NLB Ban. Wrong Move?


In the light novel series Toshokan Senso (Library Wars) by Hiro Arikawa, libraries employ armed soldiers to fend off government agents aimed at enforcing a strict censorship regime in a dystopian 90s Japan. The plot may be bizarre, but the social commentary is real. Public libraries house the collective cultural and intellectual product of their society. Because of libraries, when authors die, their knowledge and ideas do not die with them, but remain accessible to future generations.

The role of public libraries is therefore to preserve ideas, not propagate them. Thus, the decision by the National Library Board (NLB) to remove two children’s books due to a complaint by a single customer, Teo Kai Loon, that they are “not pro-family” ought to raise some eyebrows.

The first book in question, And Tango Makes Three features two male penguins that behave as a couple. The second, The White Swan Express, features two female partners trying to adopt a baby from China.

This is an excerpt of the reply from Ms Tay Ai Cheng, Assistant Chief Executive and Chief Librarian of the NLB to the complainant:

“I would like to assure you that NLB takes a strong pro-family stand in selecting books for children. We take a cautious approach in identifying titles for our young visitors… when library visitors like yourself highlight to us any conflicting content within books, we review such books thoroughly and withdraw them from circulation.”

From this reply and the content of the banned books, it is apparent that NLB removed the books because they featured two same-sex parent figures, which is allegedly anti-family.

While it is impossible to advocate for an absolute lack of censorship when it comes to books for young children, some precaution must be taken by the NLB in justifying the removal of books in the way they did.

First, defining the books as non pro-family is questionable. The book features, after all, a family of two parents and a child – and a happy loving one as well. Perhaps what the NLB is trying to say but lacked the willpower and the vocabulary to do so, was that the book features a family unit contrary to the heteronormative conception of the ideal family unit consisting of two parents, one male and one female.

If this were the reasoning, they ought to say so. Even so, it does not justify a library removing any content contrary to societal ideals. In that case, shouldn’t the library remove all children’s books that feature orphans, single parents, divorced parents or any main character not belonging to a family since it would fall short of the “ideal” family unit?

Second, why the special place for family units? How about religion, or gender or even career interests? Take career for an example. Since the “ideal” path we subscribe to is to attend school, work hard, score good grades, get a good job and live a happy life, would the NLB also be removing books that feature children growing up to be poets, painters and magicians?

Third, the book features a same-sex couple; it does not promote one. There is a difference between featuring something and promoting it. If we were to assume that just because a book features something, it must be promoting it, and that on this basis it should be banned, then shouldn’t all NLB books that feature say, a religion of some sort, whether through words or images, be banned because promoting a particular religion over others is contrary to our secular values?

Fourth, suggestions of a homosexual agenda or social commentary are made by adults, who interpret the books from an adult point of view. The last I recall these books were written for children.



You may have seen this optical illusion before. Researchers showed it to both children and adults who were asked to describe what they saw. Almost all the adults reported seeing a couple making love; all the children reported seeing eight dolphins.

Children are the ones reading these books, not adults.

Fifth, there may be no harm even if children come to learn about homosexuality. Homosexuality exists in society, and they will come to know about it eventually. There are children’s books that ease children into discovering difficult themes like death in a gentle, non-explicit manner; books that feature alternative family units are no different. Just because an adult disagrees with something does not mean she must stop her child from discovering or asking questions about it. This differs greatly from books featuring pornography or violence which are clearly not designed for children.

For the less informed, I’d like to clarify that there is an exactly zero per cent chance reading about homosexuality will make a child a homosexual. Similar to how there is also a zero per cent chance that reading about death would kill a child.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, parents have the choice not to let their children read any particular book as they please. It is not the library’s job to ban books parents could have easily taken from their child’s hands and put back on the shelf, or simply not have picked out for their children in the first place.

The threshold for banned books ought not to be unreasonably low. Given the reasons above, unless the NLB can think of a better reason, it really should not betray its esteemed status as a public library, and as the beginning of this article suggests, its position of neutrality and the public responsibilities it carries.







  1. Firstly, let me say that I am a staunch LGBT supporter.
    I think the the National Library Board has regressed Singapore to the Dark Ages, by the banning of books.
    Banning is the same as censorship.
    It is the worst thing any democratic society can possibly do to it’s own people and citizens.
    There should be a variety of ideas, opinions and modules of lifestyles.
    To completely obliterate the existence of one group of minorities shows to the world how narrow minded and totalitarian this regime is.
    This should set all parents worried. You should be worried even if you are not a parent. For the world belongs to the next generation, and I do not want the future of Singapore to be run by intolerant and close minded youths. Before I leave, allow me to share this quote “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself.”
    Potter Stewart

    Stop all censorship!

