A cool wind blew across the Straits of Johor as I strolled along Punggol Beach. Very slightly shorter days and lower temperatures do come near the equator this time of the year. Winter will soon be upon the Northern Hemisphere and Greece is beckoning. Happily, sales for my e-books in the US and UK are picking up (it’s usually quite slow in the warmer months). And by the way, it was here again (over the last weekend), the Singapore Writers Festival. It shouldn’t surprise you that I was neither involved nor aware of it until a friend of mine shared the following Facebook post from the event’s guest-of-honour.
My unawareness is understandable if you go through the guest list and realise that many of the authors involved in the festival have not written a book for 20 years. That friend asked me (mockingly, I presume) if I aspire to be Enid or Roald. Well, I’m probably not the best person to write children’s books. In fact, I’m quite likely to teach our children the “wrong” things and their parents won’t thank me for it.
Why are we always looking forward to government support? It may sound like a cliche, but money won’t solve all problems. Regardless of how big a budget we have for our so-called writers festival, writing in Singapore will never take off if the reading habit is allowed to die. Take a look at the bookstores in Taiwan. These places won’t survive a year in Singapore. Take a look at the Taiwanese reading books on their trains and buses instead of playing games on their phones and you may start to wonder about the impact such differences may have on the people in these two seemingly similar societies.
Unknown to my friend, I’ve already written quite a bit about the futility of “government support” in the promotion of the local literary scene. The problem does not lie with the writers not having enough money to publish their books. Those who are really broke can publish electronically for free. There are some pretty good blogs out there, but they are only read by the general public when something shocking goes viral. Those who print books will be even more disappointed as our bookstores are shrinking or outright folding up. Books that don’t move within a month are returned to the publisher. Without a market to absorb these products, the more funds and grants you inject into the production line, the more you’re going to choke up the valuable (and quickly vanishing) display and storage spaces.
More grants? More monetary support for writers and publishers? We’re getting an injection in the wrong arm. I’ve already said this several times in this blog. You’ll find my past postings in the Red Dot Rants series available on Amazon Kindle. Here it is again. Don’t give money to the publishers. Give money to the bookstores. Pay their rental. Pay their staff. Organise book fairs and offer stalls to local publishers rent free. Make book purchases tax deductible. That would lay the groundwork for the book industry to flourish.
K-pop is self-sustaining and commercially viable because it has a market. This market is holistically linked to art, dance, fashion, makeup and even plastic surgery. To grow the book industry and make it self-sustaining, we need to grow the demand. How do we do that? We cultivate nerdiness, get off our moral high horses and make it sexy to read.
Why don’t Singaporeans read? Because it is too taxing for them. Video games engage far fewer brain cells. They don’t like to think and technology is partly to blame. With all the benefits of smartphones, cool apps and electronic transactions, people are making more appointments, making more “friends”, spreading more rumours, sending out more invitations, more birthday wishes and on the whole doing a lot more things. When paper transactions were the norm, we functioned well within our capacities and set limits to the volume of exchanges and information we’re dealing with. We had time and space for meaningful leisure activities.
But Singapore has gone online in too big a way. Much like the dialect elimination campaign (also known as the Speak Mandarin campaign), many services have now gone “online only”. They have not only promoted online transactions, they have closed the door on the traditional way. While the benefits of technology are indisputable, the expectation of increased productivity should take human limits into consideration. We’re not just preoccupied. We’re overwhelmed. It’s imperative for the overwhelmed Singaporean struggling with work, mortgages and cost of living to prioritise and ignore the things that don’t contribute to their trendy obsessions.
I remember a lady (about my age) who approached me at a thrift shop to ask me in Hokkien, which country the bar of chocolate she was holding was made. I told her it was made in 土耳其。She said that she had never heard of Turkey and I was sure that even if I could pronounce 土耳其 in Hokkien, she would still be clueless. Just a few days ago, an acquaintance of mine, a successful business woman who spoke very little English, asked me where I would be going for my year-end holiday. I told her I was going to 希腊。She may have heard of 希腊, but she had absolutely no idea where it was and what is to be found there. She only asked me whether the people were fair-skinned or dark-skinned. Then, at some zer char stall at Tampines, I overheard a couple of aunties (probably younger than me), speaking in Mandarin and wondering what 干冰 is. The interesting thing about these women (and some men just like them) is that they do pretty well in Singapore. I’m not surprised that they may own cars and houses. So if you can do well in Singapore without even knowing what dry ice is in your own language (let alone Greece and Turkey), what need is there to read and enrich our knowledge in history, geography and yes, politics? You may not be able to hold any intellectual conversations with these folks, but they can certainly hold down a job, turn the wheels of commerce without griping and are easy to govern to boot. Singapore’s prosperity and stability depend on their ignorance, compliance and blind faith.
Spoonfed Singaporeans come from all walks of life and they have grown up trusting the authorities so much that they have effectively outsourced many of life’s decisions to them. Why don’t you have this? Why don’t you have that? The foreign tourist asks. The government doesn’t allow it, the spoonfed Singaporean replies and actually thinks that it is a good reply, much to the surprise of the foreigner. To me and many others looking in from the outside, it’s sad for a developed country like Singapore that the government needs to step in to manage and promote literature and the arts. We can blame it on the lack of freedom and freedom is indeed lacking but seriously, do the people want freedom? My guess is that even if the government loosens its grip and invites comments and ideas, real ideas won’t be forthcoming. All that we’ll hear are petty gripes over Members of Parliament (lawmakers) not keeping their estate clean – another shocking thing for a developed country. I suspect that even if the need for permits and licences were suddenly withdrawn, non-partisan volunteers will be hesitant to organise events and functions for their community. Too taxing – like reading.
© Chan Joon Yee