Banned children's books back on adult shelves on Tuesday: NLB

Banned children's books back on adult shelves on Tuesday: NLB

[UPDATED 27 July 2014, 9am: The two previously banned titles will be back on shelves in the adult section on Tuesday.]

The two previously banned children's books which have caused uproar in Singapore will be back on library shelves, albeit in the adult section, on Tuesday, 29 July 2014.

The Straits Times reported that the National Library Board's (NLB) two "And Tango Makes Three" will be placed at the Tampines and Jurong regional libraries. Its only copy of "The White Swan Express" will head to Woodlands Regional Library.

NLB said, in response to queries from the Straits Times, that the books will be part of the social sciences collection in the adult section.

Recently, Singapore's Minister of Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim had instructed NLB to place the two children's books it earlier banned in the adult section instead of pulping them as initially planned.

In a Facebook post on Friday morning, in which he shared his responses to queries from the Straits Times, he reiterated, "We stand by NLB’s decision to remove the three books from the children’s section. As I said earlier, NLB has to decide what books should be made readily available to children, who are usually unsupervised, in the children’s section of our public libraries. NLB will continue to ensure that books in the children’s section are age-appropriate. We have a much wider range of books in the adult section of public libraries."

Earlier, local media reported the NLB's refusal to reinstate the three banned children's books it had taken off the shelves - two banned recently and one some time ago.

Instead, the three titles  "And Tango Makes Three", "The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption", and "Who's In My Family: All About Our Families" were to be destroyed.

Yaacob added, "Many objected to the idea that the books would be pulped after being withdrawn from circulation. I understand these reactions, which reflect a deep-seated respect in our culture for the written word. ‘Who’s in My Family’ had already been disposed of as the title had been reviewed earlier. But I have instructed NLB not to pulp the two other titles, but instead to place them in the adult section of the public libraries. I have also asked NLB to review the process by which they deal with such books.

"The decision on what books children can or cannot read remains with their parents. Parents who wish to borrow these books to read with their children will have the option to do so.

In line with NLB's own concerns

When news first broke, a media statement from NLB stated that the book "And Tango Makes Three" came in a few months ago, and that subsequent requests to take down the books were "in line with our own concerns".

"NLB’s collection development policy takes special care of our children’s collections to ensure they are age-appropriate.  We take a cautious approach, particularly in books and materials for children.  NLB’s understanding of family is consistent with that of the Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Ministry of Education," the statement read.

The announcement drew instant flak from netizens.

Transgender woman Leona Lo tweeted that she had contacted NLB personally. "I've e-mailed NLB to ask them to withdraw my books too - they can pulp them if they want. Better to burn and die a dignified death," she posted. 

Poet Alvin Pang also tweeted in protest of the announcement, saying: "What a senseless waste of taxpayer's money. At least offer them up for sale or donate them."

NLB's press conference comes after two online petitions were launched calling on the agency to reinstate two children’s books, which had been removed at the behest of a member of the public.

Earlier this month, Teo Kai Loon had e-mailed the NLB to voice his concerns over two children’s books, “And Tango Makes Three” and “The White Swan Express”.

“And Tango Makes Three” is a story of two male penguins who nurse and raise a young penguin together, and is based on the true story of two male penguins in a US zoo who successfully hatched a penguin egg. “The White Swan Express” is a book about children who are adopted by straight parents, gay parents, mixed race parents and a single mother.

In supposedly two days, NLB responded to Teo’s e-mail complaint, stating that the books have been withdrawn following his feedback. NLB emphasised that it “takes a strong pro-family stand in selecting books for children” and “when library visitors like yourself [Teo] highlight to us any conflicting content within books, we review such books thoroughly and withdraw them from circulation”.

The response was signed by Tay Ai Cheng, the assistant chief executive and chief librarian of the NLB.

A member of the Facebook group “We Are Against Pinkdot in Singapore”, Teo then posted NLB’s response to him on July 8. He did not include the contents of his original e-mail complaint in the post. In the post, Teo called other members of the group to "continue to scrutinise the catalogue and not allow such children books to go under the radar screen". He also encouraged people to email NLB if they had any concerns, saying that the NLB takes swift action, "all within 2 days". However, Teo’s Facebook post in the group has since been removed.

Local news site reported on Teo’s Facebook post, and included a screengrab of the post in the article.

Backlash on social media

The removal of the two books has sparked strong responses on social media, including blogposts, Facebook notes and two online petitions.

An open letter written by Ng Yi-sheng, Lim Jialiang, and Liyan Chen called for the NLB to reinstate the two titles and “to exercise prudence in response to complaints in the future”. The letter questioned why the books were removed “without any process for disputation”.

The letter called the removal of the books “irresponsible and unfair to other library users and parents”. It also criticised the NLB for "withdrawing titles from the shelves hastily simply because it offends the sensibilities of some people”.

The letter urged those who agreed with the letter to add their names to it. The link to the open letter has garnered nearly 200 shares on Facebook.

A second online petition, started by a Bernadette Chow, also calls for NLB to “reinstate the books and take views for the wider population into consideration”. In her petition, Chow had also compiled a number of views from members of the public with the purpose of “persuading NLB to reconsider their hard-nosed stance”.

The petition quotes a parent, Perry Tan, who says “I’ve no problem about divorce and LGBT theme books for young kids… Children will form their own views and make their own choices as they grow older. Why should religious conservatives and the NLB decide for everyone?”

Another member of the public, Clement Chok was quoted saying, “It doesn’t help to shelter the young from works of realities.”

The petition has since received over 780 signatures.

Social activist Vincent Wijeysingha took to Facebook to express his concerns about the books’ removal. In a status update, he said, “The matter of banning books is extremely serious and should get citizens very worried, regardless of your views on homosexuality.”

Wijeysingha went on to say that he had also written a letter to Tay, which he detailed in his Facebook post. In his letter to Tay, he asked for details on the decision to remove the books and sought clarification about the books’ “conflicting content”.

He noted that “all three of our Prime Ministers have articulated a clear non-discrimination position on homosexuality”. According to Wijeysingha, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had previously said, “They are born that way and that’s that. So if two men or two women are that way, just leave them alone.” Wijeyinsgha added, “In 2013, [current prime minister] Lee Hsien Loong said that on the subject of homosexuality, we should ‘agree to disagree’.”

Wijeysingha also stated that the letter had been copied to two ministers, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, the Minister for Communications and Information and Mr Lawrence Wong who is the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister for Communications and Information.

Local blogger Benjamin Lee, known by his moniker “Mr Miyagi”, has also stepped out in defence of the books. In a blogpost, he wrote, “Please SUPPORT, not PROMOTE, teenaged, single, widowed parents and whatever is left of their families! These books are part of a community lifeline for children who through no fault of their own, have been labelled ‘illegitimate’.”

Lee added, “You don’t have to borrow these books if you or your children don’t need these stories. But don’t deprive others who do, and for crying out loud, ‘Tango Makes Three’ is a true story.”

NLB’s defence

In a Facebook post published earlier today, the NLB defended its “pro-family” and “cautious” stance in curating titles for children.

Stating that young children are among the most frequent visitors to libraries, NLB said it “takes a pro-family and cautious approach in identifying titles for our young visitors”.

NLB said, “In selecting children’s books, we sieve through the contents and exercise our best judgment. We also refer to synopses, reviews and other books written by the authors.”

NLB also reassured parents that it is “sensitive to their concerns and views, and their feedback".

The NLB receives about 20 requests a year for books to be withdrawn, and in general the number they withdraw is less than a third of that.