SINGAPORE - For nearly 16 years, iconic independent bookstore BooksActually has been held up as one of the pillars of Singapore's literary community.
But owner Kenny Leck, 43, is stepping back from sole ownership of the store and its publishing arm, Math Paper Press, after digital news site Rice Media published an explosive expose on Saturday (Sept 25) about his past relationships with young female employees.
Writer and artist Charmaine Poh interviewed Mr Leck's ex-wife Renee Ting, a former employee who was in a relationship with him for six years, as well as other former staff, one of whom said he made romantic advances to her while married to Ms Ting.
The former employees, who were mostly in their 20s when they worked at the store, described a workplace where they were paid little and sometimes late - Ms Ting stopped drawing a salary while she was dating Mr Leck and lived in the store. They also said they worked long hours without designated breaks and feared reprisals if they spoke up.
In a Facebook post on Sunday evening, Mr Leck apologised to all those he had caused pain to and admitted to his personal failings before mid-2019.
"These failings have caused immense pain to specific ex-employees," he wrote. "It was also a time of personal trauma when I had made mistakes in relation to my marriage to Renee."
He said that the divorce was properly initiated, a settlement drafted and he continues to make restitution to Ms Ting.
"There have been allegations, and inferences, that remain totally untrue," he added. "There will be a time when I will be ready to speak to each in detail publicly, but now is not that time."
He said the period after his current team joined him "has been one where BooksActually is not troubled by the shadows of my personal life. It continues to be run responsibly, professionally, consistent with our brand, and it has the current team whom I feel embodies its values".
He said the current team of five will be the new owners of BooksActually and he will be removed from all decision-making processes with this change.
The piece has rocked the local literary scene, with many netizens calling for accountability from one of the bastions of the book industry here.
In a statement posted on Facebook on Sunday morning, five members of the current BooksActually team - known as "book elves" - wrote: "BooksActually is an entity and ecosystem bigger than any individual. To that end, Kenny will be relinquishing sole ownership of BooksActually and Math Paper Press, and transfer collective ownership of both entities to the team."
They added that since 2019, BooksActually has put in place welfare practices including "being paid on time, having one-hour lunch breaks and strictly regular working hours".
"We understand that in the early years of BooksActually, our past employees did not work in a safe and professional workplace environment. We recognise the efforts and sacrifices of all former employees of the bookstore, and are deeply saddened to learn more of their experience.
"We will continue to improve our staff welfare and our HR practices. More importantly, we will strengthen anti-harassment policies to ensure that present and future employees are valued and protected."
When contacted, the employees declined to be named.
According to the Rice article, Ms Ting was 19 in 2011 when she began working for Mr Leck and his former girlfriend Karen Wai, with whom he founded BooksActually.
Mr Leck was in another relationship after breaking up with Ms Wai but ended that and started dating Ms Ting. They got married in October 2016 and divorced in early 2017.
The article said Mr Leck had made advances to another employee, 22, referred to by the pseudonym Mel, whom he told that he would "phase Renee out" for her over the next two years.
Both Ms Ting and Mel left the store subsequently.
ST has contacted Ms Ting, who has not responded.
Artist Cheryl Charli Tan, 23, who worked in marketing at BooksActually from August 2017 to January 2019, told ST that payments were often delayed. At one point, she said, she was owed about $2,000 for six months. She was let go when Mr Leck told her he was shutting down the marketing department.
She said she was hurt to read online comments from writers that they had heard rumours about the allegations or found them unsurprising. "You knew, and some of you knew to a greater degree than others, but no one did anything about it because you could benefit from this system.
"The thing about the arts scene is that it's small, and you don't have a lot of places to go if you want to get published in Singapore, there are only a few publishing houses that you can approach."
BooksActually, with its cats and its championing of local writers, is much beloved as an indie institution. Many mourned when it closed its brick-and-mortar store in Tiong Bahru last year, during the pandemic, to move online.
