By Simon Vincent
I was among those concerned people who wrote in to NLB to protest its decision to ban the books And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express.
Only a day after sending my letter, I read that the books were to be destroyed — pulped, to be precise.
This destructive act felt more appalling than the imposed ban. NLB’s insistence on pulping the books, instead of shelving them under the Adult or Reference section, seemed almost ritualistic. Archaic bureaucratic policy had to be followed at all costs!
The books have to be pulped, it seems, as a symbol. A symbol, as far as I can tell, to be interpreted as an affront to intellectual freedom.
There is no symbol, however, for the books that were banned and pulped without the public’s awareness. It should be noted that the public only knows about the banning of And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express because Teo Kai Loon — the person who complained to NLB that the books featured non-traditional families — published his success story on the Facebook page of the anti-LGBT group We are against Pinkdot in Singapore.
According to NLB, it gets 20 requests a year to ban certain books and less than a third of these books get removed. Judging by how its recent ban was based on presumptions of what is appropriate for children and what a family should be, one can only wonder in horror what rationalisations it used to ban books in the past.
The banned books of the past disappear with barely a trace, occasionally found by accident.There is no symbol for their invisible pulp.
I once borrowed Crash by J.G. Ballard from the Jurong Regional Library. To be honest, I was rather surprised to find the book there because of its controversial subject matter. I was also pleased to know that NLB was broad-minded and willing to carry alternative books. Having read and enjoyed Crash, I frequently returned to the Ballard shelf for more of his books. I noticed one day that Crash had disappeared. Naturally, I thought that it must have been borrowed by someone else. When I never saw it after a long time, I was curious and searched the NLB database.
There was no trace of the book at all. I emailed NLB to ask what had happened to the book. A librarian informed me that the book had been discarded due to wear and tear. He also mentioned that it would not be replaced because NLB had found out that it was not allowed for sale in Singapore i.e. MDA had banned the book.
I have no reason to doubt NLB’s reason for discarding the book because it was indeed pretty worn out when I had borrowed it. Knowing that the book would never be replaced, however, was rather disconcerting. It seemed as if Crash’s absence from the Ballard shelf would only be felt by me.
I knew that a 5-minute walk away, in the then-existing Borders at Westgate Shopping Centre, a (forbidden) copy of Crash sat on a different Ballard shelf. I also knew that I could easily purchase a copy of Crash online. Yet, I felt a nagging discomfort knowing that I had been able to read the book as if only by accident, a mistake by NLB.
In some sense, any book you pick from the library owes to choices made not by you, but by the librarians working behind the scenes. No library could ever hold all the books of the world, but people — who believe in diversity at least — hope and trust that librarians will pick a collection of books in line with the cosmopolitan society we live in.
There is no list of banned books in Singapore. We can only email NLB and MDA to ask if our suspicions about certain invisible books are right. At least, though, we now know, through the visible banning of And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express, that our hope and trust have been completely misplaced.
Simon Vincent is a guest author.