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And Tango Got Banned (And Now Archie Too)

Yes, you can read about Hitler’s hideous crimes in World War 2, you can learn about the parts of a bomb, you can know about the love triangle between a expressionless girl, a glittering vampire and a ferocious werewolf, but you can’t read a story about two gay penguins raising up a chick.

Welcome to Singapore.

There has been a huge ongoing uproar in the Lion City after three children’s books, The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption (about Chinese orphans being adopted by a mix of straight, gay, and single parents), Who’s In My Family: All About Our Families (which portrays many kinds of families, including gay ones), and And Tango Makes Three (a true story about two male penguins at a zoo who adopted a penguin chick), were withdrawn by Singapore’s National Library Board (NLB) following the behest of a single complaining patron, Mr Teo Kai Loon.

Yes, just one, single, complain is enough.

As a Singaporean, I feel utterly ashamed right now, and I am very well speechless as to how the clean, developed, futuristic city where I was born, raised, and grew up in could appear so third-world right now.

Let’s take this issue at face value first.

As you can infer from the third paragraph, all three books share a common theme that is acceptance. Throughout our lives, we’ve been taught to be accepting of each others’ differences. We have charity shows to highlight the difficulties of disabled and mentally-challenged individuals, Racial Harmony Day to remind us of the importance of a non-discriminating living environment, and exhibitions to showcase the cultures of different religions here in Singapore for us to understand our fellow countrymen more.

So why is it that when we come to the topic of homosexuality, a double standard occurs?

Furthermore, the three books are genuine portrayals of reality. And Tango Makes Three was a real life-inspired story of two male penguins raising a baby chick at New York’s Central Park Zoo, while the The White Swan Express and Who’s In My Family feature unconventional parental set-ups that are not only real, but becoming increasingly more common as we edge towards a more inclusive society. As much as the Singapore government wants us to believe that they’re creating just that, it’s harder and harder to believe just that when our censorship has hit a point where it not only censors controversial opinions, but plain, blatant truths.

The main reason why the books were banned were because their message were not in accordance with NLB’s “pro-family stand (when) selecting books for children”. And this begs the question, if Singapore’s birth rate wasn’t at an all-time low, will NLB still destroy the books? And if the answer to that is yes, wouldn’t we be back to the point of double standards?

Gay sex remains illegal in Singapore, and although they’re very, rarely prosecuted (with an estimated 26,000 revelers thronged this year’s annual Pink Dot gay rights rally — one of the largest public gatherings of any sort seen in recent years), the law in black and white basically suggests that the Singaporean government simply do not want people to engage in any gay practices. And NLB probably couldn’t agree more.

But let’s take a look at it from another perspective.

The three books admittedly spotlights on a generally unprescribed family model, and should I be a three year-old who barely knows anything about the world, the message I’ll get from reading those books will probably be that society is diverse. It’s complex. By removing the books, it’s as good as creating an artificial reality for young children, who will be denied the opportunity to acknowledgethe multiplicity of families. Will they discriminate in the future, especially when they are denied precious learning concepts during their impressionable years? I dare not put an answer to that, but it’s certain that the chances are raised. By removing the three books, we have effectively failed to educate our young minds to be more accepting of people. And what if they end up turning gay anyway? With their peers only recognising a sole family model, wouldn’t they be even more critical of themselves, since there isn’t anyone they can relate to? Wouldn’t the fact that they weren’t exposed to anything suggesting they are very much normal like everyone else result in more self-doubt and lower self-esteem? Children will eventually grow up to become adults, where they’ll be able to make their own calls and decisions, and refusing to expose children to truths which a part of society thinks is not normal is not called “taking a stand”.

It’s called manipulating.

As much as family-building is a main concern, especially for tiny, dense Singapore who primarily relies on human talent to sustain their insane economic growth and progress, I think it’s only common sense that human decency and, well, common sense, are of a higher priority, and compromising on them will backfire spectacularly into a lose-lose situation.

