From ‘Can Singaporeans read’, 14 Jan 2017, article by Kishore Mahbubani, ST
Many Singaporeans, especially some of our businessmen, were surprised and troubled by this obvious downturn in China-Singapore relations. Some were completely surprised by these events. They did not see them coming. Yet, some of these challenges in China-Singapore relations could have been predicted. Indeed, they were predicted. I, too, have made such predictions.
…In short, the warning to prepare psychologically for a rough road in US-China relations was given almost two years ago. Why was it not heeded? Perhaps not enough people knew or read about that prediction of mine. Another simple answer is that Singaporeans don’t read enough. And when they do read, their reading is narrowly focused.
One clue to what Singaporeans read is provided by The Sunday Times’ bestseller list. The list of non-fiction books should be seen as a national wall of shame. Instead of looking at the world and trying to understand how it is changing, Singaporeans indulge in self-help books.
…Week after week, Singaporeans drown themselves in self-help books. The underlying assumption of many Singaporeans seems to be that if I take care of my individual self, I will be fine. This assumption is a massive act of folly. We don’t live in a large, secure country. We live in a small, highly exposed, indeed, the most globalised country in the world.
Our destiny is more likely to be rocked by events happening outside of Singapore. Hence, if we don’t read books written about our external environment, we are committing national suicide.
The title of this essay should really be: ‘Can Singaporeans please read my book ‘Can Singapore Survive’? Because apparently, through the magic of non-fiction books, you can make a difference to Sino-Singapore relations. The esteemed Prof has harsh words for the state of our literacy and knowledge of current affairs. Basically, his piece can be summed up as: Singapore is FUCKED, so stop reading shit like this –
Time to take out the broom for CNY spring cleaning, because such statements are sweeping.
I’m not a fan of self-help books, but where is the evidence that Singaporeans do not read about WORLD ISSUES. Has Mahbubani checked with the NLB on the borrowing rate by Singaporeans? Has he done observational field studies on the MRT or the bus? Granted, according to a 2015 survey on e-books, NLB reported that ‘the majority of English e-books borrowed are works of fiction such as thriller, science-fiction and romance novels. Non-fiction titles on self-improvement are also popular among adult readers’. This says as much of our current-affairs reading habits as ‘bestseller’ lists tell about people walking into bookstores. Even if it’s true, that we’re suckers for motivational schtick, maybe we should examine why Singaporeans need to feel inspired and want to level up all the time, instead of decrying this habit as a terrible, soul-crushing shame.
His key source of reference is the Sunday Times BESTSELLER LIST. Firstly, we’re not even sure if his claim is accurate. According to the latest list on Jan 8 2017, the top bestseller is about the memoirs of a dying surgeon, there’s a biography about the Tesla visionary, and just a handful of books that teach you how to make shitloads of money or think like a champion.
Also, we can’t tell from bestseller lists if these people are grunts merely supporting the author by throwing money at them, or just collecting titles on the bookshelf to impress guests at a party. Just having a book cover with a successful person’s face on it will give others the impression that you’re a driven, ambitious optimist, serving as a talisman boosting your self-confidence and hopefully, success. Nevermind that the only thing in the book you actually read was the blurb and accolades by other famous people about how the book will change your life.
So, it doesn’t matter if you’re a ‘7 Habits’ or a Stephenie Meyers kind of reader, reading in general benefits EVERYBODY, as pasttime or for serious study. Yet, you can be a scholar of Chinese military history and still do absolutely fuck-all about the situation right now. Or you can be some guy who complains about Singaporeans not reading enough and then indulge in publicity for your own work on the side.
Instead of fear-mongering and putting the blame on our political cluelessness, perhaps it would be more useful to educate Singaporeans with bite-size nuggets of history and geopolitics in a way that would titillate and intrigue them rather than literally throwing a collection of great speeches by LKY at us and saying ‘Nah, READ dammit!’. We live in an age of instant gratification and wasp-sized attention spans. The days of blowing dust off old tomes and being dazzled by the musty smell of paper are long over. If I want to know everything there is to know about Jack Ma, I’ll watch a documentary on Youtube, not buy an Omnibus of his Life story.
Yes, China is a monster, US is in shambles, and Singapore, the little red dot that people still think resides in the very same China monster, is a splinter of driftwood in a tumultous sea. Maybe there should be a self-help book on this, like ‘Negotiating with Big Bullies for Small Farts’.
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