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Singapore's Libraries Don't Want Kids Reading About Tango the Penguin and Her Two Loving Fathers

Many Singaporeans reacted strongly to the banning of the three children's books. As a protest, they gathered in front of the National Library Board where they read the banned books, including the 'gay penguin book'. Photo by Olivia Tan from the Facebook page of 'Lets read Together'

Many Singaporeans reacted strongly to the banning of the three children's books. As a protest, they gathered in front of the National Library Board where they read the banned books, including the ‘gay penguin book'. Photo by Olivia Tan from the Facebook page of ‘Lets Read Together’

Singapore’s National Library Board (NLB) has banned and destroyed copies of three children’s books that deal with same-sex couples and adoption after it received a complaint that the books are not ‘pro-family’.

NLB removed the books ‘And Tango Makes Three’, ‘Who's In My Family’, and ‘The White Swan Express’ ‘And Tango Makes Three’ is based on a true story of two male penguins who raised a baby penguin as their own at the New York Central Park Zoo.

Teo Kai Loon, a member of a Facebook group called ‘We Are Against Pink Dot Singapore’, wrote to NLB about the inappropriateness of including the three books in the children’s section. Pink Dot is an annual celebration in Singapore promoting diversity, tolerance, and acceptance of the LGBT.

Tay Ai Cheng, the assistant chief executive and chief librarian at the NLB, quickly responded by ordering the removal of the books from the library. She also assured the complainant that “NLB takes a strong pro-family stand in selecting books.”

The decision was met with fierce reactions from the reading public, especially mothers and academics. Educator Rachel Zeng urged the NLB to resist the threat of the conservative minority:

[...] as a resource centre of knowledge, the National Library Board (NLB) should maintain a diverse collection of reading materials in your libraries that will cater to the educational needs of everyone from as young as 18 months old to those who are 60 and beyond. It should not limit the availability of knowledge by pandering to the standards of a conservative minority.

Some netizens wondered how a Facebook group could compel the NLB to order the removal of the books. Helen Scida asked:

[...] if these books passed the initial selection tests of the library organization in the first place why is it a Facebook group, of all things, has enough clout to demand their removal?

Dr. Justin Richardson, one of the authors of ‘And Tango Makes Three’, told The Online Citizen in an interview that NLB’s action has sent a “chilling message about the government’s attitude toward the freedom of expression in general and toward gay and lesbian people in particular.”

Many Singaporean authors have echoed a similar message and some of them have already boycotted the events sponsored by the NLB. Last Sunday, more than 400 people gathered in front of the NLB to participate in a public reading event to protest. They also distributed copies of the banned books.

Jashuat, a mother, believes that the NLB acted against its avowed mission of promoting learning:

NLB’s ban and subsequent defence of its action displays a very narrow definition of family. Again, this is against promoting learning, one of NLB’s mission. Are gays not part of a family, not someone’s child, brother, friend? By banning the book, NLB was being silly and bowing to pressure from a small group of Singaporeans’ personal belief and value system. By stubbornly defending their action, NLB is stamping approval and endorsing that narrowly defined view of what family is.

An open letter drafted by Ng Yi-Sheng, Lim Jialiang, and Liyan Chen accused the NLB of being irresponsible and unfair. Parents who don't want their children reading these books have the option of not borrowing them, they said.

The 'Let's read Together' event gathered 400 people in front of the National Library Board. Image from Facebook event page

The ‘Let's read Together’ event gathered 400 people in front of the National Library Board. Image from Facebook event page

Meanwhile, The Wacky Duo, another parent blogger, understood the library's reasoning but disagreed with its decision to destroy the books:

To ban it to protect the younger ones is one thing, to pulp the books is akin to a witch hunt, where innocents perish with the guilty. …A simple alternative would be to move it to young adults section, which at the recommended age group, one would be able to make their own judgment on the books content.

Yaacob Ibrahim, Singapore’s minister for communications and information, defended the NLB. “Public libraries serve the community and it is right that they give consideration to community norms,” he said. “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.

The issue has highlighted the continuing confrontation between conservative forces and an emergent community that accepts the gay community and advocates for LGBT rights. 

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