The burning of books is usually a prelude to the burning of people

and-tango-makes-three the-white-swan-express who's in my family

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:
Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 2.25.51 am
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.
Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 4.15.46 pm

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.


5 thoughts on “The burning of books is usually a prelude to the burning of people

  1. You are absolutely spot on. However, there is one point which I would like to add (and I hope I dont get penalised in anyway, from anyone, for this.)

    The problem is that NLB stands for NATIONAL Library Board. National means, presumably, for the public, and by the state. Therefore, any actions that are done by NLB is EXPLICITLY in the voice of either the Government or the President. (Because if so, then why call it National library board?)

    Therefore, this brings us into the realm of politics. Dont worry, I am not going to criticise anyone here. I think the logic on which the books are destroyed has precisely the same structure as to why the Anti-gay laws are implemented but are not exercised. Gays will be gays, you cannot change them, so let them be. However, due to the conventions of the public, we will unfortunately have to implement these laws, but we will not enforce them. I would say that as far as I know, they have stayed true to their words, and there can be no liability on their part. However, I would like to point out the reasoning on the part of why the law was implemented. It is “due to the conventions of the public”. And, for me, here lies the whole problem: precisely there is a contraction in the way this is implemented. There is a conflation between what I will call (just names, no particular weight behind them) ethics and politics. In contrast to Kant (and in line with Levinas), I shall call Ethics the use of private reason. I shall call Politics the use of Public reason. The idea behind this is simple.

    For personal ethics, I am supposed to help just that one person. By helping only him, I disregard all the others. Ethics is then only a relation between 2 people. It is something like a secret, precisely because by helping him instead of the others, I and him/her will have a secret to share. The secret of “Why him? Why not someone else?” Ethics is the relation of the concrete. Hence the word private.

    Politics, on the other hand, presupposes that you need to justify your actions to the public. There is no secret in politics. If I can use this phrase, everything is brought into daylight, and the person will have to justify it in front of the public. Everyone should have the right to justice. Here, “everyone” is used in an abstract sense. Which means not only Chinese, not only Malays, not only Indians, not only Indonesians etc. We “abstract” from all concrete people only the property that they have the right to justice. Politics is the relation of the Universal. Hence the word public.

    And I think the problem here, in the case of LGBT in Singapore, can only be tackled properly in the public sphere. I remember the Prime Minister saying that for problems regarding LGBT, “We have to agree to disagree”. I believe that is exactly where the deadlock is. “Agree to disagree”, on which level? On the level of private reason, or on the level of public reason? Only if we can come to the conclusion of (1) for LGBT or (2) against LGBT, can this problem be solved. It seems that the government has a pro-family/anti-LGBT stance, but that is only in the realm of politics. In the realm of ethics, the government actually has a pro-LGBT stance (just dont let us know that you did it, and that is our secret). Thus, it is very easy to slide from the level of private (ethics) to public (politics).

    So maybe, only once we have resolved this contradiction between the private and public (ONLY in the case of LGBT stance) can this deadlock be resolved.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for your comment, Bi Sai 🙂
    Your thoughts on our state of dissonance regarding our personal ethics and our outward political stance are really interesting, and I agree with you. I’ve often characterised Singapore as a neo-Victorian society, which I should probably do a post on at some point. One of the Victorian age’s defining characteristics was its bone-deep hypocrisy, leading to absurdities such as a publicly highly moralistic stance decrying prostitution while at the same time there was a massive underclass of women forced into sex-work in London alone. Not entirely different from a ‘conservative Asian’ Singapore that has nonetheless legalised (and provides much easier access to) abortion, gambling, and prostitution relative to other supposedly more liberal countries.

    This is, however, a ridiculous state of affairs that should not be allowed to persist.

    You mentioned that the laws against homosexuality had to be passed in order to appease the population. I fear that you’ve actually gotten it the other way around. People’s opinions in this instance are being shaped by obsolete colonial legislation. Our laws against homosexuality are a legacy of the legal code of the British Raj that was in use throughout much of its holdings in Asia. Many very traditional Asian nations that have never been formally occupied by the British or any other Western Christian power have a much less severe taboo against alternative sexualities. Thailand is a good case in point. Japan too has had its history of samurai pederasty. A strong stance against homosexuality has therefore got nothing to do with Asian values, traditional or otherwise, and everything to do with our colonial baggage that we should feel at liberty to shed.

    My question is then should laws be shaped by the values of the people, or vice versa. I firmly believe in the former: laws that stand at odds with the beliefs of a people are by definition oppressive and tyrannical. What prevents us from moving forward is a deep-seated and wilful ignorance regarding our own heritage.

    I also disagree that the National Library Board speaks with the voice of either the ruling party (which ≠ the government, by the way) or the President. The National Library Board is a stat board under the purview of the Ministry of Information and somethingsomething, which means that it is an extension of the civil service. It provides an essential public service in the same way that the Civil Defence, Police, or Armed Forces do. As such, it must be held to the same non-partisan ideals as the rest of the civil service (which I guess includes me, so here’s to hypocrisy!). The NLB is perfectly within its right endorsing the family unit as long as its ‘pro-family’ approach doesn’t compromise the provision of its services.

