Monday, 21 July 2014

NLB Saga: Let's not open the doors to 'culture wars'

Differences in values and views shouldn't be depicted as battles of good versus evil
By Lydia Lim, Political Editor, The Sunday Times, 20 Jul 2014

A friend once told me how excited she was to take part in a demonstration during her travels in America, because she had never seen or experienced one here.

Those were the days when protests were in short supply in Singapore.

Not any more.

Now, mass gatherings of citizens intent on making their views on contentious issues known and heard have become a regular affair at Hong Lim Park and even spilled over to other parts of Singapore.

Indeed, since the start of June, there has been a spike in such activities. In just five weeks, there have been two protests against the Central Provident Fund (CPF) scheme and one against the Prime Minister at Hong Lim Park.

On the last Saturday of June, the park also played host to the annual Pink Dot picnic, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) event held to celebrate the "freedom to love" regardless of sexual orientation.

That same weekend, some mosques and churches were the sites of a Wear White campaign that saw Muslims and Christians donning white to counter Pink Dot and oppose the LGBT lifestyle.

Over the past fortnight, the action shifted to the National Library. The atrium of its Victoria Street building was where hundreds of parents and children gathered for a read-in last Sunday to protest against the removal of three children's books, after public complaints that they contained homosexual content.

Are these signs of a maturing democracy? After decades of a much-whispered-about "climate of fear", isn't it a welcome change that a growing number of Singaporeans are now unafraid to make public their stand on issues?


But I worry that the shift now taking place is one towards a culture of protest and purges that depicts differences in values and of viewpoints as battles of good versus evil.

When that happens, we stop regarding those who disagree with us as fellow citizens who see the world differently. Instead, they become enemies. The aim then must be to defeat them, find ways to discredit them and take them down.

If we head down this path, then even as fears of government reprisal lessen, the fear of what other citizens who disagree with us may do in retaliation will increase.

What contributes to this new culture of fear is a tendency for those who feel strongly about an issue - be it LGBT relationships or the CPF scheme - to talk and plot the next steps of their campaign within closed circles of the like-minded.

Rally cries to stage protests, organised efforts to lobby national agencies to purge public spaces of information one finds offensive, attention-grabbing speeches and withdrawals from public events as a way to pressure the same agencies to recant and take a U-turn. None of these promotes mutual understanding.

The preference for stealth among some groups who move behind the scenes to lobby and pressure, and whose members refuse to come out to engage openly with anyone not seen to be in their camp, is also disturbing.

In the NLB saga, the man who boasted on Facebook that two children's books - And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express - were removed within two days of his letter of complaint, shut down contact once news of his post spread beyond the We Are Against Pink Dot group he belonged to.

Later, a group of 80 concerned parents, who resigned from the same group because they objected to the books' removal and to the hate speech circulating, chose to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

These are disturbing signs that Singaporeans do not trust each other to discuss and debate issues of public interest in a civil, respectful way.

But stealth and secrecy feed suspicion and conspiracy theories, and further erode trust.

I think it is vital that we as a society strive to keep open the lines of communication between groups who disagree.

If we do not, the conflict over values could well escalate into the "culture wars" that increasingly hinder compromise in several Western democracies, especially in the United States.

Last week, reflecting on the escalation of violence between Israel and Gaza, Israeli writer Nimrod Nir recounted how a Palestinian construction worker saved his life when he was 13 years old and accidentally cut himself so badly at home, that he was "drowning in his own blood".

And he mourned today's breakdown in communication between Jews and Arabs who once lived and worked side by side.

"When I tell my younger siblings today that a Palestinian from Gaza saved my life, they're sceptical. They can't even imagine a reality in which Israelis and Palestinians could be in the same room together without killing each other.

"But there was a time when we co-existed and had a deep, direct dialogue. It's nowhere to be found today, and both sides are trapped by their leaders' agendas. As in most wars, each side dehumanises the other.

"The more time passes without contact, the easier it is to forget that there are very similar human beings on the other side."

We in Singapore have entered a new phase in our political development. It is an exciting time that sees many more ordinary citizens stirring from years of apathy.

