Books that might otherwise generate strong buzz, even healthy controversy, are unlikely to find grant support—which in turn affects publishers’ financial calculus.
In Singapore, between the freshly designated arts and museum district in Bras Basah and that bastion of colonial hospitality known as the Raffles Hotel, sits a remarkable work of architecture, the Central Library. Designed by Malaysian architect Ken Yeang, the building reflects sensitivities to the island’s tropical weather and its people’s reading habits; its most frequently accessed collections are housed directly below the ground-level entrance, enabling easy navigation and minimal loss of cool air. The Library is a strong example of what Yeang calls “eco-design,” reflecting his conception of built space as a species of living system that interacts dynamically with its environment to form a single ecology.
Yeang’s ecological innovation resides in his consideration of close relationships between urbanism and natural conditions, but it is no stretch to see how his thinking might also be applied to other, cultural, conditions. Such a “cultural ecology” seems appropriate for a library site that neighbors a complex known to Mandarin readers as “Book City.” This mixed development is rife with small bookstores, harried print shops, and cheap stationers—as well as with restaurants and public housing. And it is home to Basheer Graphic Books, Singapore’s single best store for arts and design publications.
Thinking of culture as an ecology might help us to understand the ways in which a culture of reading is positioned in Singapore. Bearing the Central Library’s location in mind, we can see how the “space” of reading is positioned between Singapore’s aspiration toward the status of culture-savvy global city (with its attendant venues for contemporary art), and its oft-told history as a city prized by empires for a strategic geography that also constrained it.
Examining reading habits in Singapore, the numbers seem impressive. In a city of over five million people, two million are members of the national network of public libraries, which issue more than thirty-six million loans each year. The libraries’ annual book sale weekend, when three hundred thousand books are made available for sale at US$1.50 each or less, is the bibliophile’s version of a Black Friday shopping event, with comparable crowds and lines. The Singapore Writers Festival, currently helmed by a poet, has grown from a biennial event into an annual one. Its last edition featured writers Michael Cunningham, Pico Iyer, and Cyril Wong, and attracted over 16,000 visitors. While the number of book publishers and bookstores has declined, the Singapore Book Publishers Association notes that operating revenue is up.
What the numbers belie is the fact that self-assessment books are dominant among the titles published in Singapore. This is symptomatic of a national anxiety that education has become a test-driven competitive sport, with bespectacled children acting as players—Singaporean children have among the highest incidences of myopia in the world—and hopeful parents as stressed-out coaches evaluating the annual report books that rank each student’s place from the age of seven. English, seen as the language of financial success, is used in the books most frequently accessed at the libraries, though materials are also available in Tamil, Malay, and Mandarin.
More crucially, publishing and reading in Singapore take place within a unique set of operating principles accumulated over years of legislative development, bureaucratic caution, and literary selection. Take journalism, for example. Despite the number of prominent lawsuits against journalists and news publications pursued over the years, the issue with publishing journalism in Singapore is not the rule of law (which is robustly defended) but the rule of vague law. As journalism professor Cherian George describes it, this consists of “vaguely worded” restrictions that operate without judicial review. As George points out, “the executive can revoke or deny a publishing permit at any time and is under no legal obligation to give any reasons.” Literary publications in Singapore depend on a combination of ingredients for success, among them shrewd manuscript selection and grant money. But such money is disbursed with a caveat to avoid promoting values contrary to public interest, which could restrict anything from criticisms of the death penalty to gay poetry. Books that might otherwise generate strong buzz, even healthy controversy, are unlikely to find grant support—which in turn affects publishers’ financial calculus. No wonder local writing can seem less engaging, with the reading public preferring imported over indigenous literature.
One consequence of this is a winnowed sense of history, in which the globally recognized narrative of Singapore as a postcolonial prodigy marked by outsized successes becomes both the country’s raison d’être and its primary source of limitation. The terms of its geography begin to structure the flow of established history with which Singaporeans are familiar: the country’s size and economic achievement give cause to a vulnerability to perceived military and ideological threats, its unique makeup of immigrant populations leads to a wariness of debate about race and religion in public life. Consequently, the history of Singapore’s early years of independence occludes contributions by the government’s socialist participants and other antagonists, and recent episodes in which religion entangled with the state become gaps in history, with little accessible information.
Readers interested in a 1987 Marxist conspiracy might find, for example, that publications from that period by alleged mastermind Tan Wah Piow are unavailable at the library or elsewhere. As recently as two years ago, the Library barred Vincent Cheng, a former seminarian whose social justice work led to his detention amid accusations of leading the conspiracy, from speaking at a forum organized by a university historical society. Art publications are not spared: in 2007, state authorities intervened to remove the title essay from the catalogue for Raised, an art festival thematically focused on migrant labor (disclosure: I was the author of that essay).
The spaces for reading are changing, though not only via the usual digital suspects. New independent bookstores have opened and thrived. These include Littered with Books on Duxton Hill, the picture-book store Woods in the Books, and BooksActually, the latter also a publisher responsible for more than a dozen new titles by Singapore authors in the past year. Select Books, now under new ownership and located in the arts and museum district, remains the go-to store for scholarly and heterodox accounts of Southeast Asian history. Further, Ethos Books publisher Fong Hoe Fang has taken the brave step of backing books without grant support, even distributing them by hand. Encouragingly, his book That We May Dream Again and lawyer and ex-detainee Teo Soh Lung’s affecting memoir Beyond the Blue Gate are available at the Central Library.
Artists—readers and self-publishers in their own right—are also changing the ecology. Artist Cheong Kah Kit has lead efforts to increase the Library’s contemporary art book holdings, an increasingly urgent resource in a city bristling with new contemporary exhibition venues. A short walk away from the Library at his Aliwal Street studio, celebrated performance artist Lee Wen has established the Independent Archive and Resource Center to collect catalogues, recordings, and other publications related to historical art practice. Among his many invaluable books and documents is the 1994 newsprint report that precipitated events leading to the de facto decade-long ban on performance art in Singapore. With more spaces of this kind functioning as resources for readers, we may yet see a thickening of the cultural ecology. And with a denser enmeshment of spaces, readers, and the multifarious other constituents of a curious, literate, public, the Central Library may become a little less central, while art and history may be a little more so.
Jason Wee is an artist, curator, and writer. He directs Grey Projects, Singapore.