NLB Book Ban And Tangot for Three

Some months ago, there was the HPB controversy and the Conservatives got their way. Then Pink Dot came again and the Christian and Muslim Conservatives could do little about it. With the recent news on NLB’s withdrawal of children’s books promoting alternative lifestyles as some call it, the Conservatives are back in the match, refreshed and eager.

The debate is slowing morphing into tacit Christian-bashing as Lawrence Khong is the poster boy for the anti-gay campaign. Lawrence Khong has been clever in concealing his Conservative agenda as “pro-family”, a good branding. However, there is a backlash here as the fence sitters who are against censorship but ambivalent on 377A which criminalises a sexual minority have jumped in to censure the Conservatives. Book banning by a public library crossed the line and the anti-377A camp indirectly got more support from NLB’s action. What’s next in wrestling match between the anti and pro 377A camps?

NLB’s banned children’s books reflect a facet of reality

I was surprised that the National Library Board (NLB) removed two children’s books from its collection after it received complaints that the books were not “pro-family”.

One of the books, And Tango for Three, is based on a true story about two male penguins raising a baby penguin in New York’s Central Park Zoo. The other, The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption, is about four families who adopted children – two were made up of heterosexual couples, one was a single-parent family and the last was a same-sex family.

One can surmise that the objection to these books was based on their purported references to homosexuality.

As an agnostic father of two young kids, married to a moderate Christian wife, I was intrigued by the complaint and disturbed that the NLB acted in favour of the complainant.

First, I have absolutely no problems exposing my children to stories and themes of homosexuality, because I believe it highlights a facet of reality: that there are sexual minorities in every society. If my kids turned out straight, I would like them to accord complete respect, empathy and acceptance to their LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) friends.

More importantly, if my children turned out to be adults who belonged to a sexual minority, I would want them to be completely comfortable in their own skin. These books would allow me to inform my children at a young age of the diversity in what it means to be a family and would serve as an invaluable teaching resource.

Second, I am shocked that conservatives are acting as self-appointed vigilantes in the public space, policing what society as a whole should and should not read. While they have every right to adopt the views they choose to adopt, and keep their children away from books they deem inappropriate, they should not impose their values on the rest. Singapore is a secular state, and the NLB, as a statutory board, should act accordingly.

Third, the meaning and definition of “family” can be diverse, and it would serve everyone better if people can agree to disagree, than for one vocal minority to define the meaning of “family”.

NLB has right to decide on its definition of family

I refer to Ms Lin Shaojun’s letter “Library books should not reflect values of only one group” (July 10), which has correctly pointed out that the controversy surrounding the National Library Board’s (NLB) decision to withdraw two books from circulation revolves around the definition of a family.

While the definition and re-definition of a family have sparked off a global debate that is set to continue into the future, the NLB’s actions exemplify precisely what it means to live in a tolerant society that embraces diversity, counter-intuitive as it may sound.

The NLB has exercised its right to choose which viewpoint it seeks to represent, in accordance with the freedoms of a democratic society. Viewpoint diversity does not mean that the NLB abrogates its right to decide on the legitimate community interests it chooses to serve; and to that extent, to decide on a definition of a family that is most consistent with its policies.

In fact, the NLB’s definition of the family is consistent with the government’s pro-family stance, which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong defined in 2007 as “one man, one woman, marrying, having children and bringing up children within that framework of a stable family unit”.

The notion of tolerance does not mean that every view is equally valid; the call to tolerance cannot be used to affirm a myriad of contrary viewpoints and obscure fundamental issues. To tolerate something means that you have to disagree with it in the first place, but if one asserts that nobody should have the ability to pronounce right and wrong, it renders the concept of tolerance incoherent.

In this context, it means that there must be robust debate about the content of the controversy — which is first and foremost on the definition of the family — and not merely assert that the NLB is in no position to decide what that definition should be.

Restricting the circulation of books is not inconsistent with the values of free expression in a democracy.

For instance, the European Court of Human Rights allowed the ban of a children’s book, The Little Red Schoolbook, in the case of Handyside v United Kingdom, stating that although “the book contained factual information that was generally correct … the competent English judges were entitled, in the exercise of their discretion, to think at the relevant time that the book would have pernicious effects on the morals of many of the children and adolescents who would read it” and so allowed the UK’s ban of the children’s book.

In contrast, the books in the NLB controversy were merely withdrawn from public libraries and can still be purchased and read.

It is precisely because the books are pitched at a young audience that the NLB is right to restrict the books in its circulation to those that promote community norms. To do otherwise would be irresponsible.

Parents can still choose to expose their children to other content, but to insist that the NLB circulate books that are inconsistent with its own policies would be intolerant.


One response

  1. Pingback: Daily SG: 11 Jul 2014 | The Singapore Daily

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