Good literature can build a fair, integrated society

We are passing through what could be one of the worst times in recent history.

Every day, we hear of terrorist activity or attacks from fundamentalists indoctrinated with the obnoxious beliefs of religious intolerance.

In addition, self-styled vigilantes or disgruntled elements are killing innocent people.

Civil wars and the unsuccessful Arab Spring have led to human misery and a widespread refugee crisis.

The virtues and humane qualities we cherished before are gradually being replaced by the vices of narcissism, greed and selfishness.

Democratic ideologies are getting replaced by blunt ideologues.

Paranoia in society is spreading unabated. Empathy and compassion are now rare attributes.

The erosion of "humane" values is leading to a divided world, a divided society and, sometimes, a divided family.

The critical question: How do we restore good sense?

It is good to note that Singapore has remained as an exception amid these unwanted happenings.

But we must initiate adequate preventive measures to continue protecting our country and society from these maladies.

To this end, good literature has a key role to play ("At SG51, let's turn to nation-building for the soul; last Tuesday).

It is imperative for Singapore to further spread good literature and promote the habit of reading and writing, and consider these not just as pastimes or entertainment, but as an essential step towards a society with a good heart and soul.

The universal values and ideas embedded in good literature have always helped to build a healthy psyche.

Even the old classics propagate the same universal truths, and stay relevant even today.

Our childhood values were developed from the resilient spirit found in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.

The struggle for freedom from colonial rule and social injustice got a boost from the thinking of Voltaire.

The writings of Albert Einstein developed our scientific minds.

We managed our day-to-day stress and challenges with Rabindranath Tagore's inspiring poem, Where The Mind Is Without Fear.

Let us promote literature, propagate reading and writing habits, and recognise the important role of poets, writers and artists in building a fair and integrated society.

The paradigm shift to "literature activism" should be initiated from the top, and it will no doubt spread to the core.

Atanu Roy

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2016, with the headline 'Good literature can build a fair, integrated society'. Print Edition | Subscribe