But as we stand up for what we believe in, let us also remember to listen to those who hold different views, to take seriously their deeply held values and beliefs and to converse with them in a way that builds mutual respect and trust.

For that is the only way we will be able to reach the compromise solutions vital to a healthy democracy.

It's about who decides what's right or wrong
By Han Fook Kwang, Editor At Large, The Sunday Times, 20 Jul 2014

You would never have thought there could be so much flap over a children's book about two penguins.

In websites, on blogs and social media, the outpouring of views, both for and against the controversial decision of the National Library Board (NLB) to remove and pulp three children's books continued for more than a week after the news broke.

The Straits Times received more letters from readers on this than any other single subject this year - more than 110, and still counting. This is unprecedented, considering it isn't a bread-and-butter issue that affects people's pockets or livelihood.

You can understand when Singaporeans are unhappy over, say, not being able to withdraw their retirement savings in their Central Provident Fund (CPF). Or with overcrowded buses and trains, and rising health-care and housing costs. But not being able to read, in the children's section of the library, a tale about two male penguins bringing up baby?

When the NLB decided to remove the three books (And Tango Makes Three, The White Swan Express and Who's In My Family), following a complaint that Tango wasn't suitable for children because of its "homosexual" content, it couldn't have expected a tenth of the reaction that followed.

The fallout is an eye-opener, placing another marker along the transition that Singapore society is making to a new political landscape. No one can now say that people here are moved only by issues that affect their wallets.

At first, I thought the debate might have been driven, even hijacked, by gay activists and conservative Christian types who are always engaging in running battles.

But while there is some of that, it would be a mistake to believe this is another pink versus red (or white) dot affair. If it was, it wouldn't have caught fire the way it did.

Neither is it only about the role of public libraries in providing free access to information and knowledge.

Many writers have focused on the importance of keeping libraries open to new and controversial ideas, unburdened by having to decide what is or isn't morally acceptable.

Last week, Dr Carol Soon of the Institute of Policy Studies wrote in The Straits Times: "Other institutions exist to promote moral values. Our libraries should stay true to their core principles of promoting learning and literacy, and use these as their guiding light."

In the opposing camp are those who argue that children who use libraries are vulnerable and should be protected.

This was how an online petition supporting the NLB put it: "The library... should not be a place where parents are afraid their child would be compromised in his vulnerability. It should not be a place where all kinds of sub-cultural beliefs or behaviours are promoted at the expense of children - not for inclusivity, political correctness; anything."

Indeed Singapore isn't the only place where Tango is being debated. In the United States, more people complained about the book's suitability for children than any other book from 2006 to 2008, and again in 2010. Clearly, it is controversial.

But I doubt if the debate in the US was as intense and wide-ranging as it is here. This is because, even though much of the discussion here has been over the proper role of libraries, I believe it wasn't the overriding issue.

Instead there is a much deeper underlying concern that troubles many people, and it has to do with the freedom to decide what is right or wrong especially on matters concerning moral beliefs and values, and not have them decided by a higher authority (unless it's a religious body acting on behalf of its believers).

Worse, if the authority is seen to be unduly influenced by others in society pushing their own interests.

Of course, this concern is grossly exaggerated in the NLB saga. The books are not banned and no one is saying that Singaporeans are prohibited from reading homosexual content. But I'm afraid these details are lost on many.

If I'm not permitted to read material, especially in a public library, that has been decided on my behalf to be harmful to me or my children, that's as good as controlling what I can or cannot believe.

And that's what many people cannot stomach.

In fact, Singaporeans are increasingly questioning the Government's right to control the flow of information.

It was what led to the storm of protests over measures to control online media by requiring some sites to be registered. More recently, theatre practitioners objected to the Media Development Authority's newly introduced self- classification scheme, with many saying the burden of self-censorship would hamper their creative expression.

You can be sure there will be more such battles.

For public institutions like the NLB trying to negotiate these tricky issues, it's important to be crystal clear about their role in serving the public interest. This clarity has to be provided by the leadership of the organisations and not left to individual officers to second guess and decide.

