The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

People in Singapore don’t read much literature. Can these tiny books change that?

Children watch a video preview at a book store during the launch of the new book "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" in Singapore. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images)

When it comes to literacy, Singapore is no slouch. The country boosts a 98 percent literacy rate, and its reading curriculum is the best in the world, according to the Program for International Student Assessment.

That doesn't mean, though, that Singapore is a country of bookworms. A 2015 survey found that just 40 percent of the population had read a work of literature in the past year. (In America, that number is about 70 percent.) Just a quarter had picked up something by a Singaporean author.

Now, leaders have come up with a solution: tiny books. Starting this month, public transportation riders will be able to buy pocket-size tomes for about $10. The "ticket books" are part of a broader campaign to get people reading again. Their launch will coincide with a weekend of book fairs, author meet-and-greets and literature seminars across the city-state.

There's also a five-year campaign called the National Reading Movement. "I think it is increasingly difficult to adhere to a discipline of reading in our society today," Yip Guan Hui, president of National University of Singapore’s Literary Society, observed. "The influx of social media means that people are reading, yes, but they are reading shorter articles, excerpts, summaries, reviews and whatnot. I suspect that we have placed a premium on busyness and activeness at the expense of precious reflection, which reading allows."

It will be a hard habit to instill. According to that 2015 study, half of all respondents said they didn’t have time to read because of work or family commitments; about the same cited a lack of interest in fiction and poetry. About 40 percent said they preferred social media and surfing the Web. Singaporeans between 16 and 30 spend about 3.5 hours online each day. Student Ang Beng Heng, 24, told Straits Times that he’d rather check his news apps and Facebook feeds in his free time. "Current affairs are more often used as a conversation topic," he said. "It is also more important and related to work and career."

That attitude is at odds with the country's robust literary scene. Each year, 36 million books are checked out from the library; the system's annual book sale — 300,00 books at $1.50 a pop — draws thousands. The annual Singapore Writers Festival has honored such luminaries as Alfian Sa'at, Claire Tham and Anuar Othman.  Tiny bookstores clog the side streets; the airy Central Library sits near "Book City," a mixed development stuffed with bookstores, print shops and cheap stationers.

But the culture has its limits, too. Although journalists are protected by the rule of law, the country's leader can revoke or deny a publishing permit at any time. This leads to a certain amount of self-censorship, experts say. Literary magazines, too, rely largely on government grants awarded to works that promote the country's values. That means texts critical of the government (or the death penalty or exploring gay poetry) fly largely under the radar. Some work by government activists are still hard to find.

The city-state has dozens of publishers, but the most common (and popular) books are self-improvement guides. This is, Vanessa Quirk writes, "symptomatic of a national anxiety that education has become a test-driven competitive sport."

That might, some say, be the ultimate challenge. Independent bookstore owner Kenny Leck told Straits Times that the focus on improving English proficiency has drained the joy out of reading for many young people. "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."