Singapore censors US comic book icon Archie over same-sex marriage theme

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 July, 2014, 11:59am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 July, 2014, 2:49pm

First, it was gay penguins upsetting religious conservatives. Now, it’s the most popular man in Riverdale, Archie Andrews, ruffling sociopolitical feathers in Singapore.

Thousands of Singaporeans were outraged last week when government-run libraries banned three children’s books for supposedly having gay themes. One of the books, And Tango Makes Three, features the real-life story of two male penguins taking care of a baby chick at a zoo in New York.

And now the iconic US comic book character Archie will join the gay penguins in exile from bookshelves in Singapore.

Censors at Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA) said on Wednesday that after receiving a complaint from the public, it had reviewed and banned the sale of one volume of the Archie: The Married Life series because it featured a same-sex marriage.

The censors had deemed the comic book to be out of step with social norms.

The book is available at public libraries run by Singapore’s National Library Board (NLB) but officials say they will now review the publication after learning about the ban.

The censure, implemented earlier this year, only came to light on Wednesday after award-winning illustrator Sonny Liew posted on his blog that he was unable to find the controversial comic book at bookstores.

Former lawmaker and gay-rights advocate Siew Kum Hong said the ban is a sharp reminder of censorship rules, which “remain arbitrary, opaque and conservative.”

“For instance, if Sonny Liew had not raised this issue, the MDA would probably never have announced it,” he said. “The fact that the National Library Board did not know about the ban at all is quite telling.”

The plot of the latest instalment in the Life With Archie comic series sees the lead character shot dead after taking a bullet to save his gay friend. The book deals with the problem of gun control in the US. It is not known if it will be banned in Singapore.

Riverdale might have relaxed laws on same-sex marriage and homosexuality but in Singapore, gay sex is illegal, though the rule is hardly enforced.

“Themes or depictions of alternative lifestyles or deviant sexual practices should not be featured e.g. homosexuality, group sex and sadomasochism,” Singapore censors’ guidelines for comic books state.

Gay-rights advocate Siew told the South China Morning Post that banning the Archie book reflected badly on authorities.

“This ban, together with the recent news of the libraries banning the children’s books, just makes Singapore seem really backward and much more conservative and straitlaced than it really is,” Siew said.

“It undermines the efforts to create a ‘buzz’ in Singapore and make it seem cosmopolitan and happening.”

Online debate over lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights has raged in Singapore recently, with heated arguments between religious conservatives and liberals. The issue escalated quickly after the NLB said it would “pulp” three children’s books for supposedly having a gay theme.

Minister of Communication and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said he backed the library officials’ decision, saying that community norms needed to prevail.

However, in a surprising move, the minister’s fellow People’s Action Party MP Hri Kumar disagreed with the decision to destroy the books.

In a Facebook note aptly titled “Pulp Friction”, he said that excluding and pulping the books gave a confusing message about the role of public libraries, which critics say should not dictate what constitutes family values.

“The solution could therefore be to have the books placed in a separate section, which children can only access with an adult present,” Kumar suggested.

In an op-ed gone viral by the author of Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus Donald Low, the NLB was criticised for not adhering to its role.

“Libraries should not be required to promote any particular conception of the good that the state chooses,” Low wrote on Facebook. “The NLB can no longer be considered a library; it is only masquerading as one by having the form (a building with books) but not its essence (a beacon of knowledge).”