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The explanation that helped NLB little

By Howard Lee

In times of crisis, people seek leadership. Leaders calm nerves, set directions, provide clarity and bring people together.

What we have on hand – the National Library Board removing a few books from their shelves – might not be anywhere near a crisis (unless you happen to work for NLB), but amidst the conflict, people sought clarity and assurance.

That leader, however, was not to be found in Yaccob Ibrahim, the Minister for Communication and Information, and the one who oversees NLB as a statutory board.

In his statement, which he had hoped to “explain the Government's position” on NLB's actions, Mr Yaccob did anything but that. In fact, what he said did little more than make it confusing for us, and brought our society little closer to understanding where the government is coming from, much less how we can resolve future disputes of a similar nature.

Let us take a closer look at his statement, and realise why.

“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.”

If that were the case, then nowhere has NLB revealed to us how many of such complaints it received about the two books in question, or if they have indeed carefully considered the feedback given and weighed it against other or opposing views.

For that matter, what exactly is NLB's process in assessing requests to withdraw books from circulation? Is their decision based more on moralistic consideration, factual accuracy or any other factors? Do they form an independent review committee to conduct such evaluations, or ask their colleague in the next cubicle? Do they consult experts in the field, or survey members of the public? Do they rigorously test the allegations made against the book, since interpretation of a particular read is always based on context?

You might think that due process is unnecessary given that we are, after all, talking about children books. But such processes need to be in place to prevent abuse of what now seems to be a potentially open system of evaluation, where I can simply call on NLB to remove any book I do not like, based on my own prejudices.

This basically means that the books we have in our libraries are not a curated collection based on good sense and judgement for their quality, but the leftovers from those with the loudest protesting voices. Is this acceptable from an institution that champions knowledge?

Mr Yaccob's insistence that NLB has applied due process, without actually showing what this process is, is basically asking us to trust that NLB knows what it is doing. Unfortunately, you do not build trust by asking people to trust you. You do so by proving yourself worthy of their trust. For NLB, this means that it needs to demonstrate professionalism, that it is fair in its actions.

We saw none of that. If anything, we only saw a Minister trying in futility to shield one of his agencies from further criticism.

“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.”

Of course that makes sense, because those who wish to read about allegedly gay penguins will most definitely be able to purchase a copy for their own reading pleasure. The basis for this fact is unknown, but if the Minister utters it, it must be true.

In truth, Mr Yaccob is effectively saying that full knowledge is only for those who can afford it, because the library, a public institution, would not be addressing the needs of the less wealthy by doing what it can, with public monies, to provide whatever literature it can afford.

On the contrary, should it find any literature that conflicts with the interest of the loudest protesting voices, it is more inclined to waste such monies by destroying the offending literature than to give it free to those who wish to read it.

“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.”

Of course, no one should every have the audacity of challenging the right to protect our children from what the loudest protesting voices find offensive. But if that were the case, why not move the material that is offensive to children into the adult section, and let parents decide if they want to allow their children to read such material?

By taking the books out of the library completely, not only is NLB deciding on what books children can or cannot read, by the most affordable means available. It is also deciding on what books adults can or cannot read.

“Thirdly, NLB’s decision was guided by community norms. Public libraries serve the community and it is right that they give consideration to community norms. The prevailing norms, which the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans accept, support teaching children about conventional families, but not about alternative, non-traditional families, which is what the books in question are about.”

Perhaps it is fair that a public institution should be guided by community norms. If so, then the pertinent questions to ask would be, how are norms formed, and who decides on these norms?

“Social norms” do not simply come into existence. They are created by the contest of differing views of individuals and groups that make up a community or society. In such contests, the norm emerges from the majority, who either convince the minority of their values, or beat them into submission. The minority, should they choose to continue resisting, are relegated to the realm of sub-culture.

If the books that NLB removed were indeed pushing for a certain affirmation, or were meant to help those who are seeking affirmation, of a specific view of the family or “lifestyle choice”, then NLB's action cannot possible be viewed as an impartial adoption of what society regards as “the norm”.

Indeed, as Mr Yaccob next wrote, “societies are never static, and will change over time.” By removing access to one view, NLB has effectively stunted access to and the development of this view, thus preventing a fair contest of ideas.

In other words, by removing some content that is deemed unfavourable to some, NLB has become a participant in the shaping of social norms, but allowing certain kinds of content to enter the public sphere and others to fade into oblivion. Without such content there is no debate. Has NLB merely created its own “community norms”?

We saw no due process in evaluating the books. We saw that NLB would rather destroy books than allow others to benefit from them. We also saw how NLB is more than a mere reflection of what society finds acceptable, but an active player in defining “community norms”, by excluding certain views from public debate.

In truth, NLB's actions have done little to convince the public that it is a professional outfit with the people's interest at heart, and the Minister's statment has actually done nothing to help.