50 Years of the Singapore Book Publishers' Association

From left to right, past Presidents of the Association: Patrick Chan, my predecessor as President, Khush Chopra, me, Senior Parliamentary Secretary Baey Yam Keng, Mrs N.T.S. Chopra, mother of Khush and Sukhvinder, Patrick Mowe, Tan Wu Cheng, Sukhvinder Singh Chopra and his sister. Picture courtesy of Alex Tan, and it was lovely to have the family of Mr N.T.S. Chopra, one of Singapore’s true bookmen, representing him as past President. We badly missed other past Presidents who could not attend, including Triena Ong, Koh Hock Seng, John Isaacs and others.

We celebrated 50 Years of the Singapore Book Publishers Association in an event held at the Chamber, Arts House, Singapore on September 21, 2018. it was a great chance to celebrate past, present and future of the industry.


Welcome publishers, authors, and guests to our celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Singapore Book Publishers Association, and our awards ceremony for this year’s edition of the Singapore Book Awards. Welcome Mr Baey Yam Keng, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Transport & Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, as our guest of honour. I think it is very appropriate that Mr Baey joins us, as he has proven his commitment to cultural production and multilingualism in Singapore over the years. So he shares much in common with many of our publishers here this evening.

In May 1966, UNESCO convened a meeting in Tokyo to address “the grave shortage of books in the Asian region.” In November of that year the Library Association of Singapore convened a Workshop on the Problems of Book Production and Distribution in Singapore, that brought together publishers, authors, booksellers, librarians, printers, educationalists and readers, in

“a common and unified effort to examine and seek solutions to the particular problems faced by the book industry in Singapore.”

Here I am quoting Hedwig Anuar, an amazing woman and a key figure in so much of the development of Singapore’s book institutions.

It was from these efforts that the Singapore Book Publishers Association was established in 1968, as one of the key constituents of the overarching National Book Development Council. We began with 29 members.

But I think it’s fair to say that efforts of publishers to organise themselves to promote books began much earlier. Singapore’s first Book Fair was started in October 1947, by publisher Donald Moore. Imagine, we were just to years after the end of a brutal occupation, and one year after British military rule was over.

Still, by 1968 Singapore was independent, and it was absolutely imperative that Singapore produce its own textbooks. So our locally-based industry had picked up. The impetus from UNESCO also had a positive effect. Publishers, librarians, authors, educators and booksellers came together to see what could be done. One result was *Books in Singapore, *published by Chopmen Publishers, the publishing company of the incomparable Mr N.T.S. Chopra. It is a report written by Mr Cyril Bird, the University Librarian at Indiana University and a keen observer of Singapore’s books ecosystem. He talks about the SBPA in this book, and he describes us as follows:

“the association is neither fish nor fowl, indigenous or foreign, but a disparate group of publishers and publishers representatives pulling in opposite directions…"

Ah, the more things change, the more they stay the same…

Don’t worry, I’m teasing!

Now that disparate character which Mr Bird found worth criticising hasn’t changed over the years. But what has changed—and not without some difficulty—is that it has become a great source of strength. As an association we represent some of the world’s largest multinational information companies, like Elsevier (2.5b GBP turnover), Springer Nature (1.6b Euros), Taylor & Francis, John Wiley & Sons, and others. We also represent local entrepreneurial SMEs, some with one or a just a handful of staff.

In between we have our locally-born MNCs, two, both with a global footprint, Marshal Cavendish, and the World Scientific Publishing Company. And coming up very strongly at their heels, players like Star Publishing, Shing Lee Publishers, Alkem and others who have major operations across the region.

So we are very different, even disparate, But we all realise that we have the vocation of publishing in common, and that unites us.

Thank you members for your support, your willingness to hear each other out, and find practical paths forward! Thank you particularly to those of you who served on the 50th Anniversary Committee and who helped bring this event together. Catherine, Minelli, Syed Ali, Li Kok, and our Chairman of this Committee running this celebration, Edmund, thank you all. And a special thank you to our Secretariat - Ulric, Vanessa and Fairuz.

And while we are at it let me also recognise the sponsors of tonight’s event…  our platinum sponsor World Scientific, Markono, the Arts House, Storytel, JustBooks/YVentures, and Rakuten Overdrive. A dynamic group of companies with real vision for the future. It is interesting that these companies all have strong digital operations.

In addition to these supporters, the National Heritage Board,  Epigram Books and AsiaPac Books are helping us with a special publishing project you will hear about later. And the National Arts Council is supporting tomorrow’s public seminar on new technologies in publishing. Other assistance for our 50th Anniversary has come from Star Publishing and Fuji Xerox.

