Letter to the Straits Times forum

I wrote this letter to the Straits Times for publication on their forum on July 10th when I heard about the book-pulping fiasco. They haven’t published it, so I’ve decided to go ahead. While in some areas I think discussion has caught up and moved on with what I wanted to say, in some areas, especially the book-burning, I don’t think the message sent was strong enough, and bears repeating.

I refer to the letter written by Mr Darius Lee (“Not right forum for discussion”, published 10th July), in which he mentions that “the NLB’s move is consistent with the policy of the Ministry of Education”.

The Ministry’s desired outcomes of education are for students to develop “a strong sense of right and wrong” and be “discerning in judgement”; they should “have a lively curiosity” and “show moral courage” by “thinking for themselves”. This unconscionable destruction of books, ‘pro-family’ or otherwise, acquired with public funds for public access, endangers these aims.

That this destruction of public property comes ultimately at the hands of private agitators is alarming. How can children learn to distinguish right from wrong when these choices are being made on their behalf by an unelected, unqualified, anonymous few? How are we supporting the “lively curiosity” of children if their access to facts becomes curtailed by intolerance and paranoia? How can they learn integrity when the NLB would cravenly destroy the books it is charged to protect and preserve, rather than face the public in discussion? How can they “think for themselves” when a public institution allows itself be held hostage to the opinions of a few individuals, rather than seek compromise by either re-shelving the contested books as no-loan reference items, or recouping costs by selling them?

The problem here is not confined to a single incident. We cannot allow a precedent that empowers parochial interests to deprive our children of access to public property. This theft is not only a vote of no-confidence in our children, but also in the ability of their parents and educators to provide them the guidance and care they need to understand and interpret difficult and complex issues.

Following DPM Teo Chee Hean’s warning last year of the proliferation of DRUMS in today’s information-rich environment, I believe firmly that our children can and must learn to exercise discretion; what they need is guidance, not paranoia. Stifling their access to information and culture only prolongs their intellectual infancy.

Being an educator means more than being in the classroom: it demands that one cultivate a deep sense of hope in the better nature of people and in our potential as a society. The NLB’s irresponsibility has shaken my optimism greatly. As Heinrich Heine wrote, “Where they burn books, in the end they burn people.”



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