Morality v secular ethics

Morality v secular ethics
Two of the three books that were removed.

From drawing rousing support from the "pro-family" camp to expressions of surprise and protest from the "pro-choice" camp, the National Library Board's (NLB) decision to withdraw and pulp three children's storybooks has drawn much confusion as to what is acceptable in secular Singapore.

On one hand, it is understandable that some parents would want certain books removed from the library because these books espouse values that are contrary to their own, and so their children should not get their hands on the books.

Even if some may argue that such parents have a choice of not allowing their children to borrow these books, it cannot be ignored that some parents sometimes leave their children in public libraries, either by themselves or with their foreign domestic workers, while they run errands.

They want their children to be protected from being influenced in a subtle way by values contrary to the ones held by themselves.

But still, not getting your children to talk about what they had read in the library and not asking if they needed clarification on anything they had read is bad parenting.


The controversy generated by the withdrawal of the children's books by NLB mirrors other recent controversies - the Wear White versus Pink Dot movement and the campaigns for and against the repeal of Section 377A, the law that criminalises sex between men.

These controversies were deemed important enough for even religious leaders to wade into, so as to provide better clarity to their own congregants.

It is indeed right for religious leaders to provide better direction on matters that concern morality to their believers.

But wading into such arguments by religious leaders also has the potential to muddy the waters further as to what is a moral issue versus what is a matter of public policy, especially when such leaders are not careful with how they articulate such views and to whom they are directed at.

There is certainly a difference between morality and secular ethics, and if we do not properly distinguish between the two, we may undermine the secular basis of our nation.

This is why it is important for NLB to make a clear stand on this issue.

In 1958, segregationists alleging that the book The Rabbit's Wedding promotes racial integration and interracial marriages sought to have it banned in Alabama in the US.

The director of the library in the southern state, upon reviewing the book, found that it had no objectionable content.

She determined that it was her ethical duty to defend the book against an outright ban. The book was eventually placed in special reserve shelves in the state library.


If the NLB felt that the books presented issues of sexuality to children who are too young to understand them, it could have decided to place them in a restricted section of the children's library, allowing only parents to check them out, instead of withdrawing the books from its libraries and pulping them.

In its media statement about why it decided to take down the books, the NLB explained that age-appropriateness and value-appropriateness (as determined by the Government) were its criteria for making that decision.

As far as science is concerned, the Government has determined the theory of evolution as opposed to creation theory is what would be taught to students in our public schools.

And yet, we find books that support creation theory such as And God Created Squash: How The World Began by Martha Whitmore Hickman available to children in our public libraries.

What criteria did the NLB use to determine that such books are appropriate for its young readers?

Ravi Philemon has been doing community work for more than 20 years. He was an editor with The Online Citizen and pens his thoughts onĀ

This article was first published on July 13, 2014.
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