  2. Sashaqueenie

    It is not the same vein as censorship since it is still available thru the normal bookstores and it is not banned in the country.

    Further why should books targeted at children be used to glorify and promote the ideology which you hold.

    The same counter arguments will prevail.

    In that case, all children books should be disallowed according to your case if we do to reductio ab absurdum

  3. cool, thanks for the article.

    and yes, i don’t think people would object to the *general* idea that some degree of censorship is necessary when selecting books for children. We’d certainly want to keep objectionable materials away from our children but, as you’ve rightfully pointed out, whether or not the banned books were ‘objectionable’ is questionable to begin with.

    unfortunately, society is split: members (not all) of the Abrahamic religions think that the banned books are immoral and objectionable while others are perfectly okay. the former is quite combative in their approach and, frankly, 22000 votes is a force to be reckoned with. (22000 being the number of people voting to ban the books, if reports were to be believed)

    what is particularly worrisome for me is this: Will the fear of losing votes force the govt to override its secular responsibilities and support religious interests instead? really, why are our public institutions bending to the pressure of religious interest groups? Why are our leaders generally silent on this issue? Why, in particular, is Yaacob Ibrahim supportive of the library’s pro-family stance?

    1. Not all those who push from the ban are from Abrahamic religions. The fact is that disapproval of same sex couples is one of the fundamental cores of traditional Asian moral values. The local facebook group supporting the ban consist of members of all faith, not just Christians and Muslims. FYI Christians and Muslims form only 30% of the population.

      I am not from Oxford university, I am just a normal working guy from Singapore. Being located here allow me to see things first hand.

  4. “Just because an adult disagrees with something does not mean she must stop her child from discovering or asking questions about it. This differs greatly from books featuring pornography or violence which are clearly not designed for children.”

    violence and pornography are also part of the world we live in, why should children be stopped from discovering or asking questions about it if parents disagree with them? if books can be written in such a way as to present violence and pornography in a non-explicit manner, are these ok for children?

    eg. I can write a children’s book where a father is described as visiting a strip show joint for leisure on a Saturday afternoon.

    it is non-explicit since I don’t describe any stripping, or sex. maybe the illustration just shows a father walking into a shop. however, the impressionable children reading it would take it that it is acceptable for adults, for their fathers, to visit a strip show joint for leisure. and that there is nothing wrong with it. Indeed there is nothing wrong with this in certain parts of the world. But would you want your children to read such a book? Or a book which describes a father in Holland going to a coffee shop for a dose of heroin, which is legal there. And yes, “coffee shop” is indeed how Holland names such places where drug consumption is legal.

    discussion about issues, especially contentious issues, be it gun ownership, euthanasia, LBGT etc, also need to consider age appropriateness.

    we adults, think for whatever reasons, that children up to a certain age are incapable of mature critical thinking. this is why in Singapore, sex with girls below 18 years old is considered underaged sex and is a crime, even if the sex is consensual. But really, are 16 or 17 year olds incapable of mature thinking about sex and/or marriage? It is somewhat arbitrary right?

    You may think I am mixing up disparate issues. I am not. I am merely pointing out that a common theme behind these issues is the concept of age appropriateness and moral values. Since time immemorial, adults have placed limits on children, from curfew to marriage age to who they can marry. a children’s book “featuring”, as u put it, a same sex family is just another one of those limits. it must be said that NLB removed it against a backdrop of a conservative majority in Singapore. ie majority of Singaporeans, who are conservative would not like to see a children’s book featuring same sex families. If the The Online Citizen (TOC) is to be believed, they interviewed one of the authors behind “And Tango Makes Three” and the author said the book was written 10 years against a backdrop of increasing number of adoptions by same sex couples. The book is targeted at children with same-sex families. Obviously there is an intention to make the case that same-sex families are ok. This is something which majority of Singaporeans cannot accept at this point.

    Let’s also not discount the influencing power of media, be it words, music, pictures or movies. Marketing people are very familiar with this, which is why beautiful people and celebrities are often sought after to endorse products.

    lastly, perhaps you can reflect on your own upbringing. Is it conservative? I would hazard a guess that it is since probability wise, it is more likely. However, it has not stopped you from acquiring a more liberal stance towards LGBT.

    So perhaps another question to ask is should LBGT issues be broached at the young children’s level in Singapore?

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