Penguins and Prejudice

“I needed to become a First Amendment absolutist, and I still find it uncomfortable being a First Amendment absolutist. I was not put on this earth to be an absolutist about anything. I’m somebody whose natural response to an awful lot of stuff is to say: yes, I see your point of view, or at least to try and find common ground. But when it comes to the First Amendment, there is no common ground.” —Neil Gaiman (The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell, p. 191)

The last two weeks in Singapore have been very eventful for the literary community. On July 8, a post appeared on a Facebook group called “We are against Pinkdot in Singapore” bragging that after only one complaint to the National Library Board, two children’s picture books — And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illus. Henry Cole (2005) and The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption by Jean Davies Okimoto and Elaine M. Aoki, illus. Meilo So (2002) — had been removed from library shelves, without any kind of review process, because they did not conform to a reductionist definition of “pro-family values,” a euphemism often employed by the religious right to refer to a heterosexual family situation with one man, one woman, and their children. The action had been confirmed by Ms Tay Ai Cheng, Assistant Chief Executive & Chief Librarian, whose email message was reproduced in the post.

tango-fact
Illustration by Henry Cole, layout by Jaxe Pan.

Two days later, after much uproar among writers, readers and parents, the news came that not only was NLB not listening to any of the feedback decrying their decision, but that in fact they were going to pulp the books, despite the many possible alternatives (reshelving them, donating them, holding them for the annual library book sale, affixing a parental discretion label, or just ignoring a single solitary complaint about them). Let me repeat that: because one member of a right-wing extremist group took offense to the very idea of two male penguins raising a baby penguin, and same-sex couples adopting children, Singapore’s national repository for knowledge and information was going to destroy all copies of the two titles.

This story was picked up by Boing Boing, The Washington Post, The Guardian, BBC News, Al Jazeera, NBC News, The Huffington Post, The Independent (UK), Human Rights Watch, PEN International, and other international news sources. I’m not sure what NLB was hoping to accomplish, but instead of quietly going away, it turned into a global news story.

In the days to come, it was made public that earlier in the year, NLB had also pulped Who’s In My Family?: All About Our Families by Robie H. Harris, illus. Nadine Bernard Westcott (2012), as well as three other non-fiction books by Harris about changing bodies and sexual health. These had been done quietly, and unannounced to the public.

Banning books is never the solution, but the destruction of books is a symbolic attack on knowledge itself, and was perhaps the worst possible decision NLB could have made. I am not a Singaporean citizen, but I still pay taxes in Singapore every year, and a portion of those taxes go to support NLB. It is not in my interest, or in the interest of any others who share my viewpoint (which is a lot of people), that books be removed from NLB shelves just because a hate-filled vocal minority wish them to be.

Several brave writers decided to boycott NLB, cancel already-scheduled events in protest, and refuse to work with NLB in the future. Playwright and novelist Ovidia Yu quit her position on the Singapore Writers Festival steering committee because NLB is a programming and venue partner. Three judges for the non-fiction category of the Singapore Literature Prize resigned. Novelist and AWARE Communications Director Jolene Tan and concerned mother Germaine Eliza Ong organized a (legal and permitted) read-in at the NLB Atrium called Let’s Read Together!, which attracted four to five hundred people, many of them parents who read the banned books and others to their children (it set the record for being the first political protest held in Singapore outside the confines of Hong Lim Park); I was one of these parents, and I was proud to bring my daughter Anya to her first act of civil disobedience, even if she really didn’t know what the hubbub was about.

LRT-NLB
Reading And Tango Makes Three to Anya on my iPad. Photo by Alvin Pang.

Despite all this blowback, NLB CEO Elaine Ng seemed befuddled by all of the foofaraw and “saddened” that people were so angry at them, but NLB was not changing its decision to keep the books off the shelves. Jasna Dhansukhlal, assistant director for NLB’s public library services, told My Paper that “We have withdrawn the titles, there’s no putting them back. […] Basically they’re pulped and no longer in existence.”

As the second week of this scandal wore on, LGBT writer friends of mine and allies became despondent, publicly despairing that despite unofficial mentions of tolerance, it was now official government policy to discriminate against “alternative lifestyles”: books with even a whiff of same-sex relationships are a danger to Singaporean children, and have to be destroyed. Several of those same friends mentioned that they simply saw no place for them in Singapore anymore, and wanted to migrate at the earliest opportunity; another said that he was giving up writing altogether.

Finally, this past Friday, Minister Yaacob Ibrahim (Minstry of Communications and Information, who earlier defended the decision to remove the books) ordered NLB to reinstate the two books, but to place them in the adult section of the library. This seemed like a compromise for everyone, although it still felt like a ghettoization. The fact that they weren’t being destroyed (despite official statements to the contrary) was a very good thing, but the books were still being treated by NLB as toxic to children, which gets to the whole crux of the matter.

(By the way, you can see a more detailed round-up of everything that happened here at TODAY.)

This was a two-part issue, about free expression and inclusivity. Unlike the USA, where I come from, Singapore has no such thing as the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”) Any of the rights that are taken for granted under the First Amendment have to be petitioned for in Singapore, and if the government doesn’t like what you have to say, they can deny you those rights and there is very little recourse. Part of free expression is the unfettered access to information, and by banning the books and then announcing that they were pulping them, NLB was making it clear that a secular governmental organization could easily deny the citizenry that access.

As for inclusivity, Singapore has (with joyous zeal) imported the culture war from the USA, with the religious right gaining a more vocal foothold in political influence. That NLB was willing to just roll over and cower to the will of this group is notable. Also notable is that the only demographic group targeted here is the LGBT (or QUILTBAG, to be more accurate) community. And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express contained examples of same-sex relationships, and this is the only reason that they were challenged. (It must also be pointed out that representation does not equal promotion or endorsement, but this nuance is lost on the zealot mind.) Homosexual sex between men is still illegal in Singapore, and while the government is forward-thinking in so many ways, they are frighteningly backward when it comes to including the QUILTBAG community in mainstream society. How can you consider yourself a First World country if you are actively oppressing an entire demographic?

I’ll just close by saying that even though the books are now available in the library again, the National Library Board has still not admitted to any wrongdoing, nor have they made any attempt to reach out to the QUILTBAG community. Until both are done, I will not participate in any NLB-led literary events to which I am invited. This decision has taken much consideration, and the dust has settled a bit, so I cannot be accused of jumping on any bandwagons or acting rashly in the heat of the moment (although I must note that these and similar accusations were aimed at my literary comrades during the last two weeks, and they are entirely baseless).

If I am asked to be a featured author again at the Singapore Writers Festival this year, I will accept, but I will make it a point to bring up this issue on any panel I am given (which may discourage them from inviting me; so be it). I will be there regardless, to promote the Epigram Books literary titles under my editorship.

Echoing Neil Gaiman’s quote at the top of this post, free expression and inclusivity are not up for negotiation, and there can be no common ground with those who would chip away or seek to destroy either one. A civilized society must have both.

(N.B. This post was revised on 22 July to add hyperlinks, clarify statements, and tidy up the prose.)

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Filed under Books, Parenthood, Public Libraries, Singapore

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