Public bodies' role in a plural society

Public bodies' role in a plural society

First of all, this book-banning saga by the National Library Board (NLB) is not about a group of concerned Christians agitating to remove children's books that offend their sensibilities and which they worry will teach the wrong values to children.

It is not even about why the NLB has to pulp the books when it could easily donate or sell them to individuals, charities or organisations - a decision that has enraged not just those who oppose the removal but even moderates who have been sitting on the fence on the issue.

Rather, it is about how a public institution should manage differences in a pluralistic society. NLB is in the hot seat this time; but the same could certainly happen to any other organisation.

The unravelling began when someone claimed on an anti-gay Facebook page named "We are against Pinkdot in Singapore" that getting NLB to drop books from its collection was quick and easy - you need only send a complaint via e-mail, as he did. So keep doing it, he suggested.

When news broke last Tuesday about the NLB's decision to remove the books, the push-back over the censorship was immense; even the board's chief executive, Ms Elaine Ng, admitted she did not expect the matter to blow up so much.

But that immediate outpouring of indignation was not so much targeted at the conservative lobbyists as it was at the library's seemingly arbitrary and swift removal of the books in response to a few demanding e-mails.

What was so repugnant about the books that drove NLB, a non-partisan, non-discriminatory and secular institution, to pull them off the shelves and destroy them with such alacrity?

The removal of these books could be viewed by some as a proclamation of zero-tolerance of depictions of non-traditional families by NLB, where portrayals of children of same-sex parents, single-parents or adoptive parents in some books are denied a place on its shelves.

Organised effort

What is one to make of this saga? One interpretation is that it shows how a group of individuals can organise themselves to lobby public institutions to conform to its own set of values - in this case, to get NLB to ban books it considers not "pro-family".

If so, then there's an urgent need for government agencies to have clear policies for dealing with such pressures and to put in place decision-making processes that are transparent, consensual and well-communicated.

How might public agencies respond to moral policing from segments of the public?

Back in 1988, when the censors caved in to pressure from the Christian and Muslim communities and banned both the book and film adaptation of The Last Temptation Of Christ, former deputy prime minister S. Rajaratnam wrote to The Straits Times Forum letters page.

He said Singapore had been spared racial and religious wars because "the Government had the courage always to be on the side of sanity against the intolerance of the hysterical". He warned that "placating religious hysteria is the surest way of encouraging religious intolerance and, therefore, of religious civil wars".

In contrast to the NLB, another public organisation behaved very differently. The Health Promotion Board came under intense pressure from Christian and Muslim groups which objected to the organisation's list of frequently asked questions on sexuality.

It stood firm on its explanation of same-sex relationships and how to deal with them. It was meant to provide advice to youngsters and their parents from a public health perspective, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong when asked about it in Parliament.

To observers, the episode showed that HPB understood that its overarching mission is to provide information - it accepted that same-sex relationships exist and dispensed advice without moral approval or disapproval.

As has been pointed out by others, this book-banning saga is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that public institutions are caught in the crossfire of a culture war.

One only has to look at the United States to see how issues such as abortion and creationism have split its society at all levels.

In navigating this ongoing conflict, the bigger picture needs to be considered: namely, the role of public institutions in a pluralistic society. For the NLB, one compromise option could be to keep the controversial books in a separate section requiring parents to be present, as suggested by many in the wake of this fiasco.

This would allay the concerns of those who consider the books unsuitable for children, while keeping them available to those who see them as valuable materials to educate their children.

Such a compromise solution is one way that a public institution can ensure that no single segment of society is unfairly privileged over another, thereby upholding Singapore's true values of tolerance, diversity and inclusivity.

It is these values, not moral considerations of sexuality or family, that public institutions should use as their guiding principle.

dawntan@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 17, 2014.
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