3:25pm, Sunday, 13/7/2014
Singapore National Library Central Branch
100 Victoria Street
When I arrived, I expected something a little more polemical. Microphones, sound-systems, someone with a guitar singing Bob Dylan songs… Something protest-y. Y’know, where everyone’s attention was being drawn towards a central figure or figures, their emotions manipulated and opinions swayed. I expected a protest in disguise.
Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer dispersal and diversity of parties attending. You had groups of friends having picnics, family groups traditional or otherwise seated in small circles. An abundance of teenagers who couldn’t possibly have been parents themselves. But the children were the undoubted stars of the show. Kids were laying in laps, reading and being read-to. No few showed their appreciation for soft laps and loving voices by dropping off to sleep.
My astonishment was most strongly piqued by an incredible mass of parenthood. I have never seen in one place so many strollers, slings, or papooses; so many nursing covers, sippy-cups, or bottles of milk formula. Most of all I have never witnessed such a density of content, quiet children: a multitude of them, eerily quiet. Each of them,rapt in a story. Conversation and storytelling were kept to a soft hum, a tapestry of narrative woven by individual voices.
The prevalence of books and other media was the other standout point: from paperbacks to thick-paged cardboard affairs, to iPads and laptops, people were sharing stories in every imaginable form.
Children and stories. That’s all that this was ever about.
Across the atrium stood the great cut-glass facade of the National Library building proper. The lobby remained quiet, with stray people wandering in and out. In four colours and four languages, a great blazon proclaimed KNOWLEDGE.
The whole time I was there, I couldn’t decide if it was an advertisement or a warning.
Gentle reader, let me tell you what this is all about. This is about children and stories. But that cause is far from innocuous or innocent.
Children, even ones barraged daily by a pervasive and powerful media machine, are as susceptible as ever to the magic of story-time. There is something in a loving voice that lends power to words that no amount of computer-generated wizardry can match. This is a battle to control the stories that influence our children.
There are people in Singapore who think that they have a responsibility to control the narratives available in our society. They want to create a story of a ‘conservative society’, when Singapore was never conservative, when conservatism is but a useful appeasement strategy in a country where prostitution and gambling are explicitly legal.
They want to create a story of a homogeneous Asian culture with common ‘norms’, when history will show that Asia has played host to a dazzling multiplicity of cultures and conflicting norms. They want to create a story of a privileged majority oppressed by the potential for equality, a story that bigotry and intolerance are freedoms too, a story that a people should be shaped by laws instead of laws being shaped by people. And they are not even our laws, but the laws of an oppressor imprinted so deeply on ourselves that we feel guilty if we don’t continue imposing it on each other.
They want to create a story using the voices of those who have chosen to remain silent. The only recourse of those who wish to retain the right to decide how they want to raise their own children, free from the interference of the self-righteous, is to stop being silent, and to speak.
If you not only want people to love literature, but also want a literature that is loving instead of judgemental, no lesser gesture will do.
Photos: all photos featuring specific subjects were taken and used with consent