(Pic credits to Asia News Network)

Turning Brunei into a reading nation should be put into the heart of our national agenda if we are going to realize Vision 2035. In order to achieve this aspiration, a whole-of-nation approach (a term coined by the Minister of MOHA) has to be taken. Young people especially have to be targeted in this regard given how important their roles are and will be in society. Drawing from existing research and personal observations of others, here are some suggestions that can be followed in order to achieve this goal.

The role of parents are decisive in instilling a good reading habit to their children. The way parents they can do this is by reading aloud books to their children be it during their spare time or before bedtime. According to the report Becoming a Nation of Readers (1985), experts recommend that reading aloud is the “single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading”. English teacher Ms Breda O’Hara-Davis and environmentalist Bud Chapman testified this as an effective method in making their children lifelong readers.

Former Brunei-based IMF officer Roman Zyptek (whose daughter is currently pursuing a PhD in Artificial Intelligence at MIT) said how important it is to start the reading process as early as possible for the child. The chief advantage to doing this is how it can enrich a child’s cognitive and verbal abilities at such a crucial time in their lives when their neural networks are still forming. It can also enhance the parent-child bond and help build up their self-esteem, which according to the work of world-renowned psychologist Erik Erikson, can have lifelong ramifications to a child’s psychosocial development into adulthood.

School principals and teachers must do their part too in building a greater reading culture in the society. KCL third-year undergraduate Gustika Jusuf-Hatta (who can speak five languages) shared how her mother, who is an English teacher, made it necessary for her school to assign book reporting in English classes. This ensures that the students will read the prescribed books. For Professor Roberto Guzman in TEDx speech “Teaching English without Teaching English”, he shared how he actively engages his students to critically read, discuss and debate current affairs. International schools, such as JIS, organize Shakespeare plays as a way to instill the love for reading. In Britain, it is quite normal for schools to give out books as prizes for competitions. Perhaps we can do the same here in Brunei.

The practical advantages to making students become active readers is how it can enhance their overall exam results. As Arthur Barigye Mugunga from Rwanda argued, this is because young readers “tend to have confidence since they know how to express themselves orally and through writing, which improves their chances to excel in their academics.”

The Brunei government should commit a greater share of the national budget to upgrade the country’s library standards, especially in educational institutions. Library book titles have to be expanded in order to expose students to the wonders of reading. To do this effectively, it will require Brunei to continue to hire and train licensed librarians. In the US and Canada, librarians are usually required to hold a graduate degree from a library school such as a Master’s degree in Library Science or Library and Information Studies.

With licensed librarians in Brunei, we will then have “experts in both children’s literature and how to build and maintain a high-quality collection that supports independent reading, research, and instruction” (learningunlimitedllc.com). Acquiring the collection of easy, popular and digestible titles such as the works of Dr. Seuss, J.K. Rowling, Murakami, Eric Carle, and Enid Blyton; to slightly more harder titles such as War and Peace, Douglas Adams, Don Quixote, LOTR series, and Terry Pratchett will also be a great step in building up our libraries.

Apart from expanding the title of books, the budget should be used to to upgrade or fix existing library infrastructures and facilities. First, high-speed wifi connections can be installed in all library centers so that young people will want to hang out in libraries more. Second, reading or language programs such as the CfBT Education Services’ ‘The Great Debate’ program can be actively supported by the government. Finally, the national budget can be used to build a new modern library facility to replace the old national library in BSB. A new national library re-modeled after the US’s Library of Congress or the British Library (potentially!) will indeed attract everyone to visit and hang out in the library more often.

The Brunei government, especially the MoE and MYSC, has to make this policy as a top government agenda due to the fact that it can enhance the quality of life for everyone in society. The longitudinal study Competent children, competent learners by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) noted that young people’s reading for pleasure in their own time and at school was one of the critical factors for a successful pathway into adulthood. In other words, young readers will less likely to commit crime, do drugs, smoke, dropout of school, and other anti-social behaviour.

Therefore, any existing reading or language campaigns should be continued (e.g. Dewan Bahasa Pustaka’s 10-day Brunei Book Fair and Carnival and MOE’s national reading campaign) while new ones introduced in order that reading becomes second nature to the citizens of this country. Sheikh Jamaluddin Mohamed (OBE), Chairman of SHJ Consultant, echoed the need for institutions to “put reading as one of their top priorities and take steps to encourage a reading society”.

Retail bookstores must continue to innovate. First, they must continually bring in good and affordable book titles for the Bruneian market to purchase. Next customers such as Nadia O. Adenan suggests the need for local bookstore introduce a special reading in their retail space. The section must be furnished with seats (or beanbags) and tables for people to sit down, relax and read e.g. the children sections in Malaysia and Singapore’s Kinokunyia and Borders. It is through these environments that attracted Bruneians such as Fatin Ghazali into reading in the first place. Cafes such as the Library Cafe in New Kiulap is also an innovative business concept that can be emulated and expanded across the Brunei market.

NGOs and foreign embassies play a crucial role in achieving this goal too. Several NGOs such as, B:Read have creatively done this by organizing book donation drives. Other NGOs have even invited local and non-local writers to organize book promotion events. Foreign embassies have also made great contributions in helping to foster Brunei’s reading culture. The U.S. embassy contribution of the “American Shelf”, which is a collection of works related to the US, in Dewan Bahasa Pustaka BSB in 2015 is one great example of how embassies can support the overall reading culture. These are all great initiatives and many people including myself highly applaud their work.

Overall, it takes a whole-of-nation approach to foster a strong reading culture in this country. If people think that small nations cannot achieve this goal then I invite them to study Iceland. Despite being a small country and having almost the same national population as Brunei’s, they are known to have published the highest rates of books per capita in the world. Today they are ranked as the world’s most innovative economies. Their highly educated citizen body also contribute to enhancing their national culture, language and identity.

Therefore, I invite the government of Brunei, its affiliated ministries, and everyone in society to turn Brunei into a nation of readers. For our country is facing times of great complexity and change, that in order to capitalize the opportunities that exist today, we need to continually produce farsighted people who can advocate new ideas to transform us into a progressive and inclusive society.

Finally, to quote Agnes Balisangam, a Lecturer from Rwanda, “once people have embraced a reading habit, they will pass it on to the next generation, and demand for books will grow and the citizens … will start to achieve as they should.” (newtimes.co.rw, 2010)  Brunei will achieve as it should in the lead up of the year 2035 and beyond.

by Abdul Malik Omar