Sunday 20 March 2016

Singaporeans say they have no time to read

Low reading rate: Lack of interest, time cited as factors
Large proportion of people prefer online pursuits to reading books: NAC survey
By Janice Heng and Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 19 Mar 2016

A lack of time and a lack of interest are the most common reasons for not reading, according to a National Arts Council (NAC) survey.

And it does not help that a large proportion of people prefer online pursuits to reading books.

Of the 1,015 Singaporeans and permanent residents surveyed, 56 per cent had not read a literary book between March 2014 and March 2015.

Almost half of these non-readers cited lack of time as a reason for not reading. The same proportion cited a lack of interest. (See chart.)

Other reasons given for not reading included work commitments - with one in seven people saying so - and family commitments, raised by one in nine. Over one in eight said they preferred other activities.

This is according to the first National Literary Reading and Writing Survey, released on Monday.

Literary books, according to the NAC, include fiction, poetry, drama, graphic novels, creative non-fiction such as biographies, critical writing and anthologies.

Asked why other written works such as newspapers were not included, NAC's acting director of sector development (literary arts) May Tan said: "Encouraging people to read fiction and poetry is a priority for the council as we believe that the literary arts is an avenue for self-expression, learning and reflection.

"Reading allows us to see the world through the lens of the different characters in a story, opens our minds to different opinions and perspectives and helps nurture a sense of empathy in us."

Older people were less likely to have read a book in the year before March 2015. Less than a quarter of those aged 60 and above had done so, compared with more than half of those in their teens, 20s and 30s.

Another factor distracting people from book reading could be the Internet. The survey found that two in five people said they preferred the Internet and social media to reading books.

Observers said the findings were not necessarily cause for concern.

"The results show just one part of the state of literary arts," said Mr William Phuan, managing director of non-profit arts company The Select Centre.

Other aspects tied to reading not fully reflected in the survey include the number of literary books borrowed from libraries, he added.

The survey did, however, find that about a third of respondents got their literary books by borrowing them from the library or other people, or as gifts.

Said Mr Phuan: "The next step is really for all the various stakeholders - from publishers to writers, from educators to policymakers - to figure out together how to use all this information to encourage people and boost the percentages."

One way to get students interested is to give them a say in what they read for class, said Assistant Professor Suzanne Choo from the National Institute of Education.

"I think we should encourage students to read good works of literature, but we should also attend to their... interests."

Popular teen novels could be brought into the classroom for discussion, she suggested.

"If we find, for example, that many students are reading John Green's popular teen fiction The Fault In Our Stars, why not bring this into our classroom?" she said.

Mr Kenny Leck, owner of independent bookstore BooksActually, said the focus should be on cultivating the joy of reading rather than on instrumental goals such as improving English proficiency.

"The emphasis on reading for education is killing it slowly," he said. "If reading is about broadening one's horizons, then maybe we will have a fighting chance."

But for some people, technology has come in to fill that role.

SIM-University of London student Ang Beng Heng, 24, said that he prefers scrolling through news apps and Facebook feeds on his phone to reading fiction books because it is a convenient and accessible way to keep himself updated on current affairs.

"Current affairs are more often used as a conversation topic," he said. "It is also more important and related to work and career."

Read? No time, no interest. Oh, and then there's the Internet. More in today's editorial:
Posted by The Straits Times on Saturday, March 19, 2016

A learning nation must love reading
Editorial, The Straits Times, 19 Mar 2016

Most Singaporeans overwhelmingly recognise the value of reading, as shown by an inaugural reading and writing survey by the National Arts Council. The trouble is that they are not avid readers - a distinct handicap for a nation aiming to make lifelong learning second nature to all. Only a paltry four in 10 had read a literary book in the past 12 months, defined widely as "fiction, poetry, drama, children's and young adult literature, graphic novels, creative non-fiction, critical writing and anthologies". Readership rates were highest among professionals and students. Rather surprisingly, only a quarter of seniors aged 60 years or above could be regarded as literary readers.

The majority agree that reading helps them to learn new things and improve the quality of life. Yet more than half let an entire year go by without opening a single book. Compare that with reading habits in United States and Britain, where three-quarters take pleasure in reading. Here, seven out of 10 non-readers said they preferred the Internet and social media to reading books, with many predicting that the Web and electronic platforms would replace books in 20 years. But traditional publishers will take some comfort from the survey as those who read solely print books outnumbered the ones reading electronic books by a ratio of five to one. Notwithstanding the closure of brick-and-mortar bookshops like the popular Borders outlet downtown, this suggests there will always be a place for the printed word in contemporary society.

The reading platform, of course, is not critical; what matters more is nurturing a lifelong love for reading among the young and old alike. Being in one of the world's most Internet-connected societies, they should take full advantage of access to a wealth of knowledge. When nations will compete on the capacity of their people to harness knowledge, Singaporeans will be disadvantaged if their reading is limited to the disjointed stream of information and social chat that trickles into their mobile phones, tablets and computers. An open economy that has to live by its wits needs books to tap new knowledge and to help people think critically. Singaporeans also need to be in step with news developments and analyses that can affect their business decisions, jobs and shape of their lives.

Going beyond its utility value, reading offers the pleasure of engaging with a world of ideas. This habit should begin at home and in schools, of course. But, sadly, fewer pupils are taking literature at the upper secondary level, because they find texts not relevant enough or hard to digest. More home-grown literature should be tapped to entice students. Ironically, Singaporean texts are valued abroad with at least 10 universities introducing them in recent years. Books facilitate the power to dream, visualise, analyse and empathise. It is a shame to keep them shut or shelved.

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