Partial Victory in Singapore: Two Out of Three Books Back in Libraries

Tango read-in

Family read-in organized in protest of the ban.
(c) Kua Chee Siong/The Straits Times

Singapore Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim last week reversed course on the planned destruction of two children’s books that had been pulled from public library shelves, instructing the National Library Board to instead have the books restored to library collections but moved to the adult section. The two books that earned a partial reprieve are And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption; a third book, Who’s In My Family: All About Our Families, cannot be restored because it was already removed and “disposed of” several months ago.

All three had been challenged by members of the public because they mention same-sex parents. The National Library Board obligingly agreed the books were “not ‘pro-family’ ” and would be pulped. Ibrahim and the NLB were caught off-guard, however, by a backlash from within Singapore and abroad. Several authors cancelled their participation in government-run writing and literacy events in protest, and about 400 people showed up for a parent-organized read-in. Online opponents of the ban started a petition, an open letter to the NLB, and a hashtag, #FreeMyLibrary. Ibrahim conceded last Friday that regardless of the books’ content, there is evidently “a deep-seated respect in our culture for the written word.” Relocating the two books to adult collections, he said, will ensure that “parents who wish to borrow these books to read with their children will have the option to do so.” That’s what they should have been able to do all along, of course, but we are happy to see Tango and White Swan Express saved from destruction and back on library shelves.

All the news is not good, however. Singapore newspapers report that in addition to Who’s In My Family, libraries also removed three more books by author Robie Harris based on “internal reviews” rather than complaints from the public. Harris specializes in age-appropriate but forthright sex education books that are also frequently challenged in the United States. Her three additional titles removed from Singapore library collections are It’s Not The Stork, It’s So Amazing, and It’s Perfectly Normal. While routine collection review and deselection of some books is indeed a necessary part of library work, these removals which apparently came on the heels of the public challenge to Who’s In My Family look suspiciously targeted based on content.

Moreover, none of this changes the import ban on Archie: The Married Life 3, which was discovered last week by comic artist Sonny Liew. And as Liew noted also, no one knows what else may have been banned because there is no comprehensive public list of materials removed from libraries or blocked from sale in Singapore. While free-speech loving Singaporeans are to be heartily congratulated for speaking out and saving two books from destruction, those may be just the tip of the censorship iceberg.

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.