Generally I tend to stay on the sidelines and watch as events unfold. It’s often hard to know which side to take when there is both too little information and too much information available. What I mean by that is that we have very little access to the sorts of details that would enable us to take a critical and rational view of most policies. It took Roy Ngerng’s blog posts and the citizens’ outcry over the Prime Minister’s response to him to get the government to explain to us just what the CPF issue is all about. At the same time, thanks to the Internet, we have sometimes too forceful a flow of opinions and facts – like quenching your thirst at a fire hydrant. This is not in itself a problem. Part of the value of media literacy is the ability to make sense of this voluminous mass of information, and once you read enough and think enough and discuss enough, you start to develop a sense of what your position is and how you want to proceed. My point is that these manufactured gaps and inevitable uncertainties make it difficult sometimes to immediately decide which side you want to stand on when a line is drawn in the sand.
But this isn’t one of those times. I am really horrified at what the NLB has done. Many people have rushed in and written lovely pieces that echo my sentiments. Carol Soon at the Institute of Policy Studies asserts that libraries should promote learning, not police values. Lim Lee Ching, Editor of the Singapore Review of Books, is justifiably ominous when she warns: “The reality is, this is no longer merely about book banning; it has crossed the threshold to take on the spectacle of a pyre…from which no hope may rise.” Howard Lee in The Online Citizen deconstructs the NLB’s actions and the support they got from the Minister for Communication and Information, concluding quite accurately that “We saw no due process in evaluating the books. We saw that NLB would rather destroy books than allow others to benefit from them. We also saw how NLB is more than a mere reflection of what society finds acceptable, but an active player in defining “community norms”, by excluding certain views from public debate.”
I was very heartened to read that writers like Ovidia Yu have taken a stand against the NLB’s actions by refusing to work with them on their literary events. It seems to have come down to this: that the time has come to take a stand. And not just on books, but on LGBT rights as well. I watch with amused disdain as so-called conservatives in America take ridiculously regressive positions on education, women’s health, gay rights, and other issues. I will not stand by idly and watch as those regressive positions enter the democratic space of my country via religious groups whose agendas are dangerous and whose followers wield pitchforks against books. You mess with good people who have done less harm to the world than many who follow your religion – you mess with me. You exclude them from public spaces by agitating against their right to congregate – you mess with me. You manipulate public resources so that they feel shame and are rendered invisible – you mess with me. And by all that is just and right in this world, you mess with books and libraries and I will GIVE you something to pray about.
But in between that regressive fundamentalist position and the liberal response that I identify with are many who are sincerely trying to make sense of the situation. I think these people honestly have no idea how they woke up one morning and found themselves on the wrong side of history. So while there are some who have no trouble joining odiously discriminatory Facebook groups and trolling online debates, there are many more who are struggling to find a way to not be the bad guys even as they stay true to their faith. I get that. But I think the struggle does not need to be so hard. Here, all jumbled up together, are my responses to the typical points* that get raised in debates (forgive me, dear reader, for making you infer the points from my responses):
The books identified for withdrawal and destruction are not primarily about homosexuality (no sexual acts are depicted or referred to), although they do make oblique reference to diversity in family structures, along with many other unrelated points. I think it’s important to take a step back and ask who is afraid, why they are afraid, and whether they actually have any cause for fear. The children may pick up the books? My question then would be – so what? So many people say “I am not a homophobe, but…” and then go on to talk about homosexuality as an ideology that is insidiously spread among the unsuspecting. That DOES point to a homophobic position. Children don’t magically become mature. The people howling for book burning are all adults – no visible maturity there. The development of maturity comes through contact with knowledge via various mediators (technologies like books and computers, but also agents like parents and teachers), and it starts pretty early. The NLB definitely has its reasons. It is precisely those reasons that make the act of destruction even more ominous. I would not call their view of child development merely conservative, if this view leads to the belief that books should be destroyed on the basis of complaints from those who have no idea how to keep religion out of public spaces. I would call that view medieval. What actually does conservative mean? In nature and culture, Singapore is a diverse place. One of the good things about a democracy is that it has space for everyone. We always have to guard against allowing one group to close off that space to another.
I think that it is counterproductive to stretch the imagined consequences of recognising LGBT rights to the extreme of enabling socially destructive anarchy. One thing has nothing to do with the other. It might just as well be argued that if we allow religious groups to influence government policy we will end up with a fascist state! There was a time when people thought that allowing women to vote would lead to anarchy. And totalitarian states where no-one can do as s/he wishes have proven to be very destructive. Maintaining a democracy is a delicate balancing act, but one which rests on certain basic principles of equality, justice and secularism.
Is it okay for a child to grow up without either parent? Firstly, it depends on what you mean by okay, and secondly, plenty of children DO for various reasons. That is why we need a public space where diversity is the norm, and not a source of shame. If the family is a happy, loving one, I cannot see how it matters who it contains. Public resources cannot be manipulated by interest groups to exclude people from democratic spaces before the question of rights and resources has been thoroughly and rigorously debated.
The concept of freedom is a very complex one, and it operates at different levels. It is always a valid word, and it always carries with it the implication of ‘unfreedom’ as well. Just as a very simple example, religious freedom in Singapore comes with the ‘unfreedom’ to mix religion with politics. The freedom to attend an event like Pink Dot in Singapore comes with the ‘unfreedom’ to read certain books in your national library that are relevant to you, to marry the person you really love, and to bring up children in a loving and stable environment that some people don’t approve of. People do keep trying to redefine their freedoms and ‘unfreedoms’, but those negotiations are precisely what keep a democracy alive, as long as information is allowed to circulate freely.
I just needed to get this off my chest. I don’t know how activists sustain their energy for so long. I am already dispirited after reading a few comments by the illiterati. But now is not the time to lose heart.
* I am grateful to a young Facebook friend who articulated some of these points on my timeline in a balanced and reasonable way, thus allowing me the opportunity to address them in a more detailed and pointed manner than I might otherwise have been able to.