SINGAPORE - The strange journey of And Tango Makes Three - fleshed out in Parliament yesterday - highlighted some of the issues surrounding books being deemed suitable for the National Library.
The National Library Board (NLB) acquired the book, about two male penguins raising a chick, in 2005. It passed an internal review in 2009. But, recently, it was flagged for not being "pro-family" and NLB subsequently withdrew it.
It was one of the three children's books withdrawn earlier by the NLB, following complaints from the public about their homosexual content.
The other two titles are The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption and Who's In My Family?: All About Our Families.
After a public uproar, the NLB reinstated And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express, but in the adult section.
The third title, Who's In My Family, was pulped before the issue came to light.
So what changed between 2009 and now that led to the change of heart?
Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said that making assessments on books is "not an exact science", and that those reviewing the books have their own "prejudices and biases".
"When we reviewed it in 2009 and we decided to retain it, it was then looking at perhaps the discussion at that point in time," said Dr Yaacob.
"(But) a fresh pair of eyes took a look at the book again, there was feedback from the public, and (NLB) decided maybe it was not appropriate for us to have the book in the children's section."
He added that the review process is "never foolproof" and that it is not the intention of NLB to exclude any group in society. But, at the same time, it is not possible to have every title on the shelves.
Dr Yaacob said: "Let us not pretend there is no censorship. There is, because we need to make sure we protect society and also observe our community norms...But we also recognise that society is changing."
Following this episode, the NLB will improve its processes through a new advisory panel, which will "take into account the broader concerns of the community".
"Such a committee should represent a cross-section of society, and include members from the literary community," said Dr Yaacob. Also, the team selecting books for acquisition will be different from the team that reviews the books.
Such segregation of responsibilities "is not clearly spelt out" now but it is "a good practice" which Dr Yaacob believes will "lead to greater public confidence in the review process".
NLB will also establish a clear process to deal with books that have to be withdrawn, and consider other options other than pulping.
Meanwhile, Dr Yaacob urged Singaporeans not to "ignore the contribution of NLB to building up a reading culture" and gave the assurance that NLB will not just go for "safe titles".
"We realised that we have to give the adult section the option for them to make the decision...I don't think NLB will flinch in future, but we have to take into account the concerns of the community, and how best to go forward.
"It is in our interest to provide as wide a reading list as possible to Singaporeans."
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