By Benedict Chong
The recent removal of two books from the shelves of all libraries administered by the National Library Board (NLB) resulted in much furore from the civil rights community. The books “And Tango Makes Three” and “The White Sawn Express: A Story About Adoption” had led to a member of the public writing in to NLB complaining that they promoted homosexuality and contravened pro-family values.
The statement NLB issued in response to criticism that followed the banning of such books was:
“NLB’s collection development policy takes special care of our children’s collections to ensure they are age-appropriate. We take a cautious approach, particularly in books and materials for children. NLB’s understanding of family is consistent with that of the Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Ministry of Education.”
Upon closer inspection, the dissection of the words “development policy” reeks of blatant attempts at crafting young minds arbitrarily by limiting materials available for widespread use. How different is this from that of specialised indoctrination centres?
A library is supposedly a centre of knowledge, a venue where great literal works are stored for the perusal of those seeking knowledge far and beyond what one already possesses. As the quote goes, “A library is a delivery room for the birth of ideas, a place where history comes to live.” By banning and then pulping books that do not ‘fit in’, NLB is not only limiting the ideas available for inspection and scrutiny, but also believing rather falsely that they are on a moral pedestal, a pedestal on which they have the right to create the only roads through which young minds can travel.
Had the libraries been privately owned and there was competition amongst them for readership and visitations, then any library should have the right as a privately owned entity to remove books contrary to its vision. However, NLB is an organisation funded by the government (more specifically the Ministry of Communications and Information) and is therefore an extension of the government. The name of the Ministry itself could imply that the switch to a Nazi-era Ministry Of Propaganda can be made and its role wouldn’t be much altered besides the remaking of name cards. If the Ministry considers it a sacred role to filter information according to societal norms, how different is it to the ‘societal norms’ propagated by similar Ministries in totalitarian countries?
The arguments in support of NLB’s decision have largely emerged from social conservatives and other traditionalists believing in the sanctity of the status quo. One such argument is that the library is merely reflecting the true stand of the government. But if that is so, will it not also imply that the state is the central facet of society and that every individual should abide by norms set by the state? Does free will still exist then?
In a petition launched in favour of NLB’s action by Singaporeans Unite For Family, the supporting argument was that NLB was merely “looking after the interests of children” and it was their (NLB’s) “duty” to act as such. By extension, this would also imply that parents ought to surrender their roles as a guiding light in their own children’s development to the state. And do so willingly too!
Even if the intellectual horizons of these people are as narrow as a street alley, why should they have the power to limit those who would seek to broaden their sights? It is within the rights of these conservatives to enforce bans on such materials within their households but to pursue a general ban through the use of state power is resplendent of a totalitarian state and despotism.
In Singapore, the possession of satellite television, wide–spectrum radios and various other communicative devices are heavily regulated if not entirely prohibited. And now, we also know that the national public libraries are not immune to state intervention.
The Internet, as one of the last bastions of free speech and expression is also about to or has already come under heavy regulatory scrutiny with the introduction of new ‘licencing’ rules covering websites with an excess of 50,000 unique views from the country. The use of the word ‘licensing’ is but a government euphemism for state oversight. The “performance bond” of S$50,000 is also but a ransom and a threat to force news and web companies to toe a state sanctioned line of reporting.
Of course, every one of these actions may be done with good intentions, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This regulatory state is now atop a slippery slope for more rules and regulations based upon their arbitrary definitions of morality and social correctness.
The core reason for this article is not to pursue any ends but to open the doors to others who may seek it. Or at least provide a key. Since independence, the state has been ever-present in the planning and/or engineering of society. From how many children we can or should have to the access of materials in accordance to societal norms, the government has a hand in them. But should such decisions be left to mothers and fathers or should the state decide for them with a one-size-fits-all policy?
We have seen that such policies hardly ever make their mark on the target board. Yet the state continues to this day to meddle in the daily lives of its citizen.
On a personal note, I am not afraid to say that many ministries in the government are obsolete and serve no purpose other than to perpetuate government presence in every facet of society. Shutting down ministries such as MCI, MCCY and MSF wouldn’t make Singapore any lesser, but it would sure save us a lot of money sponsoring such net loss organisations.