Professor Tommy Koh's at the National Arts Council 'Singathology' Book Launch

November 05, 2015


Ms Kathy Lai, CEO of NAC

Mr Paul Tan, Deputy CEO, NAC

Ms Meira Chand, NAC Council Member

Mr Sim Gim Guan, NAC Council Member

Mr Philip Jeyaretnam, Chairman of the Singapore Writers Festival

Mr Khor Kok Wah, Senior Director for Literary Arts, NAC

Mr Yeow Kai Chai, Director of the Singapore Writers Festival

Mr Gwee Li Sui, Mr Tan Chee Lay, Ms Sa’ada Binte Buang, and Mr Azhagiya Pandiyan, the editors of Singathology

Recipients of the Cultural Medallion and Young Artists Award

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

A Big Thank You

I thank the National Arts Council for giving me the honour of launching Singathology. To celebrate Singapore’s golden jubilee, NAC decided to publish, in our 4 official languages, 50 new works by the winners of the Cultural Medallion and the Young Artist Award. The writings in Chinese, Malay and Tamil have been translated into English, our link language. This is a good thing because it enables us to raise above our linguistic walls and have access to the literary achievements of the other linguistic streams. Only through translation will we evolve a national literature. I congratulate NAC and the 4 editors for this initiative and for the two lovely volumes. Some of the writers whose works are included in Singathology are here. May I request them to stand so that we can pay our hormat to them.

Journeys: Anthology of Singapore Poetry

Reading Singathology, reminded me of the fact that 20 years ago, on the occasion of Singapore’s 30thanniversary, NAC had published an anthology of Singapore poetry, also in our 4 official languages, entitled “Journeys”. That collection contained poetry written in the decade, 1984 to 1995. In my foreword, I observed that the sharp political and social awareness which moved our first generation of writers had been absorbed into a larger and richer sense of Singaporean life, which included an awareness of the Singaporean’s place within a global community. Reading Singathology has exposed me to the writings of a third generation of our writers. Their world view, aspirations and frustrations are different from those of the first and second generation writers.


What I would like to do this afternoon is to speak briefly in praise of books, reading and literature.

Love of Books and Joy of Reading

On the 29th of July 2015, the Straits Times published an essay written by Tan Tarn How of IPS and Loh Chin Ee of NIE, entitled “Out with tuition and in with a reading nation”. The authors made a powerful case in favour of teaching children to read.

They cited an OECD study, Reading for Change (2000), which showed that there is a correlation between reading and good grades. Reading is a foundational skill with wide ripple effects.

Second, they argued that the benefits of reading extend far beyond exams and grades. Reading brings the world to the children. It gives them the joy of reading.

Third, they argued that reading can mould our children into better Singaporeans and better global citizens. Reading has the power to transform by opening hearts and minds. Reading children are flourishing children and they will probably become flourishing adults.

Inspiration From The International Summit Of Books

The Librarian of the Library of Congress, Dr James Billington, convened the inaugural International Summit of the Books, in Washington DC, in 2012. I accompanied a delegation from our NLB to that Summit. At the request of our American friends, we hosted the Second Summit in Singapore in 2013.

At the Summit, I was very moved by the personal testimonies of several famous African-American writers and leaders. They had grown up in very poor families and in culturally deprived environments. What had saved them were the accidental discovery of books and the gift of reading. The love of reading had enabled these individuals to escape the trap of poverty and hopelessness. Reading had liberated and empowered them.

Read! Singapore

I returned from Washington to Singapore in 1990. I wrote to the then CEO of NLB, Dr V Varaprasad and told him about a reading movement in America which had started in Chicago. In Chicago, the citizens had agreed to read the same book so that they could talk about the book with their friends and in their social circles. They chose as the first book, To Kill A Mocking Bird. I urged Dr Varaprasad to start something similar. He agreed and asked me to be the patron of the annual reading season called Read! Singapore. Each year, NLB would choose the reading materials, in our 4 official languages. I am happy to report that Read! Singapore has been very successful and many book clubs and reading circles have been formed as a result. My ambition is to make Singapore a reading nation.

In Praise of Literature

Someone from NAC asked me recently whether Literature was one of the subjects I sat for at the “O” and “A” Levels. The answer is in the affirmative and I have never regretted it. In fact, I am saddened by the fact that fewer and few of our students, especially at our top schools, study literature. Singaporeans are a very pragmatic people. We believe that we should only study a subject if it has some utility or benefit.

What benefit can we gain by studying literature? President Obama was recently interviewed by Marilynne Robinson on the subject. The interview has been published in the New York Review of Books. He said:

“When I think about how I understand my role as a citizen….. the most important stuff I have learned, I think I have learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of greys, but there is still truth to be found and you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with someone even though they are very different from you.”


I shall conclude. Many of you will know that my wife and I have two grandchildren, a grandson called Toby who is 4½ and a granddaughter called Tara, who is 10 months old. Toby treats me as his friend and play mate. He makes no allowance for my old age and makes me crawl, run, jump and dance with him. It reminds me of a lovely poem which my late friend, Goh Sin Tub, had written for his granddaughter. The poem is called “To Colleen”.

To Colleen

When you are sweet sixteen

And I whatever they shall call seventy-eight,

will you then remember when you were two

and to you I was three and your romping mate?

When you walk to church a bride radiant

and I in bed unable to walk and attend,

will you then in your radiance recall

you toddling, I walking, we playing pretend?

When you are a proud mama

and I a senile but still great grandpa,

will your little one then be the only one

understanding me in our baby “ga-ga”?

And when your eldest is sweet sixteen

and I have gone from you for good,

will you still remember me in tender prayer

your grandpa and our shared childhood?

And when your daughter has her own baby

and you play and romp with grandchildren too,

will you then remember when you were two and

I was three and we went giddy-up, choo-choo?

Thank you very much.

. . . . . . .

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