COMMENT: NLB should not define ‘family’ and censor books

Singapore's National Library Board has withdrawn two books after a complaint. (Getty Images)
Singapore's National Library Board has withdrawn two books after a complaint. (Getty Images)

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean blogger, journalist and filmmaker. She is also involved in the We Believe in Second Chances campaign for the abolishment of the death penalty. A social media junkie, she tweets at @kixes. The views expressed are her own.

The National Library Board (NLB) has withdrawn two children's books following a letter of complaint. The problem with the offending books? That they feature non-traditional, diverse family groups.

And Tango Makes Three is about two male penguins who paired up and nursed an egg, while The White Swan Express is a story about children being adopted not just by straight, white families but by gay parents, mixed race parents and even a single mother.

Incensed by the portrayal of 'family' as being anything other than "1 father + 1 mother + 3 or more children (if you can afford it)", Teo Kai Loon wrote to NLB to complain.

Disappointingly, NLB caved (and within the space of two days, too, going by Teo's Facebook post in the 'We Are Against Pinkdot in Singapore' page). In her email response, Assistant Chief Executive and Chief Librarian Tay Ai Cheng assured Teo that "NLD takes a strong pro-family stand in selecting books for children."

We all know what 'family' means to the conservatives who have repeatedly and persistently tried to undermine the movement towards equal rights for LGBT people. "Pro-family" is now widely recognised code for "anti-LGBT" and "anti-diversity", because that is actually what is being argued for: that we keep the definition of 'family' to its most narrow meaning.

A library is a community's repository of literature, culture and knowledge. It is a place that anyone should be able to access, to read and to learn. It is incredibly worrying that our national library would cave so quickly and so easily in circumscribing the knowledge that Singaporeans – even the little ones – can access.

People like Teo are of course free to object to the books, and to prevent their young children from reading or borrowing them. But for the books to be withdrawn from a library that is meant to cater to all Singaporeans is to ignore the fact that not all Singaporeans are like Teo. And even more painful: it ignores the fact that not all children are born into or live in the "desired" family groups.

By removing books that might allow a child with a single parent or gay parents to feel included and loved, the NLB has bowed down to pressure and punished children for things completely out of their control, essentially telling them that their families aren't real or worthy of representation in a national library.

As a place of knowledge and learning, a library should have no business defining the concept of 'family' for the public. It should be open to people of all beliefs, and allow them the space to make up their own minds.

That said, the disappointment should not be directed at the NLB alone. As civil servants, the librarians are simply following state policy. It is yet another example of how the state panders to vocal conservatives under the guise of respecting "family values" and the will of the majority.

The siege mentality and sense of victimhood that anti-LGBT advocates like to perpetuate is false. They say that the government has ignored their voice by allowing events like Pink Dot to go ahead, but the truth is that the government has often been on their side, bending over backwards to pander to their views. The withdrawal of library books is just one instance, and probably won't be the last.