And “pro-family stand”? At this point in time, I find it terribly ironic that the birth rate in Singapore has not significantly gone up, which essentially proves that everyone does have a choice, and can decide whether or not they want to start a family in the first place. If that is the case, why is NLB sending a message to the public that goes along the lines of “Oh, you’re not going to get to choose. We’re going to decide for you.”

NLB, stop confusing yourself with Burger King. You can’t have it your way. 

It was revealed by our Minister of Communications and Information, Mr Yaacob Ibrahim, that NLB’s decision was guided by “social norms”, claiming that NLB’s approach is to “reflect existing social norms, and not to challenge or seek to change them”. While that is a fair point, it is a pity that we’re not trying to push towards a more inclusive society, choosing to use our existing viewpoints as valid justifications of the ban.

Mr Ibrahim also mentioned about how “the prevailing norms, which the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans accept, support teaching children about conventional families, but not about alternative, non-traditional families, which is what the books in question are about”.  A recent (2013) Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) survey report suggested that the younger and more educated tended to be more accepting (of gay lifestyles) while the older and the less educated were far less open to the idea.  A whopping 72 per cent of Singaporeans with no formal education rejected the idea of gay lifestyles, while  37 per cent and 40 per cent of polytechnic and university graduates rejected or disagreed with gay lifestyles. The survey did acknowledge that Singapore in general rejected the notion of same-sex marriage in general, corroborating with what Mr Ibrahim has rightfully pointed out.

So why are we restricting our young minds the opportunity to be exposed to the naked truth so that they can accept others for who they are when they grow up? Most of the for-NLB comments on NLB’s Facebook post which addresses this issue were along the lines of “Thank-you for protecting my child from reading those books which brings out the wrong message”. There is nothing wrong with having your own opinions, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with the parents’ comments. If they find that the book brings out the wrong message, so be it. But what is extremely embarrassing how our elders and supposed “role models” are forcing their ideologies on their kids, instead of giving their child the chance to know about the diversity of the society they’re living in, and then letting them make their own choices on which is right and which is wrong only after they realise how society is as a whole.

And if we take it as face value again, are you saying that being gay is not normal in Singapore?

Wouldn’t that be discrimination?

And if that’s discrimination, why should I even bother learning the subject known as Social Studies when all that is happening right now is a direct contradiction of what I was taught?

You can argue that hey, in that case, why not teach your child how to make a bomb (not actual bomb-making per se, but the basic process and all that because after all, you’re not gonna immerse your child in a gay lifestyle), because that has been reality for a long time, and then let your child choose if they wanna pursue a career in bomb-making. But the thing is, having a gay lifestyle, is not a threat to the community. No one is going to suffer painful deaths just because you’re gay. Buildings are not going to be destroyed just because you’re gay. Streets and cars will not randomly explode just because of the sole fact that you’re gay. No one gets hurt.

And perhaps to directly rebuff the ridiculous statement of teaching your child to make bombs, what are the actual odds of that happening? That your child is going to grow up on the wayward side of life? I’ve read about Hitler’s atrocities in World War 2 when I was six, saw it with my own eyes how it was like during the Nanjing Massacre at a museum in Nanjing when I was in Primary 5, and watched how Stalin made life terribly miserable for everyone in the Soviet Union through real-life footages.

Did I turn out to be menacing dictator? Hell no. I grew up loving the Twilight saga.

Dr Justin Richardson, co-writer of And Tango Makes Three, chipped in on this issue as well, saying that

While the determinants of sexual orientation are not yet fully understood, there is no scientist who would argue that discovering the fact of homosexuality predisposes children to being gay.

Like the three examples I mentioned above, all of them were real. And like the penguins in And Tango Makes Three and the other two books, they’re legit representations of society, so why is the NLB sending us a message telling us that “Hey, even though it’s reality, we’re not going to let you read them because we’re afraid children will know how things are like in the real world, and we don’t want that to happen because the majority of Singaporeans are against the idea of it”.

