in the pursuit of knowledge;
v. A contribution to the industrialization programme by the setting up pf technical information services in the major towns;
vi. A centre for comfortable study in view of the crowded homes and bad lightings facilities in many areas and to provide substitute for a home environment that is not conducive to study;
vii. The reduction of juvenile delinquency through youth services.

The above aims afford an excellent opportunity for participation by:

i. The Ministry of Rural Development and MARA in rural education;
ii. The Ministry of Education, through provision of facilities for further education centres;
iii. The Ministry of Youth, Culture of Sports, in cultural programmes and youth services;
iv. The Ministry of Commerce and Industry, in vocational education and provision of technical information services;
v. The Ministry of Information in the distribution of government publications;
vi. Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka, in the promotion of the National Language
vii. Adult Education Boards, through the provision of study centres

The above indicate the wide variety of services that can be provided by a public library and the impact it can have on the community. Each of the bodies above must lend their support to the idea of a public library service. The above must also indicate that an effective public library system in the Malaysian context must require the establishment eventually of an independent Board, set up by the Government along the lines of the National Family Planning Board. This Board should have an appropriate status so that it can deal with the various universities and organizations and at the same time adequate resources to implement any scheme for a public library service.

As a start, the Malaysian Library Association on its own part could, with the assistance of UNESCO and sympathetic Foundations initiate immediately a pilot project to establish a library along the lines indicated above to demonstrate to the Government the potential of a good public library. A good opportunity exists in Penang where designs are now being prepared for the Dewan Sri Pinang, a cultural centre, which will house the Penang Library. It will be a golden opportunity for UNESCO assistance and this pilot project could be developed into an example for the rest of Malaysia and may act as a catalyst in the development of a public library service in Malaysia.


The Government is in the midst of its Second Five-Year Plan and the nation is currently threatened with a financial crisis, set in motion by the sharp decline of rubber prices. The Government is unlikely, however convincing the case, to embark upon any great investment in the public library service and it is crucial therefore that the scale and timing of any scheme be related to the current economic situation and plans for such a scheme embarked upon in the next Five-Year Plan if they are to meet with a favourable response from the Government.

The following existing sources of revenue have interesting potential:

i. The federal government imposes an education rate which is collected by local authorities for the Federal Government. This sum could be set apart for a public library and any local authority which starts on a public library service would be entitled to a refund of its contribution of the education rate;
ii. The Government collects a significant amount of revenue as import duties on printed matter, especially books, which could again be channeled into a fund for a public library service.

Nevertheless the Government should be able to contribute without difficulty to a pilot project in 1968-1969 especially if UNESCO is brought into the picture. In Penang, the City Council and the State Government have already committed a large sum of money for the Dewan Sri Pinang project, and I am sure they would welcome the opportunity to host the pilot project.

Legislation and Staff

In every advanced country recognition by the Government backed by appropriate legislation has given the necessary support to public library development. The following steps are suggested for the immediate consideration of the Federal Government:

i. The strengthening of the National Library Services section in the Prime Minister's Department with UNESCO's assistance and the creation of a Public Library Unit which could initiate and supervise the pilot project in Penang for 1968-1970 and at the same time draw up a plan for the national public library service in Malaysia for incorporation in the next Five-Year Plan based on a systematic assessment of the library situation and needs of Malaysia;
ii. A number of officers be sent abroad for training in library administration and a number of scholarships be obtained for the study of librarianship so the by 1970, these officers could join the Public Library Unit in the Prime Minister's Department and form the core of officers who would initiate and man the first public libraries to be set up in the Third Five-Year Plan and to teach the next generation of librarians;
iii. Consideration be given to the setting up pf a library school in Malaysia with non-graduate courses preferably at MARA College and graduate studies at the University of Malaysia for implementation in 1970 and arrangements be made to secure qualifies staff. The mistake must not be made of expanding a public library service without simultaneously training the officers who will man the service.


The country's future depends on men and women who have a spirit of adventure, of inventiveness and creativity and the public library can contribute directly to the creation of an environment conducive to the development of that spirit. Public libraries must become the focus of culture and intellectual life in Malaysia.

It is in the nation's interest therefore that public libraries be placed on a firm footing in Malaysia and only the Government can provide the framework and resources for a uniform service of a high standard. The Federal Government has embarked recently on a mass family planning campaign and set up a National Family Planning Board. I have faith that the same spirit with the same enthusiasm will be shown by the Federal Government in the case of the national public library service.

Public Libraries in Malaysia today are, with few exceptions, like tottering babies, some under-nourished, some dying and some abandoned to the vagaries of uninterested committees. The responsibility now falls squarely on the Federal Government to rescue the "babies" and much more to develop them for the positive roles they should play in national development. Other progressive governments have accepted this responsibility and the time has come when ours must.


The writer is grateful to Mr. Sonni Pillai, Secretary, City Council of George Town, Penang, Malaysia for reading the draft of this paper and discussing with him some of the points raised therein. The views expressed in this paper, however, do not necessarily reflect those of the Penang Library Committee or the City Council of George Town. October 1967.


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