In the case of the NLB, I would have thought the Government's approach to the homosexual issue is a pragmatic one that could have guided the library's decision.

The official view often articulated is that the gay lifestyle isn't part of mainstream Singapore but is a growing reality that can and should be accommodated, provided gays do not push their agenda aggressively. Hence, while the Government knows the contending parties will never see eye-to-eye on this issue, it encourages Singaporeans to adopt a "live and let live" approach.

Applying a live and let live policy would have left those three books alone, recognising that they are part of a growing body of literature on the subject, and that having a few such books in the library doesn't amount to aggressive pushing of the agenda.

Alas, it looks like that was lost on the NLB, resulting in its present predicament.

This is a real pity because it has done a fantastic job over the years of encouraging the reading habit especially among young Singaporeans.

The decision on Friday to reinstate two of the books, but in the adult section, will go some way to repair the damage.

I hope the Government learns from this, not just about public sentiment towards the library, but the more important issue regarding the freedom to access information and to decide what's right or wrong.

Online petition a new tool to put issues on agenda
Sometimes, they can influence public opinion and those in power
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 19 Jul 2014

WHEN news emerged that the National Library Board (NLB) had removed three children's story books with homosexual themes from its shelves, those opposing the move launched petitions to call for the books to be reinstated.

There was a flurry of virtual signatures, and the two petitions collected about 4,600 and 2,900 names each within a few days.

The camp happy with the withdrawal hit back with a petition of its own, to show its support for the NLB. It gathered about 26,000 signatures, also within days.

Indeed such petitions have become popular here.

Since the start of this year, at least 10 petitions have been launched by Singaporeans hoping to marshal support for a variety of causes, ranging from keeping popular nightclub Zouk open, to amending the Health Promotion Board's sexuality guidelines.

These petitions garnered between hundreds and thousands of signatures. But what do the numbers really say?

In the case of the NLB saga, two of the petitions were created using Google Document, and require only a person's name and an e-mail address. The other, created on online petition website, required a few more fields, such as address and the city that a person lives in, but they are not verified.

This means it is possible for one to sign a petition multiple times, or to do so anonymously.

But while scepticism over online petitions is not unwarranted, they should not be too quickly dismissed. Around the world petitions have become a tool that communicates the sentiments of some segments of the public, and in some cases, an effective method for influencing public opinion and those in power. is among a handful of petition sites that have made it dramatically easier not just to canvass for signatures, but also to craft and launch petitions to large audiences with just a few clicks of the mouse. In spite of credibility issues, it has some examples of "victories", which is what it calls successful petitions.

A South African rape victim started a petition in 2010 calling for the government to declare the "corrective rape" of lesbians - a practice in which a man rapes a woman purportedly to "cure" her of homosexuality - a hate crime. It got 170,000 signatures, leading the South African government to set up a task force to stem the attacks.

The website boasts that petitions it has hosted has "won over 6,000 victories", including some in Indonesia, India, Thailand and the Philippines.

But while this brand of social activism has led to change elsewhere, in Singapore it has had limited impact.

While the NLB has decided to put back two of the books on its shelves, albeit in the adult section, it had happened after writers and judges had pulled out of events in which the NLB were involved in, making it hard to know how much pressure the petitions actually exerted.

Under petitions that mention Singapore on the website, for example, few had managed to collect the number of signatures it set out to gather. Fewer yet have actually led to changes in policies and actions.

This could be because of the way petitions are collated. Without means of verifying whether anyone is signing on twice or using a fake name, it is hard to ascertain just how many of the signatures are actually valid.

In Britain and the United States, the government has gone some way in addressing this credibility issue of petitions, by setting up official websites for citizens to petition them directly.

Both sites require those creating and signing petitions to use valid e-mail addresses that have to be verified. The British government's e-petitions site also requires a home address, while the US government's We The People site says it may block IP, or Internet protocol, addresses believed to be using automated systems to create multiple user accounts or petition signatures.

These official petition systems, though, are not without their detractors.