    I consider the removal and most importantly the summary destruction of contested books to be a compromise of its services, in a manner that is driven by partisan interest rather than the ideals of public service. Allowing it to do so under the guise of supporting traditional values sets a dangerous precedent. What if in future police officers fail to come to the aid of gay men being assaulted, in the name of being ‘pro-family’? What if paramedics from the Civil Defence Force refuse their services to an unwed mother because she stands outside the conventional nuclear family unit?

    As such, I believe it to be the responsibility of all right-thinking individuals to condemn the behaviour of the NLB and call for greater accountability, as well as a non-discriminatory provision of services across the entire spectrum of the government’s many arms. This is not an issue of partisan politics or even of ‘Asian’ values. It is a matter of good governance. As every citizen has the right to demand good governance, he is also responsible for bringing it about through the means available to him.


    • Yes, you’re absolutely right in both of your responses to me. Here I am talking about conventional systems, and not pro-Asian values as such. You’re right about Asian societies being very open to non-heterosexual stuff, I agree with that. And I am absolutely not ruling out that our values have been shaped by colonisation. What I am saying is that AFTER colonisation (and the various religious stuff that had come together with colonisation) is the reason for this attitude. To be honest, I am not too sure if most Singaporeans are open to non-hetero-sexuality. The fact that there are people who actually have the shamelessness to write in and complain is for me proof that anti-LGBT is quite prominent here. The fact that after the pink dot protest, the existence of white collar stuff, and the amount of supporters for white collar is evidence for me that the number of people who are opposed to LGBT are not low. I would actually think that homophobia is widespread in Ancient China, but I am not an expert and so I dont want to go into it. But anyway, there are people who think that Anti-LGBT is a RIGHT in Singapore, and that lies the WHOLE problem. Yes, we have been shaped by obsolete laws, but nevertheless, we have been shaped, and I think this is where we stand now.

      Just do a very simple test on your own. Would you date a transgender lady? After the operation and after hormones changes, would you date her? I would like to say that I will date a transgender, but I cant bring myself to do it as of yet. My aim, at least for myself, will be to see transgender lady in the same way as a naturally born lady, and in the end even have the open mind to date one if I ever fall in love with one. I would say that if anyone is not able to date a transgender, then he/she still has that same anti-LGBT mindset, at least in ethics. But isnt that the case where we are now? If we, as normal, heterosexual people, do not dare to take transgender ladies, then we have to ask ourselves: What is the difference between transgender ladies and naturally born ladies? If there are none, then isnt it our prejudice that is preventing us from doing so? Isnt then still a trace of anti-LGBT in us?

      And about the status of the NLB… everything there is in such a mess. I know that the SAF and Civil Defense and the others are under the purview of the President, and so maybe NLB is under the President’s purview too. But you know… can you actually distinguish what is the PAP and what belongs to the public? I mean, public as in state, the empty place that one party take the place of. So when PAP says that it supports pro-family, and if a PAP minister is in charge of the Ministry of Information and XXXXX, can you really distinguish between the two? I dont think I can. To be honest, I dont even know how this works.

      For example, do you remember a few days ago when one of the Ministers justified the rise of public transport cost? Why did he do it? Isnt SMRT a private company? If SMRT wants to rise the cost, let SMRT justify it. The PAP is supposed to be for the people, and NOT for SMRT, a private company. The PAP is NOT supposed to justify for SMRT. Why did the minister interfere with the business of a private company? If he can do so, and if he can do so legally, then how is SMRT a private company? How can it make profit? I dont understand all of these. Maybe I Oh too much Bi Sai when I in my secondary school/jc, so I dont know anything about this.

      And I even think that the whole world’s political system is in a mess. Democracy now means, Party A, B, C, you choose which one suits your interest. Dont you think its one size for all? Dont you think its like the capitalist system? Party A gives you this, but not that. Party B gives you that, but not this. So its up for you to choose. What about Party C? Its all in a horrible mess. I wont even call this democracy, and its not only limited to Singapore. I have no idea what to do.


      • Well, I think I can comfortably address only two of your points, really.

        1) Whether someone would date a transgender or whatevergender person is not a gauge of their tolerance or open-mindedness: it is a gauge of their sexual preference. If I do not have a preference for transwomen, I can’t be forced to have one, not even in the name of tolerance. If the transperson has undergone a process leaving no trace or clue of their birth gender to the point where I can’t tell, that’s a different thing, I guess, and it has more to do with cosmetic surgery and lust than it has to do with politics. Sexual identity, sexual preference, and political position can be entirely different things. I can advocate for the right of the transperson to be treated as a woman before the law, but even then, I don’t think that person is necessarily owed my lust as a token of some kind of open-mindedness.

        2) What can you do? Well, George Carlin, another person in despair over the irrevocably broken state of democracy and the benightedness of his society, said something to the effect that all a reasonable person can do is withdraw from the fray, stand on the sidelines, and bear witness, while attempting to maintain their own sanity as much as they are able. Basically, if whole world is determined to burn itself down around you, all you can do is douse yourself and stand to one side and watch the show.
        If you don’t think the situation is as dire as all that, and you think something can be done but don’t know what, why not join a group? There are plenty of groups in Singapore advocating for any number of positions. Spend some time with them, get to know their cause and their grievance and their methods. If you like it, stay. If not, go, and take your experience with you. When the time comes for you to make a stand of your own, you’ll be doing it with experience and with friends, and who can ask for more?


  3. Oh damn, I posted a whole lot of stuff here, and I thought I uploaded it. Its all gone!!!!! URGH!!!!! Let me see if I can find it somewhere!


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