And yet, MDA is fine with showing the ‘reality’ show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

(Edit: Paragraph added in on 17.07.2014) Speaking of MDA, the agency just banned an issue of the mega-popular Archie series because of its depiction of same-sex marriage between two characters in the comic.  I think the Archie comics have been a huge part of of many Singaporeans’ lives. It was huge when I was in primary school. A copy of it basically guarantees you a cool kid pass. While I’m not gonna comment much on this, since my points will probably be repeated, I find it puzzling as to why the best television series ever to be made (in my opinion) FRIENDS and Two Broke Girls were and are still showing when the former contained a storyline that involved a lesbian marriage, while the latter is peppered with gay and sexual jokes throughout its three seasons.

So much for a democratic society isn’t it, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve, happiness, prosperity, and progress for our nation, when the government is telling us what information we should be exposed to, and that very information is something that’s real, true, and prevalent in the world.

Let’s take a step back and look at things without the conflicting views and opinions on the touchy subject. The books were purchased with taxpayers’ hard earned money. In fact, the libraries in Singapore are funded primarily by taxpayers’ money. Shouldn’t we get to have a say about whether the books should be reinstated, or whether it should be withdrawn in the first place? No, the multi-award-winning books were removed at just the single, sole complaint of a single, sole patron. Mr Ibrahim later clarified that NLB did not made the decision only after one complaint, but they have made no indication of their interest to bring the decision to the public, even after such a hoo-hah, and while the justification of “Oh if we let in on this one, the floodgates will soon open whenever we make a controversial decision” may very well be true, the question essentially boils back down to one thing, and that is whether they have made the right decision and allowed this in the first place?

Although I’m straight and pro-LGBT, I’ve never really been concerned about this issue till this incident occurred, because I’m really tired of the government telling me (and us) what’s right, and this really opened my eyes up as to how ugly the society I grew up in really is.

And what angered me more was the fact that they were gonna destroy the books. I honestly thought this was a joke. A very bad joke.

Destroy the books?


Where the heck do you think we are? The Qin Dynasty?

The point of a library is to disseminate information, not destroy it, and the most sensible (and eco-friendly) course to take would be like, I don’t know,  moving it to another section, where children can only access it with the presence of their parents or their guidance.

For the record though, I find it disappointing that we’ll have to stoop down to this in the first place.

Like in every LGBT-related argument, there is going to be a paragraph about respecting different perspectives, and this is mine. The topic of homosexuality has always been a sensitive one in modern Singapore, touchy and difficult to balance between the conservatives and liberal minded. After all, people are entitled to give their own opinions And I’m in full agreement with that. If you don’t agree with the idea of homosexuality, so be it.

But this brings out another problem and a sick twist of irony.

I have friends who are from the LGBT community, and for as long as I can remember, not a single one of them have tried to force their lifestyles onto me. Heck, I have friends who are diehard Justin Bieber friends, but for as long as I can remember, even they did not try to force me to like Justin Bieber. Everyone have their own way to lead their lives, based on their likes and dislikes, and it’s only, as mentioned above, human decency, that we as sane human beings accept, or at the very minimum, respect the lifestyles everyone ultimately decides to lead. So, if the LGBT community is not enforcing their lifestyles, why in the world are you enforcing your ideal lifestyles on them?

And NLB, who are you to define what is considered a family?

Dr Richardson pointed out that he finds it “deeply troubling” that the library thinks its proper role is to “suppress ideas which the government finds objectionable”, and that it is an “essential human right to freely exchange ideas”. Ms Jean Davies Okimoto, co-writer of The White Swan Express, also states that her book on adoptions “took a strong pro-family stand”, which NLB accuses of otherwise. Both writers have really strong cases, but perhaps not as strong as the fact that the books which are supposed to educate young children about the diversity of families and respect for differences has found themselves out of favor for showcasing just that.

Some of you would probably ask, if the concern is about the book, why can’t you just buy it or torrent a copy of it? Well, I can’t do the latter because Singapore is going to ban torrent sites, and as a freelancer who works online, I can easily get my hands on a copy of the three above mentioned book, but that’s not the issue.

