Beyond compromise, a bigger debate on library board's role

SINGAPORE- The past week must have been one of the roughest faced by the National Library Board (NLB). Public controversies that threaten to polarise the populace are rare on this island, more so when it involves benign, nurturing public institutions such as our libraries.

It may be precisely because of this genial image that our libraries have that the feelings of betrayal and hurt were so strong for those on both sides of the saga - for the library is an institution that many have grown up with and come to love.

While one side saw the presence of books they found offensive as a let-down in the library's duty to serve the nation and families, others saw the removal of the books as a turning-back on the fundamental responsibility of the institution to educate, a capitulation to unreasonable voices in society.

Both sides saw their rights as every bit as legitimate as the other; both sides considered themselves stakeholders in the library and the nation.

With the controversy escalating by the day, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim has stepped in with a compromise solution. While those who expressed strong opinions about the issue could be broadly divided among those who want the children's books banned, those who desire easy access, and those who recoiled at the thought of books being destroyed, the compromise solution offered by Dr Yaacob appears to be aimed mainly at the last group, that is, those who find it hard to stomach the pulping.

This was hinted at in his statement: We stand by NLB's decision to remove the three books from the children's section. NLB will continue to ensure that books in the children's section are age-appropriate. But he understood the reactions to news of the pulping, "which reflect a deep-seated respect in our culture for the written word".

Hence, two of the banned books will be rescued from the recycling bin and placed in the adult section. As for the third book, well, it's already been pulped.

Is this enough to heal the wounds? It's certainly a start, and it does a reasonable job of signalling to stakeholders that the Government does listen.

But this compromise is unlikely to be a sustainable solution to dealing with competing demands from increasingly strident voices in the future, a natural result of a changing, increasingly complex social milieu.

The decision to allow the two books back, this time on the adult shelves, is not a difficult one to make, nor will the execution require much effort. What is more crucial is what is done to address the existing weaknesses in the system, and how to develop a set of guiding principles that is fair and inclusive.

For a start, NLB needs to make its screening and review process a transparent one that will stand up to scrutiny and that has the buy-in from most of the population. Whether books get put on or pulled off the shelves should not be based entirely on the decision of a small handful of librarians.

With 27 million visitors to the 25 public libraries a year, one can imagine that the reading diet, tastes and appetites would surely be as varied as that for food served at our hawker centres.

With a precedent set for controversial children's books to be placed on the adult shelves, it remains to be seen if more of such books will make it through. Or will NLB tighten up at the acquisition stage for fear of history repeating itself?

But while we may have crossed one hurdle now, the larger "values" debate is still left hanging, as is the ideological argument of whether the library should be in the business of playing moral police.

The values debate is here and will resurface time and again. This episode could offer an opportunity to restart that difficult conversation that we have been avoiding.

If not, the best one can hope for is that public institutions have now gotten a reminder about the importance of maintaining a secular shared space, and of being perceived to do so. And that Singaporeans have learnt a bit more about being responsible and engaged citizens.

This article was first published on July 19, 2014.
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