Now 50 years of history is a long time in the context of Singapore, of independent Singapore, but it is not very long at all in the enterprise of book publishing. Let’s not look at the 800 year history of commercial publishing in China, or the 450 years in Europe. We can remember that Singapore’s first book publisher was established formally in 1819, starting together with the then brand-new British colony of Singapore. Next year the book industry will also be celebrating our own SG200.

Eight hundred years, 450 years, 200 years, and still growing: I hope many of you noted the findings of the latest Price Waterhouse Cooper’s Global Media Markets Study which found that the world market for print books was growing globally, the only “analog” media format to do so.  The article in Strategy & Business which reported these findings was apply titled: “Gutenberg’s revenge”.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Now contrary to appearances, I did do a bit of preparation for this speech, by reading some of the speeches and writings of previous Association Presidents and other leaders in the community. And I couldn’t help but notice the parallels and similarities between the past and present.

Donald Moore was our first President. A very talented publisher and cultural entrepreneur who, like me, was a foreigner who was given the great privilege of participating in Singapore’s cultural and intellectual life.

In a speech he gave to open that seminar back in 1969 he said:

It seems to me that the publishing industry should be recognised as playing an absolutely integral part in the provision of education. I think that we should have a constant dialogue going on with the Ministry of Education.\n

And he goes on to complain that the dialogue is not very robust, the Ministry is not leveraging publishers very well, etc. Let me quote you a few lines from the SBPA policy agenda of 2017/18, written some 48 years later.

We seek a strategic dialogue with the Ministry of Education….the partnership between educational book publishers and MOE needs attention. There is insufficient dialogue at a strategic level, and we have concerns that the private sector is not being leveraged well enough. One goal in further dialogue would be to develop a better system for encouraging innovation in developing curricular materials and systems…

On this note by the way, I’m happy to report something of a breakthrough. On Wednesday Peh Shing Woei and I met a group of senior officials from the Ministry of Education, the first such meeting in five years. I think it was a good dialogue. Members will be receiving a more formal note next week.

Or take this column from Alex Josey, an author and journalist who was also on the Singapore Book Development Council, for an article in the New Nation, 5 April 1971, headlined “Who will write the Singapore English novel?”. By the way I’m very happy to report that that question has been answered. Many many people are writing the Singapore English novel… as you will see on the Book Awards table.

Undoubtedly a national book lending library is a great asset to a developing nation, but by encouraging book-borrowing rather than book-buying, the growth of national authors is stunted. Not so in Finland where the principal of book-borrowing is not so well-established. There a professional man, a man in the medium wage bracket, may have as many as 8000 books in his own library, bought over the years. I would be interested to know how many books constitute the average Singaporean’s library. Some journalists, I can tell you, have fewer than a dozen books on their shelves.

Here’s another excerpt from our policy agenda for 2017/18.

Now that reading promotion is established as a priority at a national level, supported by a National Reading Movement under the National Library, we need to extend it further to bolster a healthy commercial book ecosystem. We need to encourage the purchase of books for the home as well as increasing library usage, which is already the world’s highest…Research shows that having books at home turns out to be one of the best indicators of educational attainment and social mobility, across societies and cultures.

And there are more examples like that, on different issues: copyright, book piracy, the imagined decline of books in the face of new technology, like that newfangled invention, the color tv, etc… The more things change…

I confess I was quite surprised by reading all these eerie parallels to our own time, and a little disheartened. Has nothing changed? But after some reflection, I think it is more heartening than anything else. Publishers have remained passionate and committed. We remain persuaded that more people should have more books, and we will do what we can to provide them.

At this point it leaves me only to preview the rest of the evening’s short ceremony. We’ll be doing two things. We will be looking to the past, and celebrating the present. First, over the next several minutes I will have the privilege of giving certificates of recognition to those of our past Presidents who are able to attend this event with us, or in some cases their family members. Now let me just start by saying that I feel very embarrassed to be giving certificates to my seniors, in rank if not in age. But I hope they will accept these certificates as friendly tokens of our thanks and respect for their efforts.

Then we will be giving out this year’s edition of the Singapore Book Awards. These awards are our industry’s chance to recognise good work and the high public impact of books produced in Singapore. It celebrates excellence today, and sets a bar which we will need to exceed as we move forward into the future.

So, yes, things change, things stay the same. But remember there’s a future in books, and books in your future. Let me now welcome you to a future where my speech is over!