Now, I was going to write something reflective about the state of the current library controversy, but recent events warrant a rant instead, so it looks like that’s the way this is going.
First, some background: The Singapore National Library Board (henceforth the NLB) was apparently petitioned by an individual to remove some books he felt were incompatible with a ‘pro-family’ stance. These books include And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express. The individual received confirmation that the National Library supports a ‘pro-family’ stance, and would be pulling copies of these books from circulation, and posted the NLB’s correspondence on his Facebook page. The expanded facts of the matter can be found on various news channels, and I don’t want to waste time on reportage that could be better spend on RAGE. Anyway, for the sake of accuracy, here’s a screenshot of the snowball that started the avalanche:
I’m going to exercise some restraint by deliberately structuring my comments into discrete sections (perhaps different posts?), which will hopefully help me retain enough objectivity to not go off the deep-end into incoherence. Firstly, I want to look a little more closely into what I find objectionable about this event; secondly, I’m going to comment on neo-conservatism and the phenomenon of intolerance, especially against speech and intellectualism; and thirdly, I’m going to consider the role of libraries and the implications of this most recent blow against liberty and enlightenment to Singapore and local society. For the sake of ease-of-reading I’m probably going to break them up into separate posts, too.
Well, that’s what I say now. If I start frothing halfway through, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
1. Binning Books
To start, the idea of access to public services being determined by whim of individual members of the public is patently ludicrous — and that’s exactly what this is. The NLB is a public library and should be accountable to the public as a whole, the will of which is expressed through elected officials and quora extraordinary if necessary; it isn’t a private book club or some other private establishment that can govern itself in order to better please its membership. Now, some might argue that this wouldn’t even have been an issue if the library had never acquired those books in the first place: the outcome would have been the same, with much less acrimony. After all, the NLB isn’t a copyright library (oh, copyright library, how I miss thee) and can’t be expected to stock everything. Up to a point I would have been willing to buy that: while the NLB has a mandate to provide information, there are practical limitations to its ability to do so, and if some strategising had been done to avoid providing access to allegedly-offensive material had been going on, well, I guess that’s the prerogative of people who run a library. Now, however, shit has well and truly gotten real.
As if I hadn’t been seeing enough red beforehand, they’ve just announced that they would rather outright destroy the problematic books rather than put them back on shelves, or hold them in a non-lending shelf, or provide them upon request only, or even engaging in further dialogue as to the fate of these books.
What the hell kind of a library does this? They’d rather destroy books than exhibit them? The library is supposed to be a place that not only displays and lends books but curates them. That grows knowledge! If pruning has to be done, surely it should have been done by a patient hand, with a heavy heart. Not by a bunch of unimaginative hacks whose idea of rectifying a mistake is to burn the evidence! This, this, is what prompted this post. I could have been sanguine (no, really, I would have at least tried) if this affair looked like it was going to go into arbitration, but this announcement obliterates any kind of optimism that anyone could have in the NLB.
Most problematic of all, most objectionable and loathsome of all, is the knowledge that this farce isn’t an isolated incident. It can’t be. I refuse to believe in some kind of infernal confluence of stupidity and intolerance that led to the one idiot writing in, and his message being received by just the cretin with the influence to enact the removal of the books from circulation, being supervised by some other monumental fucktard who has the authority to decide that the evidence needs to be destroyed rather than debated. I even more strongly refuse to believe that there was some kind of weirdly unlikely daisy-chaining of empowered goons that signed off on this, a maggot boring through what is rotten while leaving untouched an otherwise healthy and sane bureaucracy.
What all of this suggests is that the NLB’s processes, its organisational structure, and its executive staff, is incredibly vulnerable. I will err on the side of optimism and avoid calling them weak, incompetent, or corrupt; it is bad enough that they are vulnerable. Suggestible. That a drop of poison in the right ear can lead to something rotten in the state. Who signs off on all this? How can a branch of government, an organisation that acquires public assets using public funds presumably through some form of audited process, then decide on the say-so of a few detractors to immolate a portion of that public trust that they hold? Are any of our other systems like this? Can any public service be disrupted given the right tone of alarm and the usage of the right keywords? Can any right, privilege, freedom, or liberty be interrupted by paranoia invoked by imagined dangers to ‘values’ or ‘conservative culture’? Is nothing sacred?
The Singapore government has branded itself deep into our cultural consciousness as being tough but fair, dispensing policies that are, if unpopular, then at least impartial. Its appeal and its mandate rests entirely on its time-proven ability to deliver exemplary service with minimal flourish and fuss. But for the last five years the fissures in the House have grown amidst the leaden clang of casket-lids and vault-doors, and soon we will be able to see the moon through the cracks. This might be just one of many symptoms, but that makes it no less dire.
Given the growing public consciousness regarding scandals in public office, there’s been an initiative in the civil service to clean up and become more transparent. Thanks to the scandals involving the National Parks Board and the Civil Defence Force, this was supposed to be a new era of public accountability, and certainly in some parts of the civil service you can feel the tightening red tape. It is becoming harder than ever to play around with public funds: there are forms to sign and committees and subcommittees to appease, and everything is padded with enough paper to render even the smallest transaction waterproof. Or so I’d thought. Instead, here’s an organisation acting in a manner that one might describe as irrational if the word ‘panicked’ didn’t seem much more apt. What sort of skeletons must they be hiding that the very thought of disclosure makes burning down the house to destroy the closet seem like an appropriate measure?
For this incident to have happened, there must have been flaws on some many levels. How were the books acquired? Some of them, like And Tango Makes Three, are no stranger to controversy, and for the NLB to have acquired them for the purposes of display without being aware of or prepared for impending acrimony suggests negligence. How high up the bureaucracy did the complaint have to go before the decision to pull the books was issued? Are these decisions, which affect a swathe of institutions on a national level, being overseen by representative committees or a central office beholden to no one? Are there regular meetings convened to deal with these complaints, or is an extraordinary meeting convened to address complaints ad hoc? Even worse, was the decision to pull the book solely within the purview of an individual’s portfolio?
And once the incident became public knowledge, what went on behind the scenes before the decision was made to destroy the books rather than engage in debate? This is the question I can’t get over. How can any quorum of professionals working in the field of knowledge-curation and public service decide to destroy the very thing their career was built around nurturing? It boggles the mind and beggars belief.