23rd April 2015
Books, be they physical or digital, are irreplaceable gateways to information. In light of the expanding discourse on the freedom of expression, it is crucial that we examine who holds the key to these gateways. On this World Book and Copyright Day, we should begin examining the issue of accessibility of books across different subject matters.
Singaporeans are fortunate to have modern libraries, fitted with up-to-date facilities. It is easy to search for books from the kiosks at the libraries and to use the rooms in the libraries for various events.
We are happy to note that the National Library Board (NLB), in partnership with other organisations, has established various programmes to promote reading. However, as last year’s debacle over the removal of three children’s books with homosexual themes from the library shows, the distribution of books is not a level playing field.
It should be pointed out that the only reason the removal came to light was because Mr Teo Kai Loon, the person who complained about the books with “non-traditional” families, had mentioned the NLB acceding to his request for the removal on his Facebook page. As most of us know, as a compromise, the NLB later decided to transfer these books from the children’s section to the adult section.
The NLB recently announced that it has set up an advisory panel to review potentially divisive books. While this is a step in the right direction, the NLB has not made it clear what criteria was used to choose the panelists and what standards would be used to assess books. More importantly, it has not made plain how much of this information would be shared with the public.
In other words, transparency is still an issue.
This problem applies not only to the NLB but to the Media Development Authority (MDA) as well. Some time after the news of the plan to remove the three children’s books came about, the public found out that the MDA had banned an Archie comic from sale in bookstores because of homosexual themes as well. The NLB, while making it clear that the comic was under its “Adults” section, had then said that it would review the comic after the MDA’s decision.
Because of this confusing state of affairs, we believe that the NLB and the MDA should make it clear how they would be working together to assess books that are flagged to be inappropriate.
Currently, a member of the public can only find out if a book has been banned by either of these organisations by acting on a hunch and sending an email for information. This is rather perturbing, as censorship takes place behind closed doors.
We believe that NLB and MDA, as vital stakeholders in the distribution of books in Singapore, should take a more consultative approach and be open about their review processes. They should also take into consideration that in an increasingly multicultural Singapore, though more divisive issues would be debated upon, a policy of censorship is too parochial. We should begin to open up more space for different views and to develop higher levels of tolerance for them, in line with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Only then can our libraries and bookstores be modern in spirit as well as infrastructure.