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Minister Ibrahim’s Statement on the NLB Controversy

By Masked Crusader

Minister of Communications and Information, Yaacob Ibrahim, in a Facebook post on the National Library Board (NLB)’s decision to remove and destroy three children’s books has fanned the controversy by stating:

“NLB’s approach is to reflect existing social norms, and not to challenge or seek to change them.”

The statement suggests that an individual’s rights in matters such as the education of their young is subjugated to the whims of the majority.

The Minister, as a Muslim and Malay—both minority groups in Singapore—should know better as this is the type of argument that emboldens the majority in oppressing the rights of minorities resulting in the tyranny of the majority. The exercise of such power by the majority, contrary to what some may think, is not democracy in action.

As Singaporean school children are not taught politics, comments such as the Minister's could entrench a warped idea of what democracy is as they grow up to be adults. Most democracies recognise the possible oppression of people in the minority if a simple majority vote were to decide everything in society. As such, limits are placed on the democratic process by various mechanisms such as an overarching bill of rights, separation of powers and qualified majority rules when voting (e.g. a two-thirds majority).

The Minister should know that history has demonstrated again and again abuses in the name of maintaining “social or community norms”. Racism, slavery, fascism, sexism, and religious and ethnic based persecution were all social norms in some society or other. Many of these forms of discrimination are still prevalent in societies today and some, as apparent through recent events, are perpetrated in Singapore against communities that find themselves in the minority.

The Minister, in making the above comment, has also forgotten that the government has, in the past, unilaterally challenged or changed social norms by arguing that there are other important realities that require equal consideration. It had approved the two casinos and pushed through the plan to increase Singapore's population to 6.9 million despite strong objections from the public.

In his poorly articulated post, Ibrahim, despite trying to shed clarity on NLB's actions, does the opposite. He says:

“Firstly, the withdrawal was not based on a single complaint, without an attempt to assess the merits of the complaint. NLB has a process where its officers carefully consider such feedback, before making a decision.”

Like the NLB before him, he provides no details on how the merits of the complaints were assessed; what guidelines, if any, exist; what process NLB has for evaluation of complaints; and how they were used in this instance. In what has become the typical government refrain, he asks the public to accept that the process was proper because, as Minister, he is satisfied it is so.

In 2012, Khaw Boon Wan, National Development Minister, hastily concluded that processes and officials in his ministry where above board when inquiring about the suspicious purchase of 26 Brompton foldable bicycles for $2,200 each only to sanction a probe soon after. The resulting investigation revealed corruption and fallibility in processes.

In the matter of the banned children’s books, it is not inconceivable that someone in an influential position at NLB may have acted over-zealously, possibly to satisfy members of their own religious community. This is particularly so when the NLB, which prides itself as world leader in library and information services, is not able to cite international best practices in support of its decision or other renowned libraries that have similarly banned these three titles. I urge the MCI Minister to investigate this matter again in the interests of clarity and transparency so that public trust in government agencies is not eroded further.

Perhaps most confounding about Ibrahim’s post is the logic contained in the following [emphasis mine]:

“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. People can buy these titles for their children if they wish. Rather, NLB has to decide what books should be made readily available to children, who are sometimes unsupervised, in the children’s section of our public libraries. For the adult sections of the library, the guidelines for what is suitable are much wider, and a much wider range of titles are on the shelves.”

One can think of a number of better ways to address the situation than the one which NLB adopted and which the Minister supports. How can the decision to borrow a book for their child be the parent’s to make when the book has been destroyed? Why pulp the books when the NLB could have kept them in a different section where parents can check out the books for their children? Why not consider an age advisory or some sort of restriction for the titles?

NLB’s actions belie an institution which is run by scholars and is governed by a Board comprised of professionals which has oversight over its functions.

Few parents would argue with the need to consider the age-appropriateness of titles and for some measures to be in place—as in the case of films—as a safeguard. But, what is significant in this case is that no attempt appears to have been made to determine the appropriate age at which the pulped titles can be read. Instead the NLB ordered a blanket ban of the books from the shelves of the public library resulting in even an 18-year-old child or parent being unable to read the books. In addition, considering social norms also dictate that murder, thievery, drug-abuse, and deceit are not to be tolerated in society and yet all of these are ever present in films, video games and books which children are exposed to, it is obvious that something more sinister is at play here.

Clearly, what is happening is that those wanting access to knowledge and insight—the silent majority—are collateral damage in the conflict between the religious right and the LGBT community in Singapore. It is not a coincidence that this latest incident has occurred in the wake of the Pink Dot-Wear White hostilities. Sadly, the government has demonstrated very little leadership in addressing the issue head on. Instead, it hides behind words such as “social norms” hoping the situation will resolve itself if sufficiently ignored.

This article was first published in maskedcrusader.blogspot.sg