Speech by Minister S Iswaran at the Library and Archives Plan (LAP25) Stakeholder Engagement Session coinciding with the First Anniversary of Library@Harbourfront, 12 January 2020, at Library@Harbourfront

“Partnering the Community to Build a Better Singapore”

Mr Ng Cher Pong, CEO, NLB,

Valued partners of NLB,

Friends of the Library and Archives,

1. Good morning. Let me start by wishing all of you a Happy New Year. Thank you for spending your Sunday morning with us to share your thoughts. This is part of the process of what NLB is trying to do - it is the next phase of the work we are going to do with our volunteers and community partners.

2. I am very happy to celebrate this first anniversary of library@harbourfront with you - our volunteers and partners. Since its opening, more than 1.8 million visitors have passed through its doors to browse and borrow, and pick up new skills and hobbies. Of the library’s many achievements, one that stands out is that more than half of the 360 programmes conducted last year were run by members of the community like yourself.

3. This high level of community involvement is seen across the board in all our libraries. It is a reflection of the deep partnership between NLB and our community. In fact, this is a partnership that we deeply value, treasure and we want to nurture further.

4. This morning, we consulted each of you on the future of our libraries and archives – how we can collaborate in new and different ways, and enhance the products, programmes and services we offer to the public - in particular, on how we can reposition and enhance the way our libraries, as community institutions, work within our larger society, in tandem with the changes that we are seeing, and also how we can make our archives more relevant and closer to the community, especially to the younger generation of Singaporeans. Your contributions and perspectives matter greatly.

Libraries: For and Of the Community

5. Our libraries have always been enriched by the contributions of the community. Many of you will fondly remember the National Library on Stamford Road. Fewer may recall that before it opened in 1960, the public could only use the library by paying a subscription fee. It was a member of the community - philanthropist Lee Kong Chian - who funded the construction of the National Library on the condition that it was kept free for all Singapore residents.

6. Over the years, the number of individuals who contribute to our libraries has also grown significantly. Today, close to 5,000 volunteers aged between four and 90 volunteer actively at our libraries and archives. On average, every public library is supported by close to 160 volunteers a year. Our volunteers, partners, patrons and citizens have energised and invigorated our libraries, and we are a striking exception to the global trend of declining library usage. Indeed, many public libraries overseas have closed down or shrunk, but that is not the case here in Singapore. And I think an important reason for that is because of the close engagement and partnership that we have between our libraries and the community.

7. While we often think of a library as a quiet sanctuary or repository of books, I think it is safe to say that our libraries have evolved well beyond this narrow mode. They are critical common spaces in our society - spaces for gathering, learning and socialising, and hubs for ground-up events and activities. They are now cherished community institutions that bring together the collective wisdom and energies of the people they serve. And we want to continue to ensure that they thrive within our communities as institutions that all of us take ownership for, and contribute to.

8. In our libraries, we see a meeting of minds between the community’s desire to give back and contribute towards something greater, and a Government that is keen to work closely with the community to build Singapore. The enduring and fruitful partnership between NLB and the community proves that the model works, and indeed that it can work very well.

9. By working together, we help to empower the community, public institutions like our libraries, and also our society. Indeed, this is very much in sync with how the Government is working together with our people to build a better future for Singapore. This is also the ethos of the SG Together movement that DPM Heng launched sometime back. It is to bring our people together, to work together, in common cause for further growth, development and towards the significant strides that we want Singapore to take for our future. So I want to elaborate in the context of the work we are doing within NLB itself.

Partnerships Empower All

10. First, we believe that partnerships empower the community by allowing the community to take ownership. At libraries like Bukit Panjang Library, Tampines Regional Library and library@harbourfront, volunteers like Ms Ching Yoke Yin and Mr Peter Connell manage entire areas, interact with patrons, and provide book recommendations. From their experiences, other volunteers have gathered useful ideas on how to do things better, andhave also gone on to implement them. At our branches in Sengkang and Orchard, residents and frequent visitors gave their say on how they wanted their libraries to be revamped - from the design and facilities, to the collections and programmes. When outcomes are shaped by the community, the finished products are fit-for-purpose and are for our community institutions.

11. Second, partnerships empower our libraries to do more for the nation. So they do not just empower our community. In fact, they also empower our libraries. NLB relies on the expertise and unique perspectives of our diverse, talented partners and volunteers. Just look around us today - we have amongst us businessmen, retirees, HR professionals, homemakers, an economics lecturer and even a block chain expert. The Geek Out Programme launched last year exemplifies this diversity. A group of venture capitalists, technopreneurs and consultants, affectionately called “Tech Geeks”, volunteer to share their insiders’ knowledge of emerging technologies with patrons and organisations. Last September, for example, Mr Lau Yin Cheng of Singtel Group Digital Life and the Singapore Computer Society imparted practical tips on how PMETs could employ technology to improve their work.