They have led to some uncomfortable situations for governments. In Britain, for example, there was a petition calling for the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron, and in the US, a petition was created to call for the secession of Texas from the Union.

Over the years, the White House has also been forced to reply to petitions that have met the 100,000-signature threshold, including one about its honey ale recipe, and another about why it would not be building the real-life equivalent of the Star Wars movie's Death Star space station.

Some also lament that few of the petitions have led to policy changes.

Yet, there is no denying that the medium gives people a direct line to the government.

These sites are also recognised as credible avenues to raise public and official awareness of topics that citizens want addressed.

In Britain, for example, almost all e-petitions that have hit the qualifying threshold of 100,000 signatures have either been debated in the House of Commons, or been incorporated into an existing debate on the same topic, the BBC reported last year.

Some petitions in the US have also spurred discussions of important policy issues, a White House spokesman was reported saying. For example, the US government cracked down on online puppy mills after a petition on the site highlighted the issue and called for the regulation of such breeders.

Of course pen-and-paper petitions can achieve the same too, but would require an intermediary like the press, or a Member of Parliament in Singapore's case.

Here, citizens can bring a petition to Parliament through an MP, but it will still have to be considered by a Public Petitions Committee. This has only been done twice in the last 30 years, the most recent time was in 2007 when Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong brought to the House a petition to repeal section 377A of the Penal Code that criminalises sex between men.

Online petitions offer an avenue for new issues to be put on the public agenda. Often, these are issues that affect only a minority, but have nonetheless struck a cord and deserve to be addressed.

They also serve a democratic purpose, allowing issues to be brought up by regular folk. In fact, many of the successful petitions in the US and Britain have been grassroots efforts.

In a country that frowns upon some forms of engagement such as street protests, online petitions could also be an efficient and pragmatic way of indicating public sentiment.

Especially in this increasingly consultative climate, it could be an effective mechanism for interaction between the Government and the people.

Thankful for the pleasure of the text - and the library
By Julian Turner, The Sunday Times, 20 Jul 2014

There, among the credit and debit cards in my wallet, is a blue and white plastic rectangle of roughly the same size that has proved to carry much more value.

It is shared by my family, a traditional bunch I suppose, of myself, my wife and our three sons.

Since arriving in Singapore four years ago, this National Library Board card has provided a gateway to the Republic's best, if not always most fashionable, asset.

It has led us to parts of the island we may never have visited in the hunt for books. There have been trips to Choa Chu Kang and Sengkang as well as forays into Toa Payoh and Geylang East among many other places near and far.

Every branch has provided us with a day of discovery, introducing different hawker centres, with new people to meet and fresh transport routes to unlock while plotting a way there and back again.

It has allowed us to indulge our boys' ever-changing interests without paying for literature that would otherwise be quickly discarded once they have latched onto something else that catches their attention.

We have borrowed piles of books on dinosaurs, hurricanes and outer space. The sections on lizards, dogs and hamsters have been plundered too.

These well-maintained buildings - a perfect antidote to the glut of cookie cutter malls - have also allowed us to expand on subjects introduced at school or elsewhere.

After a visit to the ArtScience Museum to see an exhibition on the Titanic, we scoured library branches for books on the ill-fated passenger liner without having to sink our own cash into a new area of interest. Knowledge is power but the hidden iceberg of having to pay for it was steered around without any trouble.

The comic section gave the children their fill of Transformers and The Hulk, as well as the Gruffalo when the pace slowed down a little. It helped me to discover Maus while sorting through the picture books and I spent a quiet evening in the grip of something beautiful that I hadn't even known existed hours before.

These books have reached out too, turning my hour-long bus and train commute to and from work into a different kind of journey as I have tackled thrillers, history, religion and sport while rushing between stops and seats to turn the pages.

Some may counter that there are libraries in every country so there is no need to get excited about what is on offer here.

Yet before coming to Singapore, I worked at a newspaper in Bangkok for six years and quickly developed a yearning for the written English word.

A lack of easy access to literature made me appreciate its true value again after I had been able to take it for granted while growing up in England.

