Singapore through the pages

In the ongoing SG50 Gift Of Books initiative, 10,300 books written on Singapore, or by authors here, are sent to 46 libraries worldwide

Riffle through the shelves of a library overseas and you could find yourself whisked away on a surprise jaunt through Singapore - from a whirlwind look at its political past to hilarious heartland meditations on the intricacies of the humble "lah".

In the ongoing SG50 Gift Of Books initiative, 10,300 books written on Singapore, or by authors here, are sent to 46 libraries around the world - from Brunei to New Zealand.

The project by the National Library Board (NLB), in collaboration with the Ministry of Communications and Information and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, started last year - the year of Singapore's Golden Jubilee - and will wrap up in April.

Its first stop was India, one of the first countries to recognise Singapore's independence.

Mrs Mary Tan, wife of President Tony Tan Keng Yam, presented the first of 300 books to the National Library of India's director-general last February, when she accompanied Dr Tan on a state visit.


The Complete Eh, Goondu! by Sylvia Toh Paik Choo

NLB's assistant director of international relations and development Michelle Lau says of the project: "Books provide valuable insight into the heart of each country. Although we are a relatively young nation, both Singapore as well as our literary community have come a long way in these 50 years."

People who have seen Singapore as just a fine city where chewing gum is forbidden, those who have the idea of us being efficient robots in a clean, green place, can see another side to us.

SYLVIA TOH PAIK CHOO, author of The Complete Eh, Goondu!

"The SG50 Gift Of Books initiative was developed to allow us to share a small part of our history with our friends around the world, to showcase the progress we have made and the literary talent present within our shores."

About 300 books are being presented to each of the 46 libraries, most of them partner libraries of the NLB.

The range of books spans hard-nosed tomes on the economy, such as Terence Chong's Management Of Success: Singapore Revisited, to works of literature such as Reflecting On The Merlion, a poetry anthology edited by Edwin Thumboo and Yeow Kai Chai.

The selected titles, notes Ms Lau, can serve as a tangible record of Singapore's history and the ideas developed here, for readers who have never visited the country.

"Singaporean books and content, though gaining popularity, are not common in foreign libraries," she says. So sharing these books adds to the diversity of offerings in libraries overseas and gives readers there a fresh literary perspective.

She adds: "This also helps to elevate the status of Singapore authors and the literary community."

Writers who made the list say the project can offer foreigners a glimpse of a different side of Singapore and may even help buck stereotypes of the country.

The irrepressible Sylvia Toh Paik Choo, whose The Complete Eh, Goondu! was picked for the project, says: "People who have seen Singapore as just a fine city where chewing gum is forbidden, those who have the idea of us being efficient robots in a clean, green place, can see another side to us.

"From reading this, you can see we have a sense of fun. We can be creative, humorous and sensitive."

Widely acknowledged as the writer who popularised Singlish, Toh put out Eh, Goondu! in 1982, and a sequel, Lagi Goondu, four years later.

These famed guides to the home-grown patois were reprinted in the 2010 collection The Complete Eh, Goondu!

"Of course, I'm honoured lah. It's tremendous to find myself well and truly on the shelf," says Toh, who is in her 60s, with a laugh. "I hope readers abroad get that we are multi-cultural and multi-racial from reading it."

Then there is, of course, Singapore's culinary fixation.

Food blogger Leslie Tay's The End Of Char Kway Teow And Other Hawker Mysteries (2010), for instance, lays out some of the country's diverse culinary offerings and traces Singapore's growth through the spread and evolution of food here.

"I never quite expected this book to go overseas. The book came about because I felt Singaporeans needed to know a bit about the origin of the food they eat. This shouldn't be forgotten," says Dr Tay, 47.

"How our food developed tells us something about where we come from. They're reminders of our past. It's another side of Singapore for people overseas to learn about."

Timothy Auger hopes those thumbing through his 2013 book Living In A Garden: The Greening Of Singapore will see that there is more to Singapore than high-rise buildings and malls.

"Small though it is, Singapore is worth visiting for its parks and nature reserves, which have to be treasured and conserved for future generations," says the 68-year-old, who has lived here since the 1990s and is from Britain.

"There's a lot of greenery within the built-up areas and people in charge of cities overseas must understand that this needs long- term planning and commitment, and that it's worth the effort."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'Singapore through the pages'. Print Edition | Subscribe