It’s been two zigzag weeks for the National Library Board in Singapore (NLB), that has been the focus of international media furor since its NLB, a government agency that oversees 26 state libraries, announced that all copies of the children’s books And Tango Makes Three (S. & S., 2005), The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption (Clarion, 2002), and Who’s In My Family?: All About Our Families (Candlewick, 2012) have not only been banned from the state’s collections, but would be pulped due to the books’ themes of homosexuality that the NLB has said conflicts with the government’s idea of conventional family values.
“The prevailing norms, which the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans accept, support teaching children about conventional families, but not about alternative, non-traditional families, which is what the books in question are about,” said Yaccob Ibrahim, Singapore’s information minister, according to the July 12 Guardian.
The international community of authors and librarians have not reacted quietly.
SLJ columnist and censorship expert Pat Scales said in an email about the Singapore books ban:
“Censorship is a troubling precedent in any country, especially in nations like Singapore and the Untied States with Constitutions that guarantee its citizens free speech… Children who are denied access to information they need are at risk of becoming intolerant adults.”
Dom Moran, director of Free Expression Programs at PEN American Center, wrote in an email to SLJ:
“The decision by the Singapore National Library System to ban children’s books exploring social topics that board members find unfavorable is deplorable,” “By withdrawing from the panel, the judges of the Singapore Literature Prize have made a brave move in defense of the universal right to free expression for all, regardless of age, nationality, or sexual preference.”
What Moran refers to is that following the books ban, three judges from this year’s Singapore Literature Prize—author Romen Rose, Yale professor Robin Hemely, and head of the Intercultural Institute Mr. T Sasitharan—resigned in protest issuing a joint statement saying they couldn’t not serve on the panel given the close relationship between the NLB and the National Book Development Council, which issues the biennial literature prize along with Singapore’s National Arts Council.
Tango is a true story about two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo who were given an adopted egg and produced a female chick named Tango. The book has made waves not only in Singapore, but has “made the American Library Association’s annual list of the top ten banned and challenged books in the U.S. for six of the past eight years,” according to the National Coalition Against Censorship.
Sinagpore, a country known for having a pink alcoholic beverage named after it (the Singapore Sling) and using caning as a form of corporal punishment for infractions such as vandalism—as in the case of American teenager Michael Faye in 1994—is a secular country that is both multicultural and diverse, with its population made up of Chinese, Malays, Indians, Burmese, Japanese, Thai, and Filipinos—as well as mixed race citizens of European and Asian descent.
Religious freedom is written into the country’s Constitution, and freedom of the speech is as well—with restrictions. Barbara Jones, the director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, spoke to SLJ and was in Singapore a year ago for a International Federation of Library Association’s Free Access to Information and Free Expression conference, where she “witnessed a very different kind of librarianship and library culture.”
“Singaporeans are going through a lot of cultural conflict, because they’re not closed off to the world. There are American universities there, and some of the [university] campuses [across Singapore] have different internet policies than the Singaporean universities.”
What Jones is referring to is the fact that Singapore is a surveillance state, and so while she states the fact that a conversation about the book ban was happening at all in Singapore as a form of progress, she acknowledges, “The government has exercised a lot more control over the culture… of conformity. The government has a very strong control over internet.”
In a twist, Jones said that Singapore’s largest newspaper, The Straits Times, contacted ALA following the ban—and the international community’s response—in order to ask ALA about its due process when a book is challenged. Jones pointed the newspaper to the ALA’s “Intellectual Freedom Manual” that handles book challenges.
While copies of Who’s In My Family? were already pulped, Tango and White Swan were not. The books have been place back in the libraries, now in the adult section.
According to NBC News, Minister Ibrahim has said, “I have… asked NLB to review the process by which they deal with such books.”
The needle toward free speech has progressed in Singapore.
“The genie is out of the bottle, and Singapore is going to have to deal with this,” said Jones. “They’re not going to be able to compete [in the world market] unless they can accept diversity.”