How should public institutions respond to pressure from individuals and groups to make decisions in a certain way?
This is the most important question that has arisen in the wake of the furore over the National Library Board removing three titles from the children’s section following complaints from readers. The library said they would be “pulped” or destroyed.
The three books were And Tango Makes Three, based on the true story of a pair of male penguins who raised a chick together; The White Swan Express featuring adoptive parents including a lesbian couple; and Who's In My Family which highlights different family structures and includes same-sex parents.
The library’s decision to remove the books from the children’s section won some support from those who agreed children should be shielded from controversial content. But many were incensed at the thought of an institution devoted to learning and knowledge, destroying books.
NLB stuck to its stand for 10 days. On July 18, Friday, the Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said he had instructed the library not to destroy the first two books (the third has already been pulped) and to move them to the adult’s section.It will take a while for heated emotions to cool.
Meanwhile, public sector organsiations should be doing some serious soul-searching. How can they do better? What guideline can they use, to decide what to do when groups put pressure on state bodies, under the guise of being “pro-family”?
One way to approach this thorny issue is to work one’s way through moral reasoning.
Philosophy lecturer Jason Phan in an article on the IPS Commons website argues for an appeal to the reasonable man, suggesting that demands be put to “the test of impartiality, i.e. is this claim acceptable to all reasonable persons in the community?”
Ex-Administrative Service officer Donald Low went further in a thoughtful article on his Facebook page. Framing the issue as one of private morality in public policy, he argues that public institutions should practise a kind of secular morality that does not privilege one group’s religiously-based conviction over another. “This principle holds that the state should not discriminate against anyone, and deny them access to public services, on account of their beliefs, religious convictions (or lack thereof), and life choices.”
I agree with them that a public body cannot be seen to support the demands of one religious group over another. Nor can it use the argument of the majority to determine what course of action it should take.
But I am also a realist.
State bodies in Singapore are not neutral when it comes to social or moral values. The highly activist, interventionist state in Singapore, has a stand, argues it, and uses policy levers to advance it.
This is the case for family values.
At the state and society level, a certain kind of family is privileged as the “ideal” or the conventional.
The prototype “family” in Singapore is defined as one biological man, one biological woman, in a monogamous marriage, and their biological children.
This “ideal” family structure, is upheld and endorsed by the state, and reinforced through its range of policies on marriage and procreation. Policies on housing also support such families, by restricting nearly all subsidised public housing to married couples. In schools, moral and sexuality education reinforce this ideal.
Public sector institutions as organs of state will have to endorse promote that ideal.
But this does not mean they unthinkingly promote this ideal to the detriment of their individual mission, or in such a way that its specific constituents and stakeholders are discriminated against.
So the Ministry of Social and Family Development promotes the ideal family on the one hand, but also accepts that many families are hurting and some are dysfunctional.
It thus offers extensive resources and help to support families in trouble, ranging from single parents, to children who have committed crimes, youths at risk, and children with parents unable to care for them.
It promotes the family ideal, but accepts life as it is, and offers assistance to help the vulnerable.
In housing, most policies promote and endorse the “ideal” family, giving most subsidised public housing to married couples and having priority schemes for those with children or who want to live near their parents.
But National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan also recognises that singles have housing needs, including single parents - and so makes sure some subsidised flats are available for this group. In so doing, MND is not promoting single parents, but merely accepting that they exist - and need help to get affordable housing.
Here is where I think a simple distinction needs to be made between promoting something and accepting it.
Government bodies may promote the ideal, but not expect everyone to conform to it.
And they must accept life as it is on the ground - and assist where help is needed.
This simple rubric would have helped the National Library come to a better decision.
Its raison de’tre is to promote learning and knowledge. That is what it must actively uphold.
When it comes to family values, it should accept the range of family structures. The library has books that depict violent behaviour, or rape and incest in its adult section. Having these books on its shelves does not mean it endorses or promotes such behaviour. It merely accepts the existence of such behaviour.
But it also has to protect children who come to its rooms. Thus taking unsuitable books - on gay parents, or violence, or sex - out of the reach of unsupervised children is within its ambit.
In contrast, destroying books that do not conform to the state “ideal” violates its integrity of purpose as a knowledge repository.
The Health Promotion Board understood its role as an educator on health issues well. It promotes health and health knowledge.
It accepts homosexuality as a given. So its advice on homosexuality recognises that same-sex attraction exists, and it dispenses advice and suggestions for help without judgment.
In so doing, it accepts but does not endorse or promote homosexuality. But it does promote its core mission - health education.
When demands based on an individual or group’s private morality are made, each public organisation must intelligently and ethically hold up each demand and see if it is reasonable. If it is, the organisation must test it against its specific mission to determine how to respond. It must learn to withstand pressure to promote one vision of the right life, in order to keep faith with the community vision of others.
How to determine what to promote actively, what to accept without judgment, and when to assist those at the fringe - these are hallmarks of good public sector leadership.