By Howard Lee
Jillian, 11, would be the typical girl that the National Library Board thinks – of fears, as the case may be – would go the library on her own and pick up books that depict “alternative lifestyles” and “non-pro-family” values.
That was NLB’s justification for removing a number of titles recently, following public feedback.
Jillian could describe to a tee what one of the removed books, “And Tango Makes Three” was about. However, reading the book did not change her ideas about “family values”.
While acknowledging that same-sex parents were not usual, compared to her family of a father mother and two other siblings aged 7 and 4 – and dad cooks breakfast on weekends – she had this to say when I asked her what she felt was the most important lesson she learnt from the book: “A family does not need to be about a mother and father.”
Similarly, another father I spoke to shared that, when he asked his son: “What is a family?”, the 6-year-old’s simple reply was: “Love”.
In fact, those were the views echoed by many of the parents I spoke to yesterday at the Let’s Read Together event organised by a few individuals passionate about reading. The event saw a turnout of a few hundred, consisting parents and their children.
Stella, Jillian’s mother, felt that reading should be about giving children a chance to learn about different things. “I want them to know that everyone is special… that there is a lot you can learn from books.”
Indeed, concerns that children would have biased views about others based on their family composition seemed to have worried a number of parents that TOC interviewed at the event, including a single parent family, and those with mixed-race parents and adopted children.
Not having books as a medium for parents to introduce these concepts to their children and explain to them about discrimination appeared to have urged these parents to attend the event.
Put in perspective, this is a very real concern for society. The very stand NLB has taken on this issue implied that the statutory board has effectively sanctioned the marginalisation of certain family units, rather than encourage a broader acceptance of diversity.
On the other hand, concerns that such books would encourage children to adopt an “alternative lifestyle” did not rank high among the parents at the event. “It is crazy to think that just because my children read about gays, they would become gays,” exclaimed one mother of five.
In fact, early childhood educator Rachel Zeng expressed concern that NLB has not done its homework before deciding on removing books from its shelves. “IF NLB wants to know the impact that books have on children, they need to talk to the children themselves.”
“I’m sad about NLB’s decision to pulp the books,” said Stella. “It’s a rash move and I think they should think about it a bit more before deciding.”
Concerns remain over NLB’s process of censuring books, which to date has not been made transparent to the public. All we had was the claim from NLB’s chief executive, Elaine Ng, “It’s unfortunate that it appears to be a knee-jerk reaction but we have an ongoing process of review.”
On the contrary, it was the parents who think that NLB’s withdrawal of the book was “knee-jerk” – one parent at the reading event used that exact same phrase on NLB – pandering to the interests of a few without giving adequate thought to a broader consensus. Exactly what was NLB’s review process? Who do they consult? Do they clarify with the writers? Do they do audience testing? Is it an independent body that reviews complaints made against books?
Parents and educators were not the only ones who did not buy Ms Ng’s claim. Writers Gwee Li Sui, Felix Cheong and other have boycotted an NLB writers’ festival event to express their unhappiness over the removal of the titles. The lack of transparency was a key concern to them, and it is not surprising given what they do for a living. Gwee, in particular, expressed concern that authors might not even know that their works have been removed, such was the opacity in NLB’s decision making process.
Evidently, NLB’s latest decision has gotten a lot of people agitated, but three missteps seem to be standing out like badly bruised sore thumbs – the lack of transparency over its book review process; the destruction of perfectly good books which for a library is akin to committing murder; and its decision to serve as an arbiter of “community norms”, a point that has been summarily rejected by the parents TOC spoke to. Even the “clarification” statement by the Minister for Communication and Information has done little to help, and has instead been widely criticised.
Sadly, NLB seems to see no urgent need to address such unhappiness properly. This episode will possibly go down as the worst phase in the public institution’s image. For society at large, its actions have further entrenched, not diffused, the cultural rifts that have recently surfaced in Singapore society. That should have been the last thing that a National Library should even be remotely associated with.
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By Howard Lee