By PN Balji
That was the fortnight that was — breathless and breathtaking for officialdom in Singapore — as a controversy over which books should, and should not, remain on library shelves took on a life of its own, throwing up issues of censorship, citizen power, weak leadership and the role of libraries.
More significantly, it was another sign of a changing and maturing society whose citizens are prepared to stand and be counted, even on issues that don’t affect their pocket books or daily lives. For the first time in many, many years, Singaporeans protested over a principle — in this case, the freedom to read the books they want and to decide for themselves what is right and wrong.
It all began innocuously when a member of a fringe anti-gay group complained about two children’s books that depicted stories about penguins and swans of the same sex bringing up children as a household. The assistant chief executive of the National Library Board, perhaps in all innocence and ignorance, wrote back to say the two books were being removed.The decision was taken in a matter of just two days.
The complainant posted the email conversation on the Internet for everyone to see. The issue could have been put to rest quickly and smartly if the board had not insisted that it had the right to be the moral policeman of what kids should read. Instead, its management hid behind the skirt of a junior officer who was sent into the lion’s den to face the media at a press conference.
Not surprisingly, the officer fumbled, giving non-answers and, worse, saying that the two books would be pulped, raising howls of protests because of images of book burning by fascists and Nazis like Adolf Hitler during their terror of reign.
The minister in charge of the National Library Board, Yaacob Ibrahim, floated into the debate, insisting on the library’s role to safeguard social norms, which kicked off another round of debate over who should play moral policeman, the library or the police.
But what the library and Yaacob did not expect was a blowback from respected literary icons such as Ovidia Yu, T Sasitharan and many others pulling out from high-profile literary events like the annual Singapore Writers Festival. Some even returned the honorariums they had received from the library for the work they had done. Two mothers got a police permit to hold a peaceful sit-in at the national library’s premises to show their unhappiness with the ban.
Finally, the minister gave in by saying the two books wouldn’t be pulped, but would be put in the adult section of the library.
The controversy shows that Singaporeans are beginning to fight for a cause, not just their cause.
In another case, a former adjunct professor at Nanyang Technological University rejected a part-time teaching offer because noted writer and researcher Cherian George was not granted tenure at the university, despite glowing tributes from faculty, students and peers, some of them from overseas.
“I was asked to teach a course that Cherian used to teach. I said no, not just to protest against the university’s unfair action, but on a point of principle, as I wanted the university to feel the pain of its decision. I wanted them to sweat, because the university must be made to realise its folly,” he said.
Then there is former top Citi banker, Deepak Sharma, fighting the authorities tooth and nail over the accusation that his surgeon wife, Susan Lim, had overcharged a member of the Brunei royal family and also a lawyer for the ruling party who fought the case for the Singapore Medical Council.
Sharma was slapped with legal costs for the council’s lawyer, but he contends that the S$1million figure is tantamount to overcharging. The figure was eventually reduced to S$370,000, but Sharma is going for the jugular. He wants a judicial review, calling the lawyer’s action “dishonourable” and saying “it constitutes grossly improper conduct.”
Sharma crossed an invisible line in a country where people fear taking on the establishment, preferring instead to complain and mope in private.
The library saga and these two incidents show Singapore is changing, with one big message for the government: Buck up or face further erosion of support in the next election.
Yesterday it was anger at the way the government has managed the compulsory pension scheme called the Central Provident Fund(CPF), and today it is about books. What tomorrow’s furore will be is anybody’s guess.
This article appeared first in The Edge Review