Forum: NLB's action on book deemed racist is puzzling

A children's Chinese-language picture book, Who Wins?, written by Wu Xing Hua.
A children's Chinese-language picture book, Who Wins?, written by Wu Xing Hua.PHOTO: UMM YUSOF/FACEBOOK

It is heartening to know that members of the public are proactive in calling out racism (NLB moves book to adult section after complaint it conveys racist messages, Oct 21).

A library user reported a children's Chinese-language picture book to the National Library Board (NLB) for its racist depiction of an Indian boy as a bully.

NLB withdrew Wu Xing Hua's book, Who Wins?, from the children's section in the library. The book's publisher, Marshall Cavendish Education, also apologised to readers in a Facebook message and promised to cease publishing and selling it.

However, the decision by the NLB to move the offending book to the family and parenting section in its Adult Collections is puzzling.

Racism is not like sex - inappropriate for children, but acceptable for adults.

NLB's explanation for its decision is unclear: "Parents and guardians can make use of this book to discuss how children can deal with bullying in schools and correct any potential misunderstandings that children may have."

Is an assumption being made that adults are wiser than children when it comes to racism?

Last year's "brownface" incident showed that even people in advertising and media agencies could not recognise racism. Indeed, in real life, there are many adults who hold racist viewpoints and act on them.

We can rely on our teachers to convey correct attitudes to children, but we can't speak for the "education" they receive at home.

Further, it is unlikely that a book acknowledged to be racist would have anything useful to say about bullying since racism itself involves an unequal exertion of power over others and proceeds from a similar psychology.

The NLB points out that its decision was supported by the Library Consultative Panel that is made up of a cross-section of citizens.

Perhaps the NLB should consider forming a panel with people able to consult on issues of social and intellectual importance rather than have it represent different constituencies of citizens.

The NLB should elaborate on its decision to continue to make a book available to readers after recognising it as racist. Readers will want to be reassured that NLB does not wish to play a role in perpetuating racism in the country.

Matilda Gabrielpillai (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2020, with the headline 'NLB's action on book deemed racist is puzzling'. Subscribe