It has been closely affiliated with literary groups like the charity Sing Lit Station and the movement #BuySingLit - which Mr Leck previously helmed as co-chair - and has also served as the festival bookstore for the Singapore Writers Festival.
The BuySingLit committee said in a statement that it "stands firmly against any behaviour that exploits workers in business practices of any nature".
"We take all allegations very seriously and do not condone inappropriate conduct or endorse similar behaviour in the works that we create, publish and distribute. We encourage people to get help if they are working in an unsafe environment.
"Our heart goes out to the former employees who spoke up and we hope that they will find the support and healing that they need. We will not allow the actions of one individual to impact the good works of the literary community whom we are here to support and serve."
It added that Mr Leck stepped down from co-chair of the committee in 2019 and that BooksActually is not involved in any upcoming #BuySingLit activities.
Sing Lit Station said in a statement: "Due to the seriousness of the allegations, Sing Lit Station will no longer be working with BooksActually on the 2021 Jalan Besar Writing Residency. We will reassess future collaborations with BooksActually or Math Paper Press based on meaningful organisational changes that prioritise the safety and welfare of their staff."
It added that it was planning a series of discussions with stakeholders and members of the community to address the concerns and gaps in the industry.
Math Paper Press has published numerous works by local authors over the years, including Singapore Literature Prize-winning poets Joshua Ip and Cyril Wong, as well as Alvin Pang's best-selling What Gives Us Our Names.
Pang has clarified that he took no royalties for What Gives Us Our Names and all proceeds went to the store.
ST contacted 18 local writers, 14 of whom have been published by Math Paper Press. Most did not respond or declined to comment on record if they had known about the alleged behaviour or would continue to support BooksActually.
Cartoonist Sonny Liew recalled how in 2018, he had questioned on Facebook the lack of transparency around BooksActually's fund-raising efforts to buy its own shophouse space.
"The response from some was that they felt BooksActually faced a lot of challenges, and as such they were okay with continuing to support and donate, however the money ended being used," Liew, 47, who is not a Math Paper Press author, told ST.
"I'd thought there was some discrepancy there between what was the usual call for accountability and transparency in financial matters in other contexts, and the willingness to let things slide in the case of BooksActually.
"In some sense that was fine - everyone is entitled to their own preferences - but I did wonder about the extent to which some of this might be tied to the network of mutual or even vested interests BooksActually had built around itself, and to the power of the narrative that had been projected - of David vs Goliath - as the Rice piece mentions."
Poet Gwee Li Sui, 51, who is also not a Math Paper Press author, called for support for the former employees quoted in the Rice article. "I think it is important to listen objectively to what these women are saying and to protect them from backlash," he told ST.
Writer Alfian Sa'at said on Facebook on Sunday that he plans to donate a portion of his advance from poetry collection The Invisible Manuscript, which was published by Math Paper Press in 2012, to the women who spoke up. "I am doing this because it feels terrible to know that because I was paid as an author, this resulted in less pay for staff who were stocking and selling my books."
In an earlier post that day, he said it was "troubling that some of the women interviewed were afraid to speak up because they believed in the person's claim that 'he knew many people in power; that whoever offended him would never have a career in the arts if he said so.'"
Hedwig Anuar Children's Book Award-winning writer Xie Shi Min, 31, said she had previously become suspicious about the store's labour practices when Ms Ting posted on Facebook about not getting paid. She stopped patronising the store and highlighted her concerns to some friends, but did not dare speak up publicly then.
"I didn't think that anyone would believe me because I was a young female writer and because of this, I would not be taken seriously," said Xie, who is not a Math Paper Press author. "It weighs on me and I wish to express solidarity with these women."
Many patrons are already distancing themselves from a bookstore they once saw as a haven.
Marketing professional Joshua Poh, 30, said he was shocked and disappointed and would no longer be buying from BooksActually nor partnering with it on book reviews until Mr Leck is held accountable.
"As book buyers, we vote with our wallets," he said.
"However, it's crucial to separate the bookshop from the authors it works with and I will be looking out for other ways to support local authors and publishers."