On NLB’s Recent Book Destroying Madness

When I was young, the well maintained and easily accessible libraries became at the same time a paradise for my mind and a sanctuary for my heart. At first I read and borrowed only Chinese books, then more and more English ones; my reading scope widened from pure literature to all sorts of non-fictions. Libraries had become places somehow rather sacred to me, and I continued to visit them after I started working even though I had purchased more books than I could finish reading.

All the rosy images suddenly shattered two days ago when I read the news of the National Library Board’s decision to remove two children’s books from shelves. The decision was made because these books portrayed ‘unconventional’ families, a.k.a. same-sex couples and single parents. I have known that the Singapore society is largely conservative and the majority of the citizens are against LGBT; but I have not imagined that my beloved and supposedly neutral NLB has taken such a stance. My first reaction was a silent ‘WTF’, followed by a tweet, ‘maybe I should start boycotting NLB.’

As a  teacher, I have been teaching my pupils such values as respect, inclusiveness, and embracing diversity, as promoted by MOE. Yet I could not sense these values in NLB’s decision.

The books really do not need to be removed. NLB can have put the books in the adult area. NLB can have even set up a ‘controversial books corner’ where children under certain age can only access with parental guidance. In fact, even without such a corner, if parents really care about their young kids’ reading, parental guidance should be provided whenever a child reads; if the parent thinks that a book is ‘inappropriate’ in values, the parent can just leave it alone.

I thought removing books for such reasons was the worst action taken by NLB. I was wrong. After a heated debate involving a spectacular tide of opposition and engaging a large number of netizens who voiced their protests through open letters and petitions (1, 2), NLB did not reinstate the books; instead, it has decided to pulp the books — not two, but three. This time it was backed by Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, citing ‘representing social norms’ as a mission of NLB.

Yes, the society is conservative, and yes, many parents do not want their young children to be exposed to such topics; removing the books upsets me but is still within range of tolerance. But destroying books? Even if removing those three books were justifiable, NLB could have just given them away; why pulp the books? This is what I call ‘madness’, and is apparently a symbolic gesture. And it is a terribly wrong gesture, a gesture that appeases the conservative majority but enrages the open-minded minority, a gesture that sums up all debates and discussions in a simple, forceful, physical action.

As a public institution, NLB is maintained with taxpayers’ money and therefore obliged to involve the public in major or possibly controversial decision making; but it has failed to do so. There was no public hearing, no room for disputation, not even the slightest attempt to be impartial and inclusive. How can we trust such an institution to provide unbiased, unselected and unfiltered information when we do research in its libraries?

If NLB can destroy books because those books depict real, homosexual penguins, happy LGBT families with adopted kids, alternate families with a permutation of family structures, then it will not be any surprise if one day NLB decides to destroy books on evolution, paganism, and non-mainstream versions of major religions; one day it will censor each and every book, destroy all books that do not conform to ‘social norms’ and discard all facts that are against the beliefs of the ‘overwhelming majority’. Call me a pessimist, but this chain of events appeared just too many times in history.

Destroying books is at least a terrible PR move and more importantly a step backward in human history. Dictators and religions pillaged libraries in history because libraries did not succumb to fanaticism or biases. Shockingly ironically, the modern NLB is now doing what tyrants used to do to libraries.

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