The National Library Board (NLB)’s immediate withdrawal of a series of Malay language book from its libraries after a local Twitter user discovered the book’s contents, has raised some eyebrows. Here are some lessons we can learn from this incident:

Lesson 1: It’s impossible to vet all publications but extra attention should be given to titles of sensitive topics

The series that NLB withdrew is called Agama, Tamadun Dan Arkeologi (Religion, Civilisation and Archaeology), focusing on different civilisations and religions. The books were published in Malaysia in 2013 and the Twitter user’s discovery was the first feedback NLB has received since the books were placed on the shelves.

According to Channel NewsAsia, NLB spokesperson explained that the board does not vet every single book before it is acquired. While I agree that it is not efficient to check through all the books, the libraries should exercise greater caution when they assess books of sensitive topics, such as “religion” and “culture”. In this latest incident, there was an image of smiling children wearing yarmulkes and holding machine guns on the cover of one book. I thought this image alone would have sounded the alarm bells. Would be worrying if the libraries did not at least know the covers of the books they brought in; even more worrying if they failed to pick up the signs after seeing the contentious image.

Thankfully, Minister for Communication and Information Dr Yaacob Ibrahim has said that NLB will learn from this episode and will continue to improve its processes.

Lesson 2: Members of public should stay vigilant and calm

Since it is not efficient to vet all books, it becomes even more important for members of the public to remain vigilant and stay calm when they come into contact with publications of questionable content.

Minister Yaacob pointed out that NLB also relies on feedback from the public to flag any potentially controversial reading material in the public libraries, given the volume of books it processes. Our reaction, when we come across such reading materials, is crucial. Unlike the earlier incident when two children’s book titles were removed from the shelves after complaints that they did not promote family values, fellow Singaporeans are generally supportive and had expressed understanding of NLB’s handling of this recent case. This is encouraging, as such questionable publications should not be given the chance to wedge divides in our multi-racial, multi-religion and multi-cultural society.

Lesson 3: Minimising circulation of controversial content

When we come across questionable materials, do we immediately post on social media, which may lead to mass and fast spreading of the controversial content? Or do we bring it up to the authorities separately for their necessary follow-ups?

In this recent case, if the Twitter user’s tweet was potentially contentious (even though it brought attention to the books), I am glad that it has since closed down to prevent further damage. If public interest and national security is the crux of the matter, then the method of feedback should also have these at its heart.