Open Letter Regarding the National Library’s Book Ban
What the National Library has done—banning, and pulping, three children’s books because they depict untraditional families—horrifies and saddens me. I love the National Library, first in its original Stamford Road edition, and then in its modern translation in Bras Basah, for its vast repository of knowledge and pleasure. But the “generous giver,” as poet Edwin Thumboo calls it in his poem on the old library, has now taken away with a closed fist, and not just taken away, but will destroy the books.
I feel the destruction on the pulse because I identify as gay. All the ways in which the state, supported by an apparent majority of citizens, criminalize and discriminate against the LGBT community have not hit home as hard as this act of vandalism. The object to be pulped is so innocuous. And Tango Makes Three, one of the three books, is about a pair of male penguins hatching an egg and caring for the chick. It is about love and family. It is based on a true incident. But it is deemed so corrupting of our youth that it must be indexed and banned. Nothing before this act of censorship has shown me the true extent of the fear, loathing and hostility that are directed against LGBT persons and families. It stops the heart.
But this destructive act also offends me deeply because I identify as a Singaporean, and what the state does, through its agencies, misrepresents me and my values. I have lived for many years in the USA but I visit Singapore every one of those years because I have the means and the inclination. I have a green card, but I will never give up my Singapore citizenship. Singapore is still my country. In the years away, I have discovered the truth of the truism: you can take the boy out of Singapore, but you cannot take Singapore out of the boy. Against the forces of homophobia, I will insist that I am a gay Singaporean. Whether you like it or not, I am a part of your “social norms” and “family values.” You have to take my pink I.C. and my red passport, my National Service dues and my Education Service record, into account.
Finally, and most personally, I am outraged by the book ban because I am a writer. Writers often compare books to lives for very good reasons. Not only do books distill the best thoughts and feelings of writers, they conduct the widest and deepest dialogues with their societies. Books are the founders of global democracy. So it is with great admiration that I read about the principled stand that some Singapore writers have taken against the book ban. Ovidia Yu, Cyril Wong, Tania De Rozario, Gwee Li Sui, Prem Anand, Felix Cheong, Adrian Tan, Joshua Ip and others are boycotting National Library events; a number are also boycotting the Singapore Writers Festival, for which the National Library is a program partner.
I have never been invited to participate in National Library events nor the Singapore Writers Festival, so it is presumptuous of me to say the following, but in order to express my solidarity with these courageous and thoughtful writers, I will not participate in a National Library event nor the Singapore Writers Festival, if I am asked, until the National Library restores the three children’s books to their proper shelves, unsegregated and unmarked by any warning label. Because books are like lives, these books must be treated the same way as other children’s books. They should not be herded into a reservation nor forced to wear a Star of David.
Instead of destroying books in the name of protecting our children, how should a National Library provide for its youngest guests? In the heart of the Bras Basah edifice stands a special collection of books donated by Edwin Thumboo, who is, according to the National Library website, “widely regarded as the unofficial poet laureate of Singapore.” In his poem “National Library, 2007, nr Bugis” about this new library, the grandfather of seven expresses his hope for the library and the country in this way:
“Let the young, including my seven butterflies, explore,
Grow, discern and cherish; test shifting worlds, judge and
Prefer. Learn to check their walk and track that serpent
As we re-arrange our gardens, our declensions of heart…”
Koh Jee Leong
New York City
July 13, 2014