Can Pragmatists Read For Pleasure?

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With the advent of mobile devices and the onset of rapid urbanisation, Singaporeans are losing out on the reading habit, though there wasn’t really one to start off with. By Yimin Huang

As a young nation toiling for survival, there was scant time spent in pursuit of the comforts of life.

As prosperity came along, so too did an accelerated pace of life and the need to keep up with the world. Singaporeans at large are known to read for practical requirements. As a society, there is also not enough runway to inculcate the habit of reading for pleasure.

The effects are telling, says Ian Yap, Deputy Director of the National Library Board (NLB). “Last year, NLB conducted a reading survey, and we saw that only one in two Singaporeans use library services. We also recognize the lack of interest in mother tongue books in particular, and hope to tackle that.”

It’s never too late to start, so the NLB kick started the national reading movement this month in an attempt to cultivate a nationwide passion for reading.

The programme is multi-faceted, and targets different sectors and age groups. In the workplace, NLB plans to get CEOs to share reads with the workers.

For young children, NLB is starting a new concept called ‘raising the reader’, a workshop where parents are taught how to introduce their reading habits to children.

To address the lack of interest in mother tongue books, NLB partners with schools for mother tongue reading clubs and buddy reading sessions, in order to build students’ competence with the language before exposing them to good literature. Events are also carried out on the multimedia platform such as cultural exhibitions, theatre performances, author talks and film screenings.

Local poet and professor of English literature at Singapore Management University, Kirpal Singh applauds NLB’s initiative, but asserts that the education system and media are not contributing to the larger solution. Dr. Singh is critical of how school teachers “don’t bother to ask students what they are reading for pleasure or what they know about the world”.

This goes in line with Dr Tan Bee Wan, Executive Chairman of Integrative Learning Corporation, who posits that for the most part, “kids are taught what to think instead of how to think”. As a result, reading as a way to broaden perspectives is not appealing beyond the classroom.

Mother Tongue Lashing

Laura Wang, a university student, shows support for the movement, but cautions that “adults have to be less kiasu (‘competitive’), and give children more freedom in choosing the books they like to read and at a comfortable pace. Otherwise, reading can feel more like a chore.”

Laura also laments that “the selection of mother tongue books in public libraries desperately needs to be updated in order that the selection can be more varied, more current and therefore more relatable to the public”. She dislikes the way Mother Tongue lessons are taught in Singapore as “the teaching style is too inflexible and outdated, and students are not allowed to interpret the texts in their own way”. As a result, development of interest in the language is stymied.

But any move that encourages reading should be welcomed, provided there’s a willingness to adapt and enhance it to suit the audience.

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