Can Penguins, Public Officers and Singaporeans Tango? – 17 Jul 2014

Posted on July 17th, 2014 in Food for thought



Ever since it became public that the National Library Board (“NLB”) would remove and destroy from its children collection, three titles: And Tango Makes Three, The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption, and Who’s In My Family: All About Our Families, Singaporeans have parked themselves in two distinctive camps, with some expressing disdain and others expressing support.

The first book, And Tango Makes Three, has two male penguins who behave as though they are in love and raise a baby penguin.  The second book, The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption, depicts two female partners trying to adopt a baby from China.  The third, Who’s In My Family: All About Our Families, features various family structures including parents of the same gender.

NLB’s action, and the strong vocal reaction of the public (online and offline) made international news and at the point of my writing is still fueling vigorous debate in and outside Singapore.

To be clear, the government is not against single parent family that began as a two parent family where the couple comprises a male and a female. It is perfectly understandable that one spouse pass away earlier or leaves the family through a divorce and separation. Some of our ministers come from single parent families due to the scenarios as described above.

What the government does not want to promote is

1)    A family structure that starts off with a male or a female who decides that a spouse is unnecessary to raise a kid and adopts a kid for that purpose.

2)    A family structure that starts off with a couple of the same gender who then may/may not adopt a kid to raise

The ripples of the fallout caught me by surprise as prominent writers and panelists associated with NLB events began to pull out to make their stand.  Was this something NLB had anticipated from its apparent unilateral action? Or had NLB been caught flat-footed by a tide of strong disagreement, even from families which belong to the current societal norm.

I am not convinced that access to these books sow the seeds of homosexuality thoughts in a child.  I did not read any of the three titles when I was a kid, growing up.  But an incident I still recall struck me as parallel to the reaction I might have if I have read these books.  I remembered once, I had a book on animals and I asked my mother why the parents of the baby look alike.  Are they fathers or mothers? She replied she could not tell as well.  Then she asked me if I preferred to have two fathers or two mothers? I chuckled and replied that I prefer to have a father and a mother because it feels more natural to me.

I believe that every person should have the right to be true to himself. Just like you should not force me to be a homosexual, I have no right to force a homosexual to be otherwise.

The debate whether homosexuality is nurture vs nature has no clear conclusion and I do not want to add to the debate, statistics and studies. Are we really so influenced by what we read and see as a kid?  When I watched Superman flying, my mother did not have to tell me that it was just make-believe.  I knew that if I tried to leap off a building, it would have been the end of me. Was it just me, growing up in a modest family to have common sense? Or do we underestimate how much kids can understand reality even from a young age?


One typical argument for the banning of the three titles is that children should be allowed to decide for themselves without undue influence, (often when they are older) if they are homosexuals.  Assuming if a particular kid is indeed a homosexual, can you imagine the pain and turmoil he will have to endure growing up? Would he be teased or bullied? Would he experiment to convince himself of his orientation? Would he grow up thinking that something is wrong with him or worse, obsess that the “devil” resides in him?

No one should have to grow up thinking something is wrong with himself. Such books give an opportunity for parents to identify potential struggles the child might be going through in silence. What if a daughter says, “Mommy, actually I don’t like boys. I prefer to play with the gals.” This could just be a growing up phase and nothing to worry too much about. Or perhaps there is more behind those words.  It’s up to the parent then to decide the next course of action or acceptance. I can’t speak for other parents as they would have different philosophies with regards to this issue. What is worth thinking is that no one should have to grow up thinking something is wrong with himself.

If the government’s stand is to have the kid decide for himself when he is older, then by having the books removed, it does not want the chance (no matter how remote or impossible) that one becomes homosexual by the process of nurture. I find it quite incredulous that such books can even be thought as the catalyst for such a transformation.  Yet, the flipside is, don’t these books help you as a parent to start a conversation to suss out your kid’s inherent inclination? Or at least open their eyes to the different relationships in the world.  Just like I didn’t think I could fly like Superman when I was a kid, parents need not worry that their kid would point to the story book penguins rightaway and declare, I want to be a homosexual too. She might blurt out, “I want to try to raise an egg with jie jie, can I, Mommy?  Don’t freak out.  She’s not being homosexual.  Kids can say the darnest things. But other parents might see it in a more apocalyptic way.  First she wants to raise an egg with jie jie.  What if next time she wants to raise an egg with our neighbours’ daughter?

If you are chuckling at the paranoia, you do see my point.  It takes more than a book.

Between the polarizing alternatives of pulping the aforementioned books or leaving the books where they are, I wonder why a compromise of restricting access to the books and classifying these books as reference (with parental guidance) was not put forward to the public? My concern and bigger worry is whether such an alternative had been actually considered by NLB internally but ultimately quashed.

I can imagine such a typical conversation.  Let’s call subordinate (S) and Boss (B)


(B) Here we go again.  A member of the public, with several others have appealed that we remove these books from our shelves [Shows (S) the email and the list of three books].

(S) I read these books before.  Were there not cleared by NLB? How did these 3 books appear on our shelves in the first place?

(B) Don’t ask me.  I did not purchase these titles.  They were recommended books and I think these books promote discussion and adds to the variety of books here. But nevermind what I think, what can we do?

(S) It’s a sensitive issue.  You know these books don’t just mention same gender couple, they also talk about single parent family structure.  My concern is that these structures are very real in Singapore and if we remove them, Singaporeans in non-traditional family structures  may think that the government is slighting them.

