Most Singaporeans overwhelmingly recognise the value of reading, as shown by an inaugural reading and writing survey by the National Arts Council. The trouble is that they are not avid readers - a distinct handicap for a nation aiming to make lifelong learning second nature to all. Only a paltry four in 10 had read a literary book in the past 12 months, defined widely as "fiction, poetry, drama, children's and young adult literature, graphic novels, creative non-fiction, critical writing and anthologies". Readership rates were highest among professionals and students. Rather surprisingly, only a quarter of seniors aged 60 years or above could be regarded as literary readers.
The majority agree that reading helps them to learn new things and improve the quality of life. Yet more than half let an entire year go by without opening a single book. Compare that with reading habits in United States and Britain, where three-quarters take pleasure in reading. Here, seven out of 10 non-readers said they preferred the Internet and social media to reading books, with many predicting that the Web and electronic platforms would replace books in 20 years. But traditional publishers will take some comfort from the survey as those who read solely print books outnumbered the ones reading electronic books by a ratio of five to one. Notwithstanding the closure of brick-and-mortar bookshops like the popular Borders outlet downtown, this suggests there will always be a place for the printed word in contemporary society.
The reading platform, of course, is not critical; what matters more is nurturing a lifelong love for reading among the young and old alike. Being in one of the world's most Internet-connected societies, they should take full advantage of access to a wealth of knowledge. When nations will compete on the capacity of their people to harness knowledge, Singaporeans will be disadvantaged if their reading is limited to the disjointed stream of information and social chat that trickles into their mobile phones, tablets and computers. An open economy that has to live by its wits needs books to tap new knowledge and to help people think critically. Singaporeans also need to be in step with news developments and analyses that can affect their business decisions, jobs and shape of their lives.
Going beyond its utility value, reading offers the pleasure of engaging with a world of ideas. This habit should begin at home and in schools, of course. But, sadly, fewer pupils are taking literature at the upper secondary level, because they find texts not relevant enough or hard to digest. More home-grown literature should be tapped to entice students. Ironically, Singaporean texts are valued abroad with at least 10 universities introducing them in recent years. Books facilitate the power to dream, visualise, analyse and empathise. It is a shame to keep them shut or shelved.