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Speech by Mr Raymond Lim, Minister for Prime Minister's Office, 2nd Minister for Finance and Foreign Affairs, at The Opening Ceremony of Singapore Writers Festival 2005, 26 August 2005, at Drama Centre Theatre & The Pod, National Library Building

29 Aug 2005

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Good evening.

I am delighted to join you this evening to launch the Singapore Writers Festival 2005. Let me extend a specially warm welcome to the distinguished writers from abroad in our midst.

2. If someone were to ask you: "Is Singapore a literate society?", what would your answer be? Would your answer be "Yes" or "No"? Either answer can be right depending on how you define the word `literate'.

3. If you define "literate" by its literal meaning, the answer is certainly "yes". At least 95% of our population is literate, that is, can read and write. But if you define "literate" as meaning a well-read, society, your answer would probably be "no" and you would be quite right. A Population Survey on the Arts by the National Arts Council in 2002 found that only 40 per cent of 1,527 people surveyed had read a novel that year. In 2003, a nation-wide survey of 1,500 Singapore residents by the National Library Board revealed that the strongest motivation to read was neither for leisure nor for literary appreciation. Rather, it was for career development.

4. I think that this is a pity because a nation is judged not just by the power of its economy but the nature of its society. Do we honour the businessman but not the artist? Do we admire tall buildings but not the creative spirit that informs their designs? Are we so caught up with the material that we forget the richness and diversity of our people, our realities, our history? As John F Kennedy said in his tribute to Robert Frost - "A nation which disdains the art invites the fate of Robert Frost's hired man - 'the fate of having nothing to look backward with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope.' "

5. Literature is a great civilizing force. It is the soul of a nation. It is the way in which we voice our histories and our aspirations; it is the way in which we reflect upon and comment on our society and our life. Literature is the foundation stone of culture and civilization. It is our conscience and our interlocutor, our imagination and our memory. For generations, great authors have created fictional and factual records of their times through their prose. Without literature, we would never have been able to understand so much about the world, past and present.

6. Reading widely helps us expand our frames of reference to understand human beings in a deep, empathetic way, because we have lived their lives in print - their joys and pain, their triumphs and suffering, their hopes and hardship - the indomitable strength of the human will. A well-read society is a society with individuals who are more empathic, more tolerant, more thoughtful, and more imaginative. Literature not only holds the key to understanding the 'software' of a society; it also reflects the 'soulware' of that society.

7. I applaud the organisers of the Singapore Writers Festival in your continual effort to inculcate the practice and appreciation of both creative writing and reading in Singapore. Literary festivals, such as this and WordFeast, are good opportunities for literature exchange and appreciation. As talented authors from our country and from around the world share the stage over the next 10 days, it is my hope that you will inspire Singaporeans to read, to write, to imagine, to express themselves, to be interested in others, to delve into the mind, the heart and the soul of human beings everywhere.

8. It is now my pleasure to declare the Singapore Writers Festival 2005 open. Thank you.