LAST WEEK, I wrote a piece extolling the emergence of dissident themes and voices in Singaporean literature, particularly in the novel The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim, who reminded us how much of that city-state’s wealth and power grew on the back of its underclass. I’m sure that there are many voices harsher and more strident than Suchen’s among Singapore’s younger writers, which is good. We’ve long expected this kind of literary insurgency to happen, as it is almost invariably the writers of any nation who form the spearpoint of social protest.
As I said last week, many Filipinos—whether mistakenly or not—take Singapore’s enviable prosperity as the result of a pact with the devil of authoritarianism, a compromise between getting fed well and shutting up. So we’re glad to see Singaporean society loosening up and speaking out, and to meet the humans behind the industrial facade. Surely, we’d like to think, Singapore’s economic ascendancy and its emphatic claim to full modernization deserve to be crowned by a more liberal, compassionate, and inclusive democracy. A rich nation should be able to afford more, not less, freedom.
Or so we thought. Very recently, Singapore’s government delivered another rude reminder of how deep in the dark cavern of the feudal mind its ministers remain, even as their citizens have begun to step out into the sunlight.
At issue was the decision of the National Library Board—supported by the Information Minister—to remove three children’s books from the shelves and to destroy all remaining copies, out of fear that the books, because of their unusual content, would condone and promote homosexual behavior. (Singapore still has a law criminalizing sex between men, punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment.)
Reports say that the banned books include “And Tango Makes Three,” based on a true story about two male penguins that raised a baby penguin in a New York zoo. In “The White Swan Express,” children are adopted by straight, gay, mixed-race, and single parents. The third book, “Who’s In My Family,” includes gay couples among different types of families. Because a conservative parent complained about these books, an internal review was undertaken by the NLB, which then deemed them unsuitable and subject to removal and destruction.
Not surprisingly, Singapore’s writers, artists, and academics—the liberal types every authoritarian regime fears and detests—are up in arms over the decision. Three prominent judges have resigned from the board of the biennial Singapore Literature Prize, and writers’ and gay organizations all over the world have denounced both the homophobia and the Hitlerite evocation of bookburning that the NLB action embodies. They point out, fairly enough, that conservatives who disagree with the books have a choice not to read them, but that others should have the option and opportunity to read them should they want to.
One of the strongest voices raised against the NLB was that of Suchen Lim, who last Thursday keynoted the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Conference at Singapore’s Arts House. (I should’ve been there, but thanks to Typhoon Glenda, my flight was canceled and I couldn’t rebook myself in time to catch my two events, so I decided to stay home and mend our typhoon-battered roof.) The Singapore Straits Times would report on Suchen’s impassioned attack on the NLB thus:
“Lim, 65, was a single parent to her two sons and was also brought up in a single parent family for a time before her mother remarried. She said the removal of these books was a disappointment.
“’In removing and pulping those books on various family structures, the National Library Board is telling these children that they and their families don’t count. In removing these books, NLB is reducing such children and their families into invisibility,’ she said.
“The audience in the Chamber of the former Parliament House stood and applauded her words, including Hong Kong writer Nury Vittachi and Singapore writers Verena Tay and Josephine Chia. Also present was writer Felix Cheong, who along with fellow authors Gwee Li Sui, Adrian Tan and Prem Anand, withdrew from an NLB panel discussion last week, to protest against the withdrawal of the picture books.
“Cheong, 49, wore a brand-new T-shirt decorated with three penguins, a logo which has been adopted by those against NLB’s removal of the books.”
Had I been there, I would’ve stood up myself and cheered Suchen on, even at the risk of being blacklisted and turned away the next time I present myself at Changi’s immigration line. The fight against prejudice and censorship knows no national boundaries, which is why I’m writing up this issue for Filipino readers who couldn’t care less about Singapore and gay penguins.
In truth, I’m a fairly frequent visitor to Singapore and have been the appreciative guest of both its government and of my fellow writers there. A couple of years ago, its tourism ministry took me, among other journalists, on a tour of Singapore’s cultural landmarks, including the National Library, and we were suitably impressed. I wrote glowing reports about Singapore’s emergence as a new cultural hotspot in Asia. Why not? The view from The Hub—a glass bubble at the top of the library—was breathtaking, and I was moved by a special exhibit their ultramodern library had of their prominent writers’ memorabilia. When, I thought, would we come around to making these investments in books and culture in the Philippines?
But as I noted last week, there are always two sides to Singapore, and this book-banning incident reminded me of (for us Filipinos) a much sadder story from almost 20 years ago, when Filipino domestic helper Flor Contemplacion, convicted of murder, was about to be hanged in Singapore’s Changi prison. As the editorial writer then of the now-defunct Today newspaper, on the eve of Flor’s execution, I looked helplessly at this painful spectacle and remarked:
“Something went terribly wrong with Flor’s dream—whether through her fault or someone else’s, as now seems highly plausible, only God for the moment knows for certain. Two people died, allegedly by Flor’s maddened hand, and that was tragic enough. Today, Flor Contemplacion will die in turn in judicial payment for those lives—and that, too, will cause untold sorrow, especially among her people who have rallied to her defense.
“But almost as saddening, perplexing, and infuriating as these losses is today’s freshest reminder of savagery in what had been held up, for all the world to see, as the very model of civilized society and behavior in our time. And this was hardly the savagery of individuals gone amuck, but the institutional primitivism of a government which, for all its claims to modernity and discipline, has finally revealed nothing but its simian brain and tom-tom heart. Flor’s execution will be a quick and convenient end; any further complications, by way of entertaining an appeal for a stay and a reinvestigation, would have strained the brutish simplemindedness of Singaporean justice.”
They were harsh words for a harsh situation, and even as I subsequently accepted and enjoyed, with not a little guilt, Singapore’s official hospitality, hoping that things had changed, I never quite lost the suspicion that beneath the First-World ease was a hair-trigger reflex that could be set off by any perceived threat to stability and security.
A government that fears that the carefully constructed and presumably robust society it has built can be unraveled by the affection between two male penguins is exhibiting not just ignorance but paranoia. One has to wonder of what use it is to tout such 21st-century marvels as the Marina Bay Sands—and, yes, a state-of-the-art National Library—when the consciousness that directs the place is stuck somewhere in the 16th century.
But before we Filipinos beat our chests and congratulate ourselves over how much more open we are to such modern concepts as tolerance and acceptance, let’s not forget that our own public officials share something with their Singaporean counterparts. When our President denied the accomplished actress but alleged drug user Nora Aunor the National Artist Award for fear that honoring her would encourage Filipinos to run out for their nearest dose of shabu, it showed that governments everywhere don’t have the foggiest idea of how art and artists work. But they do know that art works—much more effectively than government PR—and in that knowledge, perhaps, lies the source of their fear and disquietude.