National Library Board saga: No names yet for external review panel

National Library Board saga: No names yet for external review panel
A mother reading one of the "banned" books to her child during an event last year in response to the NLB’s decision to pulp three titles.

SINGAPORE - Details of an external panel that will have a say in which books should grace local library shelves will be announced before the middle of the year.

Work is still "in progress", some six months after the National Library Board (NLB) promised to set up the panel to evaluate potentially controversial titles, said an NLB spokesman, who declined to give further details.

The library board is also still reviewing its book selection process, following a public uproar last July when it removed three children's titles which contained homosexual references.

One of the books, And Tango Makes Three, is about a male penguin couple raising a chick. Another, The White Swan Express, features two women, who are partners, adopting a baby.

The episode led to two petitions - one for and the other against the decision. Some writers and academics showed their displeasure by dropping out of NLB-related events.

Since then, NLB's director for communications, relations and development has changed. Mr T. Sundraraj, who handled the controversy last July, is now a consultant for audio visual archives at the National Archives.

Two of the books were later reinstated in the adults' section, on Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim's instructions. Last August, he said in Parliament that the external review panel should represent a cross- section of society and include members from the literary community. The final say on whether to keep a book, however, still lies with NLB.

Commenting on the upcoming panel, author Felix Cheong, 49, said he hopes it would include a range of people such as parents, counsellors, community leaders and writers.

Mr Cheong, who was a member of the Media Development Authority's films consultative panel (volunteers who help decide on movie ratings), said: "Each time a film is challenged, the panel would watch the film together and discuss it in a non-partisan manner. I hope the NLB's panel will be something similar."

Writer Gwee Li Sui, 44, said he would prefer that the panel be set up thoughtfully, even if this took more time.

"It ought to be one that can safeguard the library as a gateway to knowledge, and should have considerable transparency," said Dr Gwee, who has been on evaluation panels for top literary awards in Singapore and the region.

Both men had pulled out of NLB events to protest against the books' removal.

Ms Carrie Yu, who is in her 40s and had supported the library board's decision to pull the books, said she hopes the panel will have "adequate safeguards to ensure children are taught the right values".

"Liberal cultures and ideologies that are harmful to children should not be approved or promoted," she said.

Meanwhile, one of the two authors of The White Swan Express is coming to Singapore. American Jean Davies Okimoto, 72, will be in town on March 3 for a panel discussion on censorship and issues facing young adult literature, organised by Yale-NUS College humanities professor Robin Hemley.

Commenting on the reaction to her book being pulled, she said: "The outpouring of support for the book was gratifying and I gained an appreciation for the people of Singapore who made their voices known."

This article was first published on February 23, 2015.
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