Money and memoirs: The local non-fiction bestsellers that Singapore snapped up this year

National bestsellers (from left) Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, Robert Kuok: A Memoir, This Is What In Equality Looks Like, Retire Smart: Financial Planning Made Easy.
National bestsellers (from left) Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, Robert Kuok: A Memoir, This Is What In Equality Looks Like, Retire Smart: Financial Planning Made Easy.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Local readers have had money and memoirs on the mind this year, with non-fiction sleeper hits by Singapore publishers dominating the national bestseller list and flying off the shelves.

The life stories of important men proved popular, with Malaysian billionaire Robert Kuok's memoir with Andrew Tanzer selling 100,000 copies in Singapore and other territories.

Late in the year, the orders poured in for Tall Order, Peh Shing Huei's biography of Singapore's second prime minister Goh Chok Tong, which passed the 20,000-copy mark in less than four weeks from publication. Unlike most local bestsellers, it is available not just in print but also as an e-book.

An unexpected crowd favourite was This Is What Inequality Looks Like, sociologist Teo You Yenn's eye-opening book on poverty in Singapore, a discomfiting read that nevertheless sold 20,000 copies and became one of the nation's most talked-about titles.

With saving for retirement a perennial worry for Singaporeans, The Sunday Times' Invest editor Lorna Tan's book Retire Smart has lasted 36 weeks on the Straits Times bestseller list for non-fiction.

The weekly list is compiled from figures provided by four major bookstores, Books Kinokuniya, Times, WHSmith and Popular. It lists the top 10 titles in three categories, Fiction, Non-Fiction and Children's Books.

In Singapore's difficult retail market, a book is generally considered to be a bestseller if it sells 1,000 copies or more - but these titles have far outstripped that.

In recent years, local non-fiction bestsellers have been soaring in the charts - discounting books by Singapore's late founding premier Lee Kuan Yew, which are their own phenomenon. Mr Lee's Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going (2011), for example, has sold more than 200,000 copies in English and Chinese.

Major non-fiction hits in the last two years include Neither Civil Nor Servant, a 2016 biography of former Economic Development Board chairman Philip Yeo, also by Peh, which stayed on the list for 68 weeks; and Guilty As Charged, a collection of Singapore true-crime stories edited by ST associate news editor and Sunday editor Abdul Hafiz, which spent 28 weeks on the list last year.

NUS Press's English edition of The Asean Miracle by Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffery Sng, published early last year, sold more than 6,000 copies, but its translated editions,including Italian, Vietnamese and both traditional and simplified Chinese, have sold a further 18,000 copies around the world.

ROBERT KUOK: A MEMOIR

By Robert Kuok with Andrew Tanzer

Landmark Books/ Hardcover/ 376 pages/ $49.90/ Major bookstores and localbooks.sg

Copies sold: 100,000

Weeks on ST bestseller list: 34

The tale of Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok, dubbed the "Sugar King of Asia", was expected to sell some 4,000 copies. Within the year, it had hit a whopping six figures.

"No one in the book trade expected this result, not me, our distributors nor the bookshops," says its publisher Goh Eck Kheng, 63, of Landmark Books.

A year on, he estimates that the English edition has sold some 100,000 copies worldwide. It is now sold in eight other territories besides Singapore, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Britain and the United States.

The famously reclusive Mr Kuok, 95, opens up in the book to former Forbes journalist Andrew Tanzer on how he built up his business empire and his thoughts on everything from Malaysian politics to investing in China.

Tanzer, 61, who now works for a private wealth management company, first interviewed Mr Kuok for Forbes magazine in 1997. "After the article came out, he started inviting me to lunch," he says over the phone from the US. "And he just started asking if some day I might be able to take down his life story."

He ended up recording more than 100 hours' worth of material over close to six months.

Mr Kuok spoke at length about his childhood, during which his father ill-treated his mother and started a second family. At one point, money was so short that his inner shorts were made from calico wheat-flour bags.

Tanzer says he was surprised at how frank Mr Kuok was about personal details, such as how he strayed from his first marriage. He married his mistress after the death of his first wife from breast cancer.

It took more than 14 years to bring the book to fruition. After Tanzer produced a first draft in 2003, the project stalled as Mr Kuok came out of retirement after his long-time aide Richard Liu died suddenly of a heart attack and the Kuok business suffered from the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars).

Due to sensitivities in the text and Mr Kuok's desire to have it translated into Chinese, the book remained incomplete until 2016.

Although Tanzer suggested taking the book to a British or American publisher with a global reach, Mr Kuok chose Landmark Books, a Singapore-based boutique publisher mostly known for its literary offerings. Its founder Mr Goh is a family friend of Mr Kuok's.

Tanzer is unsurprised by the popularity of the book, which won Book of the Year at the Singapore Book Awards this year. "He is extremely low-profile and in his entire career gave very few interviews. It was like pent-up demand for more information about him. He has a very good story to tell."

TALL ORDER: THE GOH CHOK TONG STORY

By Peh Shing Huei

World Scientific/ Paperback/ 279 pages/ $39.59/ Major bookstores, localbooks.sg and www.worldscientific.com

Copies sold: 23,000

Weeks on ST bestseller list: Six

It took less than four weeks for Tall Order, the biography of Singapore's second prime minister Goh Chok Tong, to surge past the 20,000 mark.

The book by journalist Peh Shing Huei covers Mr Goh's rise to power, from shy student to the leader of the Government.