It feels as though I am powerless to change the society which I am living in, our backwards mentality masked and overshadowed by our country’s overall growth.

I had a quick chat with my friend about this issue, and here’s what he said:

I already noticed a long time ago that NLB and even the bookstores in Singapore censors LGBT related books. A lot of the books you can find in the LGBT library, you simply cannot find in the regular public libraries. Most of the books that bypass the censors are ones with overwhelming popularity (Will Grayson, Will Grayson), or simple artists’ reference (Sex, Violence, Blood, Gore)… (I’m) personally not surprised. The media played this issue up a lot with many local papers offering comments. That’s probably why you heard of it as well.

It’s nothing new.

Just hyped.

What does this mean? That this issue has simply been around for a long time. And that despite increasing acceptance of gay lifestyles, the same issue still remains, the reluctancy to move into a more accepting era glaringly evident in light of the media hype.

It’s great that Singaporeans are stepping up in defiance to send out a message. Writers are pulling out of events, people are holding events to read the very same books that NLB banned, and there are countless articles on blogs, forums and newspaper like the very one you’re reading right now discussing at length about this issue. However,  the fact remains that Singapore is still a largely conservative society, and while it’s definitely going to be more accepting someday, it’s going to take a a li’ll while before that happens.

And truth be told, there are going to be people who will disagree with this article whole-heartedly, and there’s nothing wrong with that. People are going to form their own opinions, which I mentioned countless times throughout this article, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’m writing this article to tell the world my stand, and I’m not forcing anyone to be on my side. And with that being said, this is the ultimate dream I have for Singaporeans at this point in time.

I don’t want casinos with a boat on top, I don’t need a spinning wheel that moves at 0km/h, but all I wish for, is an inclusive society, where no one tells each other that it’s abnormal to be different.

NLB, you should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself.

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  1. I’m 67 and grew up in the US, (I live in the UK now) when gays and lesbians were still only whispered about. It still amazes me how quickly the atmosphere changed. The battle’s not over yet, but we’ve come further than I ever imagined we could. To everyone out there who’s fighting for acceptance, I admire your strength and send love and good wishes.

    • #respect Ellen. On behalf of those struggling for acceptance, I thank you for your kind words and encouragement.

  2. Stevie says

    Very good read! I’m glad that I have found other Singaporeans that have a open-minded view on the current book banning by NLB. I’m straight but I fully support the LBGT movement in conservative Singapore.

  3. Over here, in my country, the so called “representatives of people” are against same sex marriage. To cover their lame thoughts they pointed to our big constitution book and showed us the ultimate SECTION 377…That is something not even Medusa would accept!!
    Time and again these problems arise everywhere! I mean “Come on! People chill! They are just as normal as anyone, you are the one being Alien by calling them unfit!!”

  4. I agree that this is not right. That’s society for you. The world itself is messed up.
    I read a short story: The Girl, The Gryphon, and The Green-one.
    It just proves how messed up society is. And how it’s controlling everything along with people’s mind telling them what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s terrible.

    • I have heard great things about the story… is the story about a girl being forced to grow up? Yes, while there’s nothing wrong to sticking to your beliefs, it’s terrible when you’re forcing your ideologies on someone else, and on society as a whole.

  5. Thank you for a very enlighting article. I do agree with you as a whole. Whether I am for or against a certain lifestyle does not matter in the least. This entire world is made up of unconventional progress compared to the prior generation and we cannot and should not stop that from being so. Even those uneducated folks that want to ban what they believe is inappropriate, experienced the need to fight and stand up for what they believed in when they themselves were younger. Their own parents and elders tried banning the music they loved or maybe a certain relationship they believed was destined to happen. And now they want to become and personify the people they fought so hard against? They have forgotten. They have succumbed to fear. They have become weak. And that is sad.

    • This is another perspective to look at it. And I love how you used “uneducated folks”. Thanks for enlightening me!

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