The decline of book reading in Singapore

If money is the root of all evil, then high rents could be the root of the decline of book-reading in Singapore.

Times Bookstores closed two outlets in Singapore yesterday, and it now only has one outlet at Cold Storage Jelita. The Straits Times reported yesterday that “Singapore bookstores have been adversely affected by poorer sales, rising rent, and higher goods and services tax and printing costs, which have pushed up book prices.”

In the latest global PISA report, Singapore students ranked top in maths, science, and reading, yet they showed a slight decline in reading performance. I want to know though, are students reading enough outside their textbooks?

Our environment shapes our mindsets and habits, particularly reading habits, and the disappearance of bookstores from Singapore’s retail scene is not a good thing. Yes, there’s the Popular bookstore chain but they probably sell more assessment books than storybooks. Kinokuniya is great, but it’s only found in town.

At the same time, I’ve been waiting for e-books (my main reading platform since 2010) to take off, but the anecdotal signs are not good.

I hear many adults tell me how much they dislike ebooks and I don’t see many people reading any books (print or digital) when I’m taking the MRT train. Most people are on social media, playing games, or reading comics on their phones. It is possible to read a book on your phone, but it’s also tiring on the eyes.

From a local perspective, the books industry may seem like it’s dying but that’s not true.

Globally, it’s worth about $90 billion and has been steadily growing in single-digit percentages (Statista). The UK publishing industry had a “record-breaking year” in 2022, with a total income of £6.9bn (The Guardian).

Books are more important than ever because they expand our imaginations and knowledge, both which are critical in the new age of AI.

There are many fears about Generative AI’s impact on jobs. I tell everyone that if you want to wield it well, you need to be good at your subject matter expertise and your ability to ask questions. You have a bigger edge if you read widely and have a strong command of language. After all, these Gen AI apps are known as “large language models”.

All is not lost. Our National Library has a vast collection of ebooks available via the Libby app. You can order ebooks from (US) with one click and they are often cheaper than their print versions. There is the Internet Archive where you can read millions of digitized books.

If we bookworms want to rescue the habit of reading in Singapore, don’t bother railing against our high rents here. Start reading ebooks regularly and influence the person next to you to do the same.