In its pages, the Emeritus Senior Minister opens up about how he felt when founding premier Lee Kuan Yew, whom he succeeded in 1990, publicly revealed he was not his first choice of successor, as well as his perspective on Operation Spectrum, in which 22 people were detained in 1987 under a suspected Marxist conspiracy.

Peh, 43, a former Straits Times news editor who is now a partner at content agency The Nutgraf, has inadvertently made popular memoirs of leaders his calling card.

Following a Singapore Literature Prize win in 2016 for his non-fiction book on China, When The Party Ends, he was approached to write Neither Civil Nor Servant, a biography of maverick bureaucrat Philip Yeo that spent 68 weeks on the ST bestseller list.

The research for Tall Order was done by a team from Nutgraf, along with ST editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang, and required a dozen interviews with Mr Goh. It reprises the formula of Neither Civil Nor Servant, which mixes prose led by colourful personal anecdotes with verbatim extracts of interviews.

A chapter on Mr Goh's childhood recounts, for instance, his memory, at age 10, of his uncle carrying his emaciated father on his back to a small room where he would later die of tuberculosis.

Peh, who is now working on the second volume of Mr Goh's biography, hopes his books can shed light on little-known aspects of Singapore's leaders. "Readers (of Tall Order) come up to me and say, 'I did not know his upbringing was that impoverished.' Or, 'I did not know he was the man behind MediSave'.

"We are a people who are not very well acquainted with our history - even near history, let alone far history - or with our leaders.

"These books shared something with Singaporeans that they were not aware of, which are related to our country's development and more importantly to the things that affect our lives - town councils, MediSave, the creation of jobs. I am very happy that they have added to our people's knowledge and understanding of our lives."

THIS IS WHAT INEQUALITY LOOKS LIKE

By Teo You Yenn

Ethos Books/ Paperback/ 285 pages/ $25/ Major bookstores, localbooks.sg and ethosbooks.com.sg

Copies sold: 20,000

Weeks on ST bestseller list: 35

This year, a strange thing occurred in some weeks on the bestseller charts. Kevin Kwan's outrageous comic novel Crazy Rich Asians conquered the list for fiction. But top of the non-fiction titles was a simple, sobering volume that seemed to have come out of nowhere: This Is What Inequality Looks Like.

This juxtaposition of the fantasy of the ultra-rich with the reality of low-income life in Singapore was an interesting, though unplanned, coincidence, says the book's author, Nanyang Technological University associate professor and head of sociology Teo You Yenn.

"There is this narrative about Singapore going from third world to first, being extremely economically successful and having this path upwards and outwards," says the 43-year-old, who is married with a daughter. "That narrative leaves out a lot. It is not wrong per se, but it is partial.

"Fantasy has a place in the stories that we tell ourselves, but if fantasies are taken as representative of the larger truth and people's general experiences, then that's incomplete and needs to be updated."

The essays in the book are based on three years of in-depth research into socio-economic inequality in Singapore. They explore what keeps low-income persons from moving up the ladder and the ways they and their needs are perceived by the rest of society.

In a departure from her usual academic publications, the book is written in an approachable fashion to reach as many readers as possible.

Instead of assuming a position of external authority, she placed herself in the narrative, examining her own position of class privilege and how this makes her complicit in the system of inequality - something she hopes readers can realise about themselves.

"One of the magical things that happens during reading is when you see the writer trusts you to do part of the work, that the writer is offering something and the reader has to take it the rest of the way," she says. "It requires a certain mutual trust."

This makes the book an uncomfortable read, she notes. "I'm very grateful that so many people have gone on to read it anyway."

While the book has prompted discussions in many quarters about inequality in Singapore and been mentioned in Parliament, she says it is "too soon to tell" what its long-term impact will be.

"One of the things that needs to happen in any kind of national discussion is that the voices of people who have less power and are marginalised need to be better integrated. There needs to be inclusion in the process, not just at the end when decisions have been made and outcomes are announced."

RETIRE SMART: FINANCIAL PLANNING MADE EASY

By Lorna Tan

Straits Times Press/ Paperback/ 344 pages/ $28/ Major bookstores

Copies sold: 11,000

Weeks on ST bestseller list: 36

The finer intricacies of the Central Provident Fund (CPF) will confound most people, but Lorna Tan wants to change that.

The 54-year-old helms The Sunday Times's Invest section, helping readers parse the complexities of financial planning through her columns.

Retire Smart, a collection of articles from 2015 to last year, is pitched at lay readers, whether they are seasoned investors or fresh graduates puzzling over their first paychecks.

"With rising longevity and costs of living, many people are realising that they need to plan to avoid outliving their nest egg," says Tan.

She observes that there is a dearth of reader-friendly information on how the CPF works.

"In the last few years, there were many enhancements made to the CPF system, but most people still find it complex and difficult to understand. Knowing how to optimise your CPF retirement funds can boost your retirement."

Tan, who is married with two children, has spent more than 14 years at Singapore Press Holdings and won numerous awards, including Financial Journalist of the Year in 2007 from the Securities Investors Association of Singapore.

This is her third book and by far her most successful. Her first two, Talk Money (2010) and More Talk Money (2013), have together sold some 7,000 copies.

The daughter of a security guard and a housewife, she says she has always been a disciplined saver. "I am my parents' retirement plan."

As a bestselling author, she treasures the opportunities to meet more readers at talks and signing sessions. They often pepper her with questions about CPF top-ups, withdrawals, nominations, how the national annuity CPF Life scheme works and so on.

"It is my desire that everyone has a financial plan and is able to retire well," she says.