Writers boycott

SINGAPORE - The local literary community was vocal in its uproar over the National Library Board's (NLB) decision to withdraw three children's books.

And some of them decided to act - by withdrawing from an NLB event. All four decided to boycott the event tomorrow afternoon at the Central Public Library.

TV writer Prem Anand, a panellist of the Read! Fest event, Humour is Serious Business, said the group made the decision after a discussion yesterday morning. The other panellists are lawyer/novelist Adrian Tan, poet/author Felix Cheong and novelist/poet Gwee Li Sui.

Mr Prem said: "We had a consensus that such a unilateral decision by the NLB was not right. Personally, I don't understand why the NLB is reacting to the objection of a minority."

An NLB spokesman said that it was saddened by the group's withdrawal.

"NLB has organised collaborative events with some of these authors and there has been much interest. The 77 participants who have signed up for the programme would be disappointed.

"We are contacting the participants to inform them of the cancellation. Moving forward, we still welcome these authors to work with us."

The boycott follows the call from several members of the literary scene to reconsider their association with the NLB after it withdrew the books And Tango Makes Three, The White Swan Express and Who Is In My Family after complaints that they did not promote the right family values.

The NLB said yesterday that the withdrawn books would be pulped.

SOLIDARITY

Poet/playwright Alfian Saat called for the "collective action by Singapore writers" on his Facebook page yesterday.

He said: "We can boycott NLB events, dissociate ourselves from the NLB. And instead of hiding behind a vague 'pro-family' stand, our stand is precise and clear: we are against censorship, an opaque bureaucracy and the destruction of books."

MP Baey Yam Keng, who is the deputy chairman for the Government Parliamentary Committee of Communications and Information, said the reaction of the community is "understandable".

"They are passionate and feel that the recent controversy does not respect the art of writing and how literature can be an expression of different views."

But Mr Baey said the community should give the NLB an opportunity to explain itself, especially its processes.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad, chairman for the GPC of Communications and Information, called for writers to take a more "constructive" role, like helping the NLB improve its processes and guidelines for book selection

"As writers, they are able to better interpret the ambiguities and sensitivities of various works. They can also help to create awareness and promote literature as a way to explore new ideas and to broaden horizons."

Local writer/poet Alvin Pang, the moderator of an upcoming event, SG Author Series: Suchen Christine Lim, said he and Ms Lim will not be withdrawing from this event in August.

Mr Pang, also an NLB Read! Singapore featured author, was against the withdrawal of the children's books.

He said: "We must learn to accept differences in society rather than pretend they don't exist. Libraries play a role in doing that.

"It's a matter of whether we can do more good continuing with the event and speaking about these issues. As a children's books assessor, Suchen has a lot to say on censorship and about her working experience."

linheng@sph.com.sg

DECISION IN LINE WITH THE NORMS

Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim explained the Government's stand on the withdrawal of the children's books in a Facebook post yesterday. He gave these reasons:

l. The withdrawal was not based on a single complaint, without an attempt to assess the merits of the complaint. The National Library Board (NLB) has a process where its officers carefully consider such feedback before making a decision.

2. The decision applies only to the children's section in the public libraries. The NLB is not deciding what books children can or cannot read. That decision remains with the parents, as it always has been. People can buy these titles for their children if they wish.

3. The NLB's decision was guided by community norms. Public libraries serve the community and it is right that they give consideration to community norms.

NORMS

The prevailing norms, which the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans accept, support teaching children about conventional families, but not about alternative, non-traditional families, which is what the books in question are about.

This approach is shared between all public agencies dealing with the education and care of young Singaporeans.

He said: "Like in other societies, there is considerable effort by some in Singapore to shift these norms, and equally strong pushback by those who don't wish to see change.

"Societies are never static, and will change over time. But NLB's approach is to reflect existing social norms, and not to challenge or seek to change them."


This article was first published on July 13, 2014.
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