The books I managed to buy or import into the Thai capital cost a small fortune and were sold for a pittance to a second-hand shop in a backpacker district when we moved here.

Those problems were solved, thanks to the National Library Board card that we have paid to renew every year without hesitation. The fee pays for itself in the first month with magazines and DVDs alone.

It seems there has been a recent kerfuffle about the library system here with loud voices on both sides seeking to drown out any chance of a reasonable debate.

I have no inclination to add to all the commotion; instead we will continue to borrow the books we like and simply go elsewhere for those that are not available for whatever reason.

Our family, at least, owes the NLB a great debt, and I suspect many other regular users may feel the same way.

Although we can probably be described as a fairly mainstream unit, the books we have borrowed have possessed universal values.

That those books were available in the first place is solely down to the hard work and diligence of staff at the NLB, who deserve much more respect for the service they are providing, and we are grateful to them for it.

Promote the ideal family, but accept life as it is
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 20 Jul 2014

How should public institutions respond to pressure from individuals and groups to make decisions in a certain way?

This is the most important question that has arisen in the wake of the furore over the National Library Board removing three titles from the children’s section following complaints from readers. The library said they would be “pulped” or destroyed.

The three books were And Tango Makes Three, based on the true story of a pair of male penguins who raised a chick together; The White Swan Express featuring adoptive parents including a lesbian couple; and Who's In My Family which highlights different family structures and includes same-sex parents.

The library’s decision to remove the books from the children’s section won some support from those who agreed children should be shielded from controversial content. But many were incensed at the thought of an institution devoted to learning and knowledge, destroying books.

NLB stuck to its stand for 10 days. On July 18, Friday, the Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said he had instructed the library not to destroy the first two books (the third has already been pulped) and to move them to the adult’s section.

It will take a while for heated emotions to cool.

Meanwhile, public sector organsiations should be doing some serious soul-searching. How can they do better? What guideline can they use, to decide what to do when groups put pressure on state bodies, under the guise of being “pro-family”?

One way to approach this thorny issue is to work one’s way through moral reasoning.

Philosophy lecturer Jason Phan in an article on the IPS Commons website argues for an appeal to the reasonable man, suggesting that demands be put to “the test of impartiality, i.e. is this claim acceptable to all reasonable persons in the community?”

Ex-Administrative Service officer Donald Low went further in a thoughtful article on his Facebook page. Framing the issue as one of private morality in public policy, he argues that public institutions should practise a kind of secular morality that does not privilege one group’s religiously-based conviction over another. “This principle holds that the state should not discriminate against anyone, and deny them access to public services, on account of their beliefs, religious convictions (or lack thereof), and life choices.”

I agree with them that a public body cannot be seen to support the demands of one religious group over another. Nor can it use the argument of the majority to determine what course of action it should take.

But I am also a realist.

State bodies in Singapore are not neutral when it comes to social or moral values. The highly activist, interventionist state in Singapore, has a stand, argues it, and uses policy levers to advance it.

This is the case for family values.

At the state and society level, a certain kind of family is privileged as the “ideal” or the conventional.

The prototype “family” in Singapore is defined as one biological man, one biological woman, in a monogamous marriage, and their biological children.

This “ideal” family structure, is upheld and endorsed by the state, and reinforced through its range of policies on marriage and procreation. Policies on housing also support such families, by restricting nearly all subsidised public housing to married couples. In schools, moral and sexuality education reinforce this ideal.

Public sector institutions as organs of state will have to endorse promote that ideal.

But this does not mean they unthinkingly promote this ideal to the detriment of their individual mission, or in such a way that its specific constituents and stakeholders are discriminated against.

So the Ministry of Social and Family Development promotes the ideal family on the one hand, but also accepts that many families are hurting and some are dysfunctional.

It thus offers extensive resources and help to support families in trouble, ranging from single parents, to children who have committed crimes, youths at risk, and children with parents unable to care for them.

It promotes the family ideal, but accepts life as it is, and offers assistance to help the vulnerable.

