PR lessons from NLB's handling of book with 'dark-skinned' bully with 'oily curls'

The National Library Board (NLB) has copped flak for one of its books published in 2018 titled "Who Wins?" by author Wu Xing Hua. This comes after a netizen took to Facebook to voice unhappiness over one of its characters portrayed in the book where a school bully was characterised as a "dark-skinned" individual, with a head of "oily curls". The netizen then said the "the author basically channels the old-school Chinese parent threat" and perpetuates fear of other races.

In a statement to Marketing, a spokesperson from NLB said it is currently reviewing the book in question and has removed all copies from its libraries during the period of review. The spokesperson added that the book review will be done in consultation with its Library Consultative Panel, which is an independent and citizen-based panel.

This is not the first time NLB has gotten into heat for its books. Back in 2014, NLB was also a hot topic of conversation for two of its story books that contained homosexual content. The books in question were: And Tango Makes Three, which was based on the true story of two male penguins which hatched an egg in a New York zoo, and The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption, which featured a lesbian couple among others.

The books were eventually returned to the shelves, but were moved to the adult section of the libraries. In a statement then, NLB said it is not deciding what books children can or cannot read. "That decision remains with parents, as it always has been," it added.

How did NLB fare?

Facing a recent criticism of books it holds in its library, NLB seems to have handled the incident well, said Marcus Loh, regional senior director at WE Communications. The book in question was brought to NLB's attention, and NLB took "swift action" to remove and review it. Furthermore, NLB shared with the public that it will be conducting this review in consultation with an independent and citizen-based Library Consultative Panel instead of tasking regulators to do so. "[This] is the design of a citizen-led mechanism that affirms the collective power that society has in shaping the boundaries today," Loh added.

Loh also brought to light the fast-changing dynamics of the society in Singapore. Noting that Who Wins? was produced just two years ago in 2018, he said the rate at which Singapore has been maturing as a multicultural society in recent times may be unexpected. "What is clear is how careful a balance we must strike in negotiating new boundaries. Singapore has a deep and rich social tapestry but it is also a fragile tapestry of delicate threads," he said.

Although the incident seems to be well-handled from a PR point of view, Loh was quick to caution that it may not last. He added that moving forward, more organisations could be thrust into the center of public attention as society learns to navigate these changing norms.

Organisations in Singapore need to be sensitive at listening to its stakeholders, responding to new proclivities, and keeping our national interests in mind.

When it comes to dealing with sensitive discourse on racial identities, Loh urged organisations and the public to work things out in a level-headed way in order to preserve the common spaces that have enabled Singapore’s unique brand of democracy to thrive.

Taking a similar stance, Edwin Yeo, general manager of SPRG Singapore, agreed that discussions should be carried out in a calm manner. "To respond only in anger without reconciliation doesn't make the problem go away. To 'cancel' the author and publisher doesn't help their peers understand why this is a problem," Yeo added. For Yeo, such incidents should be seen as opportunities to bring to the forefront a tougher discussion on race.

Yeo added that NLB should not stop at removing the book for review but rather should use this opportunity to engage stakeholders such as authors, publishers, and NGOs to discuss on the way forward in literature. It can also educate everyone on being sensitive to such issues, whether it be about race, religion, gender or any potentially divisive topics.

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