(B) I don’t think so.  I’m sure they are smart enough to know that the government is not against single parent family due to normal circumstances such as a spouse passing on early or leaving the family after a separation or divorce.

(S) Any way we can edit the books?

(B) [Laughing] Eh, you think what? Like a R(A) movie? Can snip here and there and the story can still flow.  We can’t do this to hardcopies. The so call offending bits are all over the books.  You either tear out pages or use a black marker to cover things up.  No. no, that’s too clumsy, let’s not go into this.

(S) Hmm, ok. So it’s out of the question.  We don’t have to remove these books entirely.

(B) Meaning?

(S) Well, just like, you know the adult reference section, we could house them in a similar section in the children’s section.

(B) Interesting.  Go on.

(S) Only kids accompanied by parents can read them within the library. Such a list of parental guidance books will be made available.  Parents and their kids will have to register their names and NRIC.  We have backend systems that should be able to identify if they are indeed related. Once cleared, they will be able to access a room where the books are, equipped with the usual gates or video surveillance to ensure the books are not removed from that special room without permission

(B) That’s actually a plausible idea but I can see the pain of doing so.  Let me elaborate.

1) Parents will complain, “Eh are you tracking me and spying on me that I’m exploring such books with my kids.”

2) Pro-normal family advocates will say, “Why are the books still available at the library? Is the government pro-normal family stand consistent or have they changed position?”

3) Those on the other side will say, “Yeah, the books are still available, but why in a restricted section? You mean to treat us as pariahs? Why not let the books stay where they are.  Parents don’t have to borrow if they are not uncomfortable.  We’re not forcing them or their kids to touch these books anyway.”

4) We have to spend resources and money to make your idea possible.  And mind you, we have so many libraries.  Do you know how the cost will add up?  And don’t remind me of the tender procedure, please.

5) Assuming, we achieve all this and spend all this money, will this be the end?  Will the public thank us for striving for a win-win solution.  Or after putting our neck on the chopping board, people still complain and we get burnt for it?

(S) [Almost inaudible] But we spend so much for NDP anyway….

(B) What did you say?

(S) Eh, nothing.  I see your point boss.  But just removing the books from our shelves appears very draconian. There are far worse books that depict violence and all that.

(B) I’m not going into that debate with you.  It’s a slippery …Arg, even I can’t take that slope anymore.

(S) Why don’t we explore my idea with the other bosses and think of ways to cut the cost of implementation?  Say house all these books in a dedicated children reference section in the Central Library at Bras Basah?

(B) S, you’re a really good staff.  I feel your passion to do the right thing.  But even if we bring down the cost, we’ll still get complaints.

(S) But maybe less complaints and less unhappiness over this. The fallout could be bad.  What if we lose the support of our local writers and judges at our upcoming event. Must we also polarize our community this way?

(B) Don’t worry.  I think they are rational people who will understand our difficult circumstance and trade-offs…Arg..why did I use that phrase again???

(S) B, I really, really think we have to re-consider this.  Our leaders have talked about engaging the community.  We should at least explain to the public the alternatives we have considered and why we have chosen our course of action. And I don’t mean removing the books but just restricting access to them.

(B) [Getting impatient] You still don’t get it, S. Our good intention will not be appreciated.

(S) But Boss, I…

(B) [Sighs] This discussion is over.  We’ll remove these books

(S) Are we going to destroy these books?

(B) Not my call.  Is up to the other bosses.  Our discussion is just whether we can think up an alternative win-win solution.

(S) But I gave you mine.

(B) I said enough

(S) Ok, why don’t we hold our decision and maybe have a public consultation first.  At least give everyone a forum to say their piece.

(B) And if the ultimate decision is still to remove the books, won’t some think we’re just holding a wayang show?

(S) But we won’t know the final decision until then.  Things might be different.

(B) This discussion is over.  Thank you, S.  Sorry to hold you back from knocking off.

S leaves B’s office.  He takes a deep breath and shakes his head.  Why are the right things so hard to do, he thinks to himself.


Were level headed public officers not able to convince their bosses otherwise? As an ex-public officer, I’m disturbed by this thought.  It continues to haunt me as I witness the saga unfold over the past 2 weeks.

At the root of the unhappiness is the impression that decisions that matter are implemented unilaterally without scant regards to discussion and engagement. PM Lee and Head of Civil Service have spoken repeatedly of the need to gain the trust of the people through better engagement. Why then are their messages not passed down properly throughout the ranks of public officers and civil servants.

If trust in the authorities is eroding, this is just another fine example how to make it worse. Public officers who care about the solidarity of our nation, I urge you to continue valiantly to press hard internally for win -win solutions for our nation. Your ideas and proposal may be squashed from time to time but like what have been said many times, it’s never easy to do the right things.

When I was in the the civil service, it was never about maneuvering for the next plush promotion and posting. It was about doing the right things, even though they were not the easiest things to do.

Don’t make this NLB incident the harbinger of things to come. Treat this as the lowest point in gaining the trust of the people and fight hard to get it right again.

Many have criticized Catherine Lim’s open letter which hit on the lost of trust in the government. Lost of trust can be provoked by many events and incidences. In the light of the NLB saga, are we not witnessing one such event?


However the plus side of it all is that no one can now accuse Singaporeans of being apathetic these days.  There are many Singaporeans who now stand up for what they believe and rally others to a common cause.  We have to take the difference in opinions positively.  Only when we can openly debate differences yet peacefully co-exist together, can we truly call ourselves a First World People with a First World tolerance and understanding to our fellow Singaporeans in a First World country.

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