When we started this Review a little more than two years ago, we had the lofty if naïve notion of wanting to help engage with the idea of a reading culture in, around and hopefully about Singapore.
Over the course of the past 30 or so reviews and feature articles, we have hopefully made a slight impression with you, our readers, from both within and without the country.
Many of you are friends and acquaintances. Some found us through other friends. And yet others may just have randomly stumbled upon some of our musings. But I feel confident that a large proportion of you have stuck around out of an interest, not in us, but for books – and the act of reading.
From the beginning, my colleagues Chen Yanyun, Jeremy Fernando and I have been very clear that we would steer clear of the kind of activism (political or otherwise) that has so much been a part of the recent public discourse in this country. We only ever wanted to talk about books and get people interested in them, one title at a time.
So it is with great sadness that the turn of this week’s events have drawn us out from the comfort of our reading chairs.
The debate about censorship and book banning is a tired one, with the arguments for or against being dragged out and rehashed each time this, that, or another title finds itself in the middle of real or made-up controversies, offending sensibilities moral or petty.
The Americans are old hands at this. And for them, especially with the rapid ascendance of a vocal (and arguably well-funded) conservative constituency, those quarrels have gradually turned nasty, with no room even for moderate voices to emerge. Not for them, the cliché about agreeing to disagree; in the new cultural wars, you are either with us, or you are with the errorists – with the collateral damage being the collective intellect.
But Singapore is not America, and our national psyche does not have a historical reserve from which we can draw and squander.
We are also a nation proud to embrace – at least in our public posture – differences, recognising the richness that can stem from the many-as-one. Tolerance, consensus-building (of a kind) and patience, working in tandem with (perhaps in spite of) a patrician political machinery towards success and excellence; these have been hallmarks of the national myth.
And it is against such a backdrop of self-satisfaction that the rise in expressions of intolerance has become so alarming in recent times.
But we are not here to add to the noise of the LGBT versus pro-‘Family’ debate.
What has troubled us is the actions by the National Library Board to remove the books at the centre of the current controversy – And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express – from circulation, in response to a complaint from a member of the public. The seeming-urgency of NLB’s actions, carrying out the cull within two days of receiving the initial complaint, is impressive for what can sometimes be a sluggish bureaucracy.
It also leaves many questions unanswered: How was the decision taken? At what levels within the Board? Was it with or without consultation with other library users? What about other public-sector stake holders, such as the National Book Development, and Arts councils (oversight and purview notwithstanding)?
Was there truly no hope of keeping the books in circulation, perhaps under parental advisory? Or was that too much work?
In some ways, the underlying intransigence from a government department is something that many have come to expect.
The truly discomfiting questions are why the Board felt the compulsion, first, to respond to the initial complainant in what can best be described as a laudatory manner, and second, to allow it to become a matter almost of public pride.
To compound the issue, the NLB also made the announcement at a press conference – unprecedented, surely, for a trivial matter such as the withdrawal of a few books – that not only will the titles not be reinstated despite the public outcry, the copies will in fact be pulped, “in accordance with NLB’s policies”.
Here, we may pause to consider the ramifications of the absoluteness of this decision, and the very public manner in which it is pronounced.
Early last year, there was a bit of buzz among politicians, educators and the literary community after questions were asked in Parliament concerning the state of literature education in Singaporean schools.
The multitude of voices, while expressing differences of opinions about the curricular value of literature as an examinable subject, nonetheless agreed on the implicit importance of reading in the development of language, literacy and critical skills – but also that the task of getting our children to read is a Sisyphean one, considering the range of other distractions constantly vying for their attention.
So, the biggest questions we must ask of this recent episode is: if the library, our once-dependable repository of learning and bastion of bibliographic refinement, can betray books for a few brownie points, and devalue these books with such ease in the public decision to destroy them, then what good is all the hue and cry over our students’ inadequacies? What good is academic excellence when they will soon have nothing left to read?
The reality is, this is no longer merely about book banning; it has crossed the threshold to take on the spectacle of a pyre…from which no hope may rise.
Lim Lee Ching
10 July 2014