In housing, most policies promote and endorse the “ideal” family, giving most subsidised public housing to married couples and having priority schemes for those with children or who want to live near their parents.

But National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan also recognises that singles have housing needs, including single parents - and so makes sure some subsidised flats are available for this group. In so doing, MND is not promoting single parents, but merely accepting that they exist - and need help to get affordable housing.

Here is where I think a simple distinction needs to be made between promoting something and accepting it.

Government bodies may promote the ideal, but not expect everyone to conform to it.

And they must accept life as it is on the ground - and assist where help is needed.

This simple rubric would have helped the National Library come to a better decision.

Its raison de’tre is to promote learning and knowledge. That is what it must actively uphold.

When it comes to family values, it should accept the range of family structures. The library has books that depict violent behaviour, or rape and incest in its adult section. Having these books on its shelves does not mean it endorses or promotes such behaviour. It merely accepts the existence of such behaviour.

But it also has to protect children who come to its rooms. Thus taking unsuitable books - on gay parents, or violence, or sex - out of the reach of unsupervised children is within its ambit.

In contrast, destroying books that do not conform to the state “ideal” violates its integrity of purpose as a knowledge repository.

The Health Promotion Board understood its role as an educator on health issues well. It promotes health and health knowledge.

It accepts homosexuality as a given. So its advice on homosexuality recognises that same-sex attraction exists, and it dispenses advice and suggestions for help without judgment.

In so doing, it accepts but does not endorse or promote homosexuality. But it does promote its core mission - health education.

When demands based on an individual or group’s private morality are made, each public organisation must intelligently and ethically hold up each demand and see if it is reasonable. If it is, the organisation must test it against its specific mission to determine how to respond. It must learn to withstand pressure to promote one vision of the right life, in order to keep faith with the community vision of others.

How to determine what to promote actively, what to accept without judgment, and when to assist those at the fringe - these are hallmarks of good public sector leadership.

A 'challenge' for NLB to balance various interests: Amy Khor
By Priscilla Goy, The Sunday Times, 20 Jul 2014

It will be "challenging" for the National Library Board (NLB) to review its handling of controversial children's books given the "many different views", said Dr Amy Khor, chairman of the Government's feedback unit Reach, yesterday.

She told reporters on the sidelines of the Hong Kah North Reading Carnival: "It will be challenging... You need to come up with fair and reasonable guidelines that will strike a balance among the different interests."

Her comments came a day after the NLB had promised to review its internal processes following a public outcry over its decision to dispose of three children's titles on complaints that these were not "pro-family".

The NLB also said last Friday that it would not discard two of the titles, And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express, but move them from the children's to the adult section instead.

Yesterday, Dr Khor said the episode showed that some issues are "divisive", and it was important that "these divisions do not deepen".

She said: "We really need to come together to discuss this rationally, objectively, and to find a common way forward.

"Even if we cannot find common ground, we must disagree agreeably, with mutual respect for people on each side of the argument."

She added that the decision to put two of the titles back on the shelves, but in the libraries' adult section, was a good move.

Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim had told NLB to do this. As for the third title, Who's In My Family, this had been disposed of as it was reviewed earlier in the year.

Dr Khor said the library board's latest move benefits various parties.

Parents who wish to borrow the contentious titles now have the option to do so and those who object to the pulping of the books have had their concerns addressed. NLB can also ensure that books in the children's section are age-appropriate, she said.

At yesterday's reading event, held annually since 2006, more than 200 children set a Singapore record for the "most number of children reading with an adult".

They read stories from the Mustard Seed series by award-winning local author Emily Lim.

Speaking to participants later, Dr Khor, MP for Hong Kah North, praised the work that NLB has done over the years.

"NLB has done a good job, opening many libraries in shopping malls, making it easy for you to borrow and return books... We also need to give them a big round of applause."

Pre-school teacher Shemalatha, who goes by just one name, was at the carnival with her four-year-old son yesterday.

The 30-year-old said children should be introduced to "all types of books", with parental supervision.

She added: "I think NLB has been doing a good job so far. The libraries offer lots of books."

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