Too Late for a Singapore Reading Culture?

A closer look at a hotly-contested issue.

Too Late for a Singapore Reading Culture?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Starting on February 24, public transport users in Singapore will be able to purchase pocket-sized books, known as “Ticket Books,” in an effort to increase the number of people reading books by local authors. An initiative of more than 30 publishers, booksellers and distributors, coming together in the #BuySingLit campaign, it will allow train users can purchase titles starting at S$15. Moreover, the weekend of February 24 to 26 will see dozens of book fairs, meet-the-author seminars and literature workshops held across the city-state.

This is yet another attempt to augment Singapore’s ‘reading culture’, something of apparent national importance since a survey was conducted in 2015 which found that only four out of ten Singaporeans had read a literary title in the preceding twelve months, and only one in four had read a novel by a Singaporean author. The National Library Board subsequently launched a five year campaign called the National Reading Movement, and held the first National Reading Day in July 2016. Four months earlier, the Minister for Communications and Information, Yaacob Ibrahim, told local media that elements of the city-state’s reading population “need a bit of beefing up”.

The constant comment to an enervated reading culture creates a sense of pessimism in the country’s literary scene, a pessimism that is unfounded. Since If We Dream Too Long, written by Goh Poh Seng and widely considered the first real Singaporean novel when it was published in 1972, the literary scene has gone from strength to strength. Today, it hardly warrants the oft-patronizing adjectives of “nascent” or “burgeoning.” It is very much active and rich and diverse. The country’s writers are published internationally, and read internationally too. Numerous anthropologies are published annually. Its literary festivals are among the largest and best in Asia. Its publishing houses are growing. Its citizens are more literate than most other countries. Warner Brothers is in the process of adapting Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel Crazy Rich Asians to the big screen. The Straits Times reported this month that despite setbacks independent book stores are still part of the streetscape – the recently released book Passage Of Time: Singapore Bookstore Stories 1881 – 2016 charts the history of Singapore’s literature boutiques.

Its authors are even experimenting with language. Sarong Party Girls, by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, published last year, is the first novel to be entirely written in Singlish, the city-state’s patois. Indeed, unlike neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia, where questions of language invariably arise, Singapore has no problem in taking pride in text in the English, Chinese or Malay form. Though, I wouldn’t be the first to point out that because of the predominance of English it often makes more sense for authors to publish with British or American publishing houses rather than with Singaporean ones (as Balli Kaur Jaswal and Clarissa N. Goenawan, for example, did recently). No doubt, this is a detriment to the domestic industry.

It begs the question, then: why aren’t Singaporeans reading as much as the government and industry bodies want? One cannot help but think that when they say “reading,” it means reading only in certain sense. Would the 3.4 hours that Singaporeans, aged between 16 and 30, spend on their mobile phones each day account for reading; a good part must be spent on navigating through messages on social media (still reading) or gossip sites or clickbait (again, still reading)? Probably not. Instead, what the government means by reading is then serious reading: novels, non-fiction books, newspapers, magazines, and so on. This is a noble cause. But consider the epoch we live in. Yip Guan Hui, president of National University of Singapore’s Literary Society, put it like this:

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I think it is increasingly difficult to adhere to a discipline of reading in our society today. The influx of social media means that people are reading – yes- but they are reading shorter articles, excerpts, summaries, reviews and whatnot. I suspect that we have placed a premium on busyness and activeness, at the expense of precious reflection, which reading allows.

Only the most atavistic optimist would doubt that within the next decade or two almost all text will be read digitally. Singapore often boasts about being one of the most ‘digitally-connected’ countries in the world, which does have its drawbacks in this respect. Certainly, the switch from pulped bark to polished metal cannot help but affect our reading culture (just as every technological shift does). The devices we read on are most likely connected to the Internet, or will be, reducing our ability to not just shut off from Facebook and social media but also from the wealth of information the Internet provides. As the British writer Will Self notes, the ability to immediately look up a word one doesn’t understand, or to search Google for the explanation of a chapter one doesn’t appreciate at first glance, means we will not be able to engage with the text at the deeper level as people did in pre-Internet days. We will not have to read and re-read a section for clarity, just look it up.

An entire book would be needed to define the changes that have transpired since the birth of our technological age, but what is clear is that we are coming to an end of an era when the literary novel is king, at least how we understood the form in the late 19th and 20th century. Granted, predictions about the ‘death of the novel’ occur with tedious frequency once every decade, and have done for centuries, and yet they are still here. My own opinion is that the novel – or, at least, the literary novel, so excluding genre fiction and easy prose – will head in the same direction as, perhaps, classical music or jazz or, for that matter, poetry. People will still produce new material and there will still be an audience for it, but it will be far from mainstream, a niche medium for the aficionado. The novel will not die. A quiet retirement, perhaps.

It is not too late for a Singaporean reading culture, though the city-state will have to define exactly what it means by ‘reading’ and by ‘culture’. In my humble opinion, if culture means the literary novel, the serious work of long fiction, then it will be a niche culture, reserved for those within the industry itself and those dedicated to the genre. To imagine that the majority of the 5.4 million Singaporeans will be flicking through the latest Man Booker Prize Winner on the MRT is pure hubris. (In the UK, each year the memoirs of some vacuous celebrity tend to outsell by some margin all of the nominees of the Man Booker Prize.) This doesn’t mean, however, that there won’t be a market for Singaporean authors but that they just won’t be read by the majority of Singaporeans.

As for ‘reading’, the semantics will also need defining. And this will certainly come down to the issue being discussed across the world – the difference between passive reading and serious reading. Still, one cannot help but commend efforts to promote literature in Singapore, though pessimism over the condition of the city-state’s literary scene is unfounded. Take pride in your literary produce, Singapore!