12. Yet another collaboration that epitomises this spirit is the National Library tapping onto the passion and abilities of a Jawi interest group to transliterate Jawi works. These are just a few examples of how our volunteers enable NLB to do more than we ever could by ourselves. They empower NLB to contribute significantly to national priorities like digital readiness, and preserve our heritage. We are no longer limited to what libraries can do in communities, but also what the communities can do for the libraries, and the nation as a whole.

13. The third dimension in this is that partnerships empower our society. In Singapore, we strive to build a fair and inclusive society, where opportunities are available to all. Our libraries embody this vision, extending the invitation to everyone to get involved, especially those who could use an added boost. In partnership with non-profit organisations and special education schools, our Externship Programme equips people with special needs to become accustomed to life outside the controlled environments of their schools and homes. Through a two-year programme at the libraries, they learn how to sort and shelve library materials, as well as attend to queries in a supportive environment. Out of over 80 graduates, several have applied for jobs in NLB and beyond.

14. In addition, many of the libraries’ beneficiaries are empowered to become volunteers themselves. Ms Sofiyah joined the kidsREAD programme at AlMukminin Mosque Kindergarten in 2009, where her love for reading grew. Ten years later, at age 15, Sofi is a kidsREAD volunteer herself, devoting hours each week to encourage the next generation of avid readers. Together, we are building an inclusive society where every Singaporean can contribute meaningfully, no matter their background. And our libraries are a very important platform - our library movement is a very important contribution in that pillar.

Working in Partnership is More Important Today than Ever  

15. Taking one step further, I would say that working in partnership is not only beneficial, but is also vital in this day and age. I have often spoken in the past about opportunities created by technology, digitalisation, AI, data analytics. I think we all know what the buzz words are, which are used extensively in the lexicon of today. At the same time, we also have to acknowledge the trade-offs and risks. If we are not mindful, being more connected online can quite ironically lead to feeling more disconnected from society. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that those who spent the most time on social media were twice as likely to experience social isolation and feel like they did not belong anywhere.1 So the experience in the virtual world, does not necessarily translate into our well-being in the real world.

16. Societies around the world face this challenge, and Singapore is not immune. In fact, given that many of us frequently use the Internet, we may be even more susceptible. Singaporeans themselves have taken to the newspaper forums to express their concerns. Some worry that an over-reliance on social media and messaging apps will erode human connections, while others are afraid of the formation of echo chambers online, which may human connections, while others are afraid of the formation of echo chambers online, which may fragment or even polarise our society.2

17. It is more important than ever to create and sustain a sense of community, and build a society where nobody feels alone, marginalised or left out. We will persevere in bringing these different segments of society together through common spaces, causes and programmes. We must make sure that no one is left behind in Singapore, and that everyone has a part to play. And again, in this regard, the future that we have envisioned for our libraries, is one that has a key role to play, working with our volunteers and community partners, to realise this vision.

Building a Better Singapore Together

18. Our work together is far from finished. As we build the libraries of the future, we are seeking to expand the definition and role of libraries even further. For example, our libraries can advance from nurturing learned individuals to nurturing entire learning communities. Our libraries can change the way we approach problem-solving, by fostering collaboration and enterprise. And indeed, the possibilities are endless. We just have to use our imagination, and unleash the creative and collaborative resources that we have within our society.

19. In the spirit of SG Together, NLB will continue the conversation with the community. I believe that you have had an engaging conversation this morning. I think this is really what we want to engender - active engagement with all our stakeholders who can contribute to the vision of the libraries of the future, and how we can make the libraries even stronger institutions within our community. We will involve Singaporeans in brainstorming new strategies, products and service offerings for the library, and ensure that our libraries continue to meet the needs and aspirations of all Singaporeans. My Ministry will share details soon.

20. So I want to end by expressing our deepest appreciation to all of you. You have all made a difference in different capacities, by stepping forward with your ideas and committing your time and energy. You have also put your hands forward to the plough and made our libraries what they are today - a national treasure and a cherished community institution.

21. We look forward to continuing to work closely with all of you to build an even more vibrant library system and a better Singapore in the years to come. Thank you very much for joining us today and giving us your time. We look forward to engaging with you more deeply in the months and years ahead.

22. Thank you.


1 Primack, BA and Shensa, A, and Sadani, JE and Whaite, EO and Liu, L and Rosen, D and Colditz, JB and Radovic, AM and Miller, E (2017) Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation among Young Adults in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 53 (1).

2 ZB ‘Let’s go to the library’ (6 Jan 2019); ST ‘Letter of the Week: Don’t let technology replace human connection’ (22 Dec 2018); ST ‘Digital technology: Help or Hindrance?’ (25 Dec 2018); ST ‘Tech can affect students negatively’ (29 Aug 2018).