From Tots to Teens, StarMagMALAYSIA has once again put the cart before the horse by appointing two celebriities as the country's reading ambassadors.
OK, in the first place, it's wrong to base the decision solely on how well-known the candidates are, their good looks, or how many people flock to the cinema when their movies are playing. I think the celebs selected have been chosen because they are popular and recognisable, and glamorous. Michelle Yeoh and Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor have certainly never before been associated with reading -- I certainly would not take into account the latter's books!
The United States has a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, while Britain has a Children's Laureate. Both posts acknowledge the importance of encouraging children to read. As that cheesy 80s pop song proclaims, "the children are our future". It makes sense to start with them when attempting to create a nation of readers.
An important criteria in the selection of the National Ambassador is his/her "ability to relate to children". The ambassador must also be able to communicate "well and regularly" with young people. The Children's Laureate and the National Ambassador must be respected authors or illustrators.
While it would be a good idea to select a Malaysian reading ambassador based on similar criterion, I think that, at this juncture, we shouldn't even be thinking of reading ambassadors. We just haven't reached the stage where such an appointment makes sense or would make a difference. A reading ambassador is supposed to encourage reading, but what's the point in having the desire if you have no means of feeding it?
The problem of lack of access to books is one that must be tackled. Books are expensive - thanks to our weak Ringgit. Shops that sell remaindered books do help, but they don't serve all communities, and levels of society.
The longterm, practical solution is to improve public libraries and also school libraries. At present, the selection of books at libraries leave a lot to be desired. For example, I was at a primary school in Seremban recently and was shocked to find that 80% of the books in its library were published in the 1970s and before. Non-fiction books offered information that was totally out of date, and the fiction did not look inviting or relevant to the average 21st century Malaysian child. There was even a book in French!
If the Information, Communication, and Culture Ministry is truly serious about promoting reading, it should commit to building well-stocked, up-to-date public and school libraries. Perhaps this is part of the plan, but, if so, I have yet to hear news of it whereas there has been wide coverage of Yeoh and Sheikh Muszaphar's appointments -- I wonder how much money they will cost tax payers?
In a report in the Star on March 20, it was stated that "the ministry would collaborate with Malaysia Xiang Lian Youth Association to give out free books in Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese and English to 1,000 schools". I would like to know how many books each school stands to receive and who will choose the books.These are important details since a token number of unsuitable books would not be helpful in encouraging the reading habit. We should also be asking how the books will be used.
A large school library filled with thousands of new books is only as good as its staff. School libraries in the States, Australia and other developed nations have specialist teacher-librarians whose job it is to help students make the best use of a library's books. They promote reading, organise reading activities, help students select books for pleasure and research, and develop and manage the library's collections.
We need professionals such as these to work with our children, on a daily basis, not celebrities who drop in once, if ever, to make a speech about how important reading is, and then leave, never to be seen again.
If the Education Ministry simply ensures that all language teachers read to their students once every school day, this will go further to encourage a love for stories (and in time, reading) than any reading ambassador can or will.
The teachers I have met say that they have no time to read to their sudents, but even one five-to-10-minute daily session is enough. Picture books are short enough to be read in one quick sitting; and chapter books and novels can be tackled over a period of time.
What we really need are teachers and librarians who are themselves enthusiastic readers. For children who are not fortunate enough to have parents who read to them, a book-loving teacher and/or librarian is the next best thing.
If we really must have celebrity reading ambassadors, we should only consider those who have already proven themselves commited to work connected with reading and literacy. We don't need shallow sound bytes, megawatt smiles and special celebrity endorsements and appearances. Instead, give us knowledge, passion, personal commitment and longterm action.