Big Read Meet turns three

Author Parag Khanna cutting the cake with moderator Cheong Suk-Wai (centre).
Author Parag Khanna cutting the cake with moderator Cheong Suk-Wai (centre).ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

The Straits Times and National Library Board's popular non-fiction book club celebrated along with birthday boy and international relations expert Parag Khanna

It was a double celebration at the National Library Board headquarters on Wednesday evening, when best-selling author and The Straits Times (ST) contributor Parag Khanna celebrated his 39th birthday along with his wife, son and daughter - and 72 ST readers.

His milestone coincided with the third anniversary of The Big Read Meet, the non-fiction book club which I moderate monthly and which ST runs with the library board.

Khanna is a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, after stints at think-tanks the New America Foundation and the Brookings Institution, and the World Economic Forum. In 2012, the India-born international relations expert settled in Singapore with his wife Ayesha and two children.

After the cake-cutting, Khanna gave an absorbing 60-minute talk about his new book, Connectography, in which he examined how life on Earth was actually organised now, as nodes on so many global supply chains.

"It's about the lines that connect us," he said, referring to railway lines, airlines and mapped borders.

The meet was a lead-up to the inaugural National Reading Day today and, as always, welcomed a host of new participants, including Mr Peter Lim, 78, a former editor- in-chief of The Straits Times.

He said afterwards: "I not only enjoyed the meet-up with fans of non-fiction, I was mentally revved up too - by Parag's presentation, the supercharged moderation and some of the input from the floor."

Khanna has been in more than 100 countries for his research and quipped that some people thought his name should be "Paragistan", as he spent a lot of time in places ending in "-stan" such as Kurdistan.

In the question-and-answer session, readers picked his brains on anything from climate change to protectionism to what might trigger World War III. Quite a few readers asked him whether the Internet and other forms of connectivity were actually making it easier for terrorists to launch attacks.

But Khanna stressed: "Blame anything but globalisation for the rise of ISIS. I would much rather we blamed our corruption, the lack of future planning and economic mismanagement in the Arab world than globalisation.

"Global connectivity is a two-way street. We export and import good and bad things. Don't blame these things for terrorism and the migration crisis."

Reader Ong Min Yee, 61, then asked him how likely it was that Thailand, with the help of China, would cut a canal through the Isthmus of Kra, that bottleneck strip of land linking southern Thailand and West Malaysia. This would enable ships to bypass the port of Singapore.

Noting that the worry over the might-be canal was "deep-seated paranoia" among Singaporeans, Khanna pointed out two things: First, it had to be efficient enough to beat Singapore, the world's most efficient port.

Second, cutting such a canal would be tricky for Thailand because of its restive, largely Muslim south.

"With the canal, southern Thailand would become a separate country. So how should Thailand go ahead - grow economically, while cutting off a leg?"

Reader Roshan Ho Puvirasa, 40, who works in sales in Kuala Lumpur, said: "What a cool author Parag is and he gave us a great summation of his new book. I enjoyed it as my life is a direct result of connectivity. I am a Chindian and an expatriate in Kuala Lumpur."

Meet regular and financial services professional T. Priyaranjan, 44, who was there with his homemaker wife Presenna Devi, said afterwards: "With Parag's unique ability to articulate complex issues with simplicity and panache, we thoroughly enjoyed the two hours."

Khanna mused: "I loved the crowd as it was local and diverse. Clearly, they are a dedicated group of readers and intellectuals. There was no posturing, just real focused and interesting questions."

Towards the end of the evening, when reader Lum Pak Meng, 58, thanked him for meeting them on his birthday, Khanna said: "No better way to celebrate it."

•Head down to the library board (NLB) headquarters plaza at 100 Victoria Street with a good book between 11am and 5pm today. For every 10 people reading there for at least 15 minutes, NLB will donate to its KidsRead programme.

•The next Big Read Meet will be from 6.30pm on Aug 31 in the Central Public Library at 100 Victoria Street and feature The Cunning Of Uncertainty by Helga Nowotny ( $29.91 from Books Kinokuniya). Sign up for it at any NLB e-Kiosk.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2016, with the headline 'Big Read Meet turns three'. Print Edition | Subscribe