By Ng Yi-Sheng
National Library goer Ng Yi-Sheng waxes lyrical-critical about our nation’s shiniest public paradigm in his third piece for GRC. From banned books to liberal discussion groups, he breaks down the complexities of the space, and muses on the possibility of a truly public place.
Researcher Pass to Level 8 of the National Library. Image courtesy of the author.
“I had always imagined paradise as a kind of library.”
—Jorge Luis Borges, “Blindness”, 1977
I have terrible timing. Last month, I celebrated Singapore’s shopping malls as public spaces. Now, in December, the very season of Orchard Road Light-Up consumption, I find myself turning against commercialism, celebrating an institution that is diametrically opposed to the glitz and buzz of a Xmas market.
Seriously, though. Can we take a moment to appreciate how magnificent libraries are? I’m not just speaking as a writer and bookworm here—though let’s be real, I’ve gained so much from access to the National Library’s collection, from my childhood days checking out Diana Wynne Jones’ SFF novels, to my PhD independent study module last year on Southeast Asian epics, to the simple delight of seeing my own and my friends’ works on the shelves and in the hands of strangers.
The National Library. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
No: let’s forget all that for a second. I want to draw your attention to the fact that the library caters even to people who aren’t really all that much into books. Old folks who want to read newspapers. Parents dropping off their kids for storytelling sessions. Students who need a desk and wifi and a power outlet for their homework. Even people who just want an air-conditioned place to steal a nap, though that’s specifically not encouraged.
And the crazy thing is, all this is free. Sure, you can bring up fines for overdue and lost books, charges for reserved items, and the $5 drinks at the adjoining Hanis or OTC or Café Galilee. But the vast majority of the services are provided FOC. Compared to everything else there is to do in our late capitalist society, where even collecting a PSLE cert costs money, it’s bizarrely socialist.
Hence this viral tweet by American designer Amanda Killian:
Thus, as Borges notes, a library is a kind of utopia. Perhaps especially so in Singapore: it is, after all, one of the few places where there’s a commitment to representing all four of our national languages. Plus, I’ve seen the library system grow—though I’m nostalgic for the old ink stamps and OPAC consoles of the Stamford Road library, I’m 100% supportive of how we’ve now got more branches all over the island, in transport hubs and shopping malls, reaching out to youngsters with graphic novels and DVDs and Night at the Library events on Halloween, building a sense of heritage through Biblioasia research essays, online searchable archives, and Level 10 exhibitions.
It ought to be common for a government to invest this much in its library system. But it isn’t—not even in developed countries like the US and the UK, which have seen drastic funding cuts under their current illiberal regimes. This is why I unironically bring foreign visitors to NLB when I’m giving them sightseeing tours of the island. I’m not usually proud to be Singaporean, but when I show them the high-ceilinged multi-coloured panels of the reference section… hey, a dude’s gotta flex.
But —and in Singapore, there’s always a but—some of you must be wondering why, as a queer activist, I’m deigning to say good things about the Singapore library system.
What about Penguingate? That crazy moment in July 2014 when it was revealed that NLB would be pulping two children’s books, And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express, just because both mentioned same-sex parents? When it emerged that they’d been routinely caving into homophobic hate groups’ demands and internally exercising the same standards of self-censorship on their collections, with at least four other books removed that year for similar reasons? Have I forgotten that already?
Not at all. I f***ing wept when it happened—because that is how much the library means to me. It was an act of great betrayal: a place of refuge turned into a site of intolerance.
Nor was this the first time this had happened. As a teen, I took censorship in the library for granted—this wasn’t long after Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was banned in 1989, after all. Twenty years later, at a book club at the old Library@Orchard, a lesbian librarian friend explained to me an internal procedure: when patrons object to a book, it may be withdrawn from the shelves, then discreetly replaced at a later date—one of those bureaucratic wayang procedures that keep everyone happy.
Since that heady summer of ‘14, I’ve noticed other less sensationalised problems at NLB. That very December, I came across an exhibition at Jurong Regional Library perpetuating the myth that the detainees of Operation Spectrum were involved in an effort “to destabilise the country and to establish the Marxist state”. This year, I voiced my concerns over the introduction of a researchers’ pass, limiting use of the reserved seats in the Level 8 reference section to accredited users, e.g. academics—only to learn from a Malay grad student friend that this isn’t just an elitist space; he’s also found it to be a racialised space, where he and his other Malay friends are routinely reminded that they’re using resources intended for more “legitimate” researchers.
Furthermore, what about the very theme of this blog: “a public square”? How can I claim the library is anything like a civic centre or a pasar when it is, by nature, an environment where silence, restrictions, and alphabetised order are paramount?
What unites all these issues, IMHO, is the problem of what happens when a governing authority decides to serve a large, diverse community of people. They police us: they take input from some folks and decide that it’s OK to marginalise and penalise others, all for the sake of keeping the peace.
A library isn’t about liberty or justice or truth. It’s about co-existence. I have to share this tower of books with people who would like to see LGBTs and SJWs like myself burn in hell—just like I share this country, this planet, this web. That’s what public means.
Yet the governance of a public resource like NLB isn’t fixed in its conservatism. There are ways to shift its stance, sometimes by literally taking over the space— remember the read-in organised by Germaine Ong and Jolene Tan in response to Penguingate? A crowd of families took over the National Library courtyard, reading books to their kids—an action that may have moved NLB to shelve the books in its adult section and reappraise its decision-making process.
The library itself is opening up spaces where dialogue is possible. They’ve been hosting free public talks on a range of issues, from heritage to self-help—and these can actually get pretty damn progressive. A 25 September event, “How to Make Feminist History in Singapore”, commanded a huge audience, listening to speakers express a brand of feminism that’s inclusive of the working classes, transgender persons, and sex workers, with absolutely no indication that these ideas aren’t already mainstream.
How to Make Feminist History in Singapore (event held at the National Library). Image courtesy of the author.
These open intellectual discussions are happening in a lot of other cultural spaces—museums, universities, bookshops, galleries, arts centres like The Arts House and Centre 42, offices of groups like Teater Ekamatra and Sing Lit Station. Sometimes they take place adjacent to small, private libraries—e.g. the wares library at Soft/Wall/Studs, the Southeast Asian art library at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art.
wares library at Soft/Wall/Studs. Image courtesy of the author.
And I do think that they’re an indication of a movement here, a widening hunger for ideological growth.
Still, I mustn’t fool myself. It’s still only a small subset of woke and half-woke folks who’re participating in such events. In order to have any kind of change in this society, we’ll need huge swathes of the population to turn up.
Which is why I think we’ve gotta learn from NLB. It might not be everyone’s idea of a revolutionary role model, but it is founded on socialist principles, and it serves the broad public as few other arts institutions do.
Can we possibly—using the exemplar of a public library, or directly using its mechanisms—influence society as a whole, to make it more open, more empathetic, more reformist?
It’s not enough to have a private paradise. I want a public utopia.
Not just a national library. A national liberation.