Racist Children’s Book Moved to Adults’ Section After Review: Is It Enough?

Umm Yusof/Facebook
Umm Yusof/Facebook

In October, the National Library Board (NLB) announced that it would move the controversial book, Who Wins? by Wu Xing Hua, to the adults’ section in its libraries, following a three-month review conducted by the Library Consultative Panel, an independent and citizen-based panel. Prior to the review, the book was taken off shelves after a Facebook post by Estella Young pointed out the book’s racist content.

The book, written for children aged seven to nine, features a dark-skinned boy with oily and curly hair whose name is Mao Mao (Chinese for hairy) as an aggressive school bully. In the story, Mao Mao bullies the protagonist Pi Pi by coercing the latter to do his homework, and buy him food. After Mao Mao gives Pi Pi a bloody nose, the latter calls Mao Mao “smelly” in retaliation.

Using an account that goes by the name of Umm Yusof, Young commented that the book was “astoundingly racist”, as the bully was the only dark-skinned character in the book. She also pointed out that the book did not make use of any redemptive tropes whereby the bully is simply misunderstood, or becomes a friend of the protagonist, but is shown to be “irredeemably nasty”, made worse by the fact that his appearance was irrelevant to the plot. Young criticised the author for making use of “the old-school Chinese parent threat of “Behave or the Ah Neh will get you”, with a dash of the “Oily Man” and “smelly indian” bogeys thrown in”.

Two days after Young made the post, NLB responded by saying that it would review the book, and promptly removed it from its shelves. The book’s publisher, Marshall Cavendish Education, also stated that it would stop sales of the offending book, and was in the process of recalling copies of it back. The local publisher also clarified that it had no intention to “produce content that promotes discrimination in any way”. An apology to readers was also posted on their Facebook page on 21 July.

NLB’s explains decision to move book to the adults’ section

During NLB’s announcement to the media regarding the review outcome of Who Wins?, NLB explained that it was moved to the adults’ section so that “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 it really that serious?

While there is no question that the content of Who Wins? is problematic, is it really true that a mere story book can prime children towards racist thoughts? Unfortunately, yes.

Research has shown that a child’s brain can begin to notice race-based differences from as early as six months. By the time children are two to four years old, they can internalise racial bias, and these beliefs are often set by the time the child turns 12. Many of these beliefs, just like language, are learnt from a child’s parents. Hence, how the child processes and responds to racial differences are largely dependent on observing how their parents respond, and what their parents teach them about race.

This begs the question — are we, as adults, capable of talking about race and racism in an unbiased manner? On that note, is simply moving the book and putting the onus on adults to explain its nuances to children a good enough response from NLB?

“Behave or the Ah Neh will get you”

As Young pointed out in her Facebook post, the references used in the book seem to stem from “old-school Chinese parent” threats, and stereotypes about minority races — evidence that adults too, are capable of perpetuating racist notions and ideas.

Although most of us might have grown up hearing racist comments and remarks, it’s ultimately up to us to develop a sense of discernment and steer clear from making assumptions about another person’s race, ethnicity or even culture. As much as we like to think of ourselves as unbiased and rational human beings, sometimes we’re still prone to faux pas, either through mindless comments on social media, advertising campaigns, or making insensitive comments towards people of minority groups. Thankfully, through the power of social media, these unsavoury acts were subsequently repudiated by netizens, and were also investigated by the authorities.

Social media as a platform to share minority experiences and break stereotypes

That being said, credit must also be given to groups who have harnessed the power of social media to dispel racism and race-related stereotypes in a non-aggressive manner. Instagram accounts such as @minorityvoices, @hearmesg, @beyondthehijabsg, @lepakconversations, and @utopia.sg have become safe spaces for minorities to share their experiences where they’ve encountered discrimination without being accused of being “too sensitive”. The platforms also serve as a useful source of information for members of the public to read about the experiences of minority groups, to better understand their culture.

Racism is a key concern of the government

At a macro level, Minister for Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam said last year in an interview that although racism still exists in Singapore, the situation has improved. He also cited a study done by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and racial harmony group onepeople.sg, which saw that interracial and interreligious harmony in Singapore was improving, with more Singaporeans having close friends from other races.

He also added that racism is a key concern of the government. “We want to build a cohesive society, but racism corrodes and deepens the fault lines in society. We do a lot to counter it, and we have set out what we do,”

Let’s not take a step back

Since there has been substantial development to erase racial fault lines in Singapore, why should we risk taking a step back and discredit all those who have worked and sacrificed to get us to where we are today?

Surely there must be other books to teach our children about bullying without having to evoke the use of racist stereotypes.




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