Anyone who has been to the library knows that it is a place of calm and quiet, paradoxical then that the National Library Board (NLB) has caused uproar in Singapore.
In a sign that the island nation has reached a new stage of development, conservative forces have clashed once again with liberal forces.
A concerned parent, Teo Kai Loon, had written to the library to express his concerns over two library books that seemed to promote non-traditional family values. The two books were And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express. In a reply to Teo, the chief librarian Tay Ai Cheng wrote that, “NLB takes a strong pro-family stand in selecting books for children. We take a cautious approach in identifying titles for our young visitors.”
Teo posted a comment on the Facebook group We Are Against Pink Dot in Singapore telling fellow members “you are empowered to make a difference!” After news groups broke the story online petitions were set up demanding the reinstatement of the books. A #freemylibrary internet campaign was also launched.
In an open letter Ng Yi-Sheng and two others wrote, “It is [puzzling as to why] these books, one of them critically-acclaimed, were removed without any process for disputation.” They argued that “parents who object to the content of these books have the option of not borrowing them for their children. To withdraw it from circulation is irresponsible and unfair to other library users and parents who may want to teach their children about acceptance, tolerance, and the heterogeneity of family structures… the library should not privilege transient policy and public opinion, but serve to display the diversity of opinions of a time, without prejudice. It is therefore crucial that the NLB conduct itself in a neutral fashion, to act as an observer and a recorder of the times.” The letter had received 4,600 signatories as of 8am on July 10. A second petition on change.org has over 2,400 signatories at time of writing.
The library has held firm and insisted that the books will not be reinstated but will be pulped in accordance with standard operating procedure for withdrawn books. It also stated that the decision taken by the NLB was in line with the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Social and Family Development stand on the family.
In retaliation, five top local writers have pulled out of local literary activities. Ovidia Yu withdrew as Chairperson of the Singapore Writing Festical steering committee, while Felix Cheong, Adrian Tan, Prem Anand, and Gwee Li Sui pulled out of a panel discussion in the Read! Singapore season.
As expected response from the ground has been divided. Jeffery Loke wrote that, “[It] takes courage to remain resolute and not cave in to niche vocal interest groups that purport to promote a certain lifestyle that is clearly not aligned with the family values shared by the majority of Singaporeans.”
On the other side of the divide was Debbie Ding, who wrote that the NLB was, “an utter disgrace and shame to Singapore for pulping and destroying books and pandering to the one-sided demands of bigots, close-minded and intolerant people who come with their own moral/religious agendas and try to impose their views on to others by force.”
Minister for Communication and Information Yaacob Ibrahim explained the government’s policy in a Facebook post. He made three points, “Firstly, the withdrawal was not based on a single complaint, without an attempt to assess the merits of the complaint… Secondly, this is a decision only with respect to the children’s section in the public libraries. NLB is not deciding what books children can or cannot read. That decision remains with the parents, as it always has been… Thirdly, NLB’s decision was guided by community norms.” Ibrahim added that, “societies are never static, and will change over time. But NLB’s approach is to reflect existing social norms, and not to challenge or seek to change them.”
Research Fellow Carol Soon in an opinion piece on the IPS Commons suggested that, “In the face of clashing ideals, NLB ought to leave the moral policing to the larger heterogeneous public, who should have a chance to articulate their views on what is offensive or not. Other institutions exist to promote moral values. Our libraries should stay true to their core principles of promoting learning and literacy, and use these as their guiding light.”
In a nutshell, according to the NLB, Mr Loke and the Minister, the decision responds to the sensitivities of mainstream Singapore; to the petitioners, Ms Ding and Dr Soon, the library has overstepped its boundaries. It is hard to argue for black and white when the perspectives from each side are vastly different.
The story has since made international news with major outlets reporting the story. TIME quoted Singapore Management University English literature professor Kirpal Singh as saying, “While we try to balance the conservatives and liberal minded, do we remove anything or everything that gives offense, especially if this offense is quite problematic, quite complex?”
This comes amid the backdrop of the PinkDot-WearWhite affair slightly more than two weeks ago. Pink Dot, an annual carnival promoting the “freedom to love” and supporting the LGBT community was attended by 26,000 people according to organisers. WearWhite, a movement supportive of the traditional family unit, led by a Muslim religious teacher and an evangelical Christian pastor, saw religious services filled with members dressed entirely in white numbering into the tens of thousands.
The clash between liberal and conservative forces is not uniquely Singaporean. It has also gone on in North America and Europe much longer. One could even suggest that this is another stage of societal development as societies move up (the much abused) Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The battle over ideas and the pace of liberalisation will continue in Singapore’s increasingly plural society.
The bigger question is this: will Singaporeans on both sides of the social spectrum agree that understanding is more important than being ‘right’?