The great book divide

  • Lifestyle
  • Sunday, 23 Dec 2012

Malaysians are now voracious readers it seems. Yet, we cannot translate that into success on the world stage. Why not, wonders our columnist.

AS recently reported in The Star, Malaysia has slipped in the latest Trends In International Mathematics And Science Study (TIMSS) report, with Malaysian students scoring 440 in Maths and 426 in Science – way below the “intermediate” score of 475 marks (

However, it was interesting to note that the 4% of the Malaysians surveyed who had “many resources” available to them (which includes owning more than 100 books) scored an average of more than 520 marks in both subjects, outscoring those 25% with “few resources” (which includes owning fewer than 25 books) by more than 120 marks.

Now, you might argue that correlation is not necessarily causation, and that the number of books owned does not imply academic excellence in itself. For example, families with “many resources” may also be more likely to send their children for the best tutoring after school hours – a clear additional advantage.

Yet, a study in 2010 across 27 countries concluded that the number of books in a home does influence how academically successful a child will be, and that it is “independent of their parents’ education, occupation and class”. (Evans, M.D.R., Kelley, J., Sikora, J., Treiman, D.J., 2010, Family Scholarly Culture And Educational Success: Evidence From 27 Nations, Research In Social Stratification And Mobility, 28(2), 171-197;

Specifically, the authors write that “Growing up in a home with 500 books would propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average, than would growing up in an otherwise similar home with few or no books”.

So the question that needs to be asked next is whether Malaysia has a reading culture? Are Malaysian homes filled to the brim with books, treasure troves of knowledge waiting to be perused by eager young minds?

The Ministry of Higher Education has stated that a study in 2010 showed that Malaysians read about a book a month on average (, and the National Library sets the number between eight and 12 a year (

If this number is correct, then it is very high, comparable to those in developed nations. For example, those in United States and Britain read between six and 12 books a year ( and

For a more recent example, just look at the chaos a recent book sale caused, with eager Malaysians ploughing through the books on offer, resulting in hundreds of books unceremoniously dumped in heaps around the hall (

Surely a nation that loves reading this much should be full of households with shelves brimming with books.

In fact, if it is true Malaysians read up to a dozen books a year, then a family of four should add to their shelves on the order of about 40 books a year, resulting in a collection of about 500 books after 12 and a bit years.

And yet, the TIMSS study does not reflect this. It is not clear why so few households can meet the criteria of having “many resources”. Perhaps the TIMSS sample was flawed. Perhaps the study the Ministry of Higher Education was referring to had a different definition of “book”.

I think I may have an idea. Fewer than an estimated 10% of the books on offer at that book sale were in Bahasa Malaysia. Already that should indicate to you which segment of the population would be going to that particular event.

There are significant numbers of Malaysians who are not fluent in English, as highlighted at a recent forum on English Proficiency organised by The Star. The Malaysian Economic Monitor published by the World Bank states that nearly half of Malaysian employers surveyed complained about poor English proficiency. Unsurprising, given one in four of those taking the SPM fail English – a number suspiciously close to the number of those who have “few resources”.

Even among those who pass the SPM, two-thirds of them failed to meet the basics of English proficiency (a credit of C6) in the 1119 paper (

In fact, if you’re only fluent in Malay, the number of books easily available to you is drastically reduced. There are significant numbers of original works in the form of teenage novellas, political studies and religious texts, but translations of other works are not easy to come by.

Even the website for Institut Terjemahan dan Buku Malaysia (Institute for Translation and Malaysian Books) only has about 600 books, and some of them are translations from Malay to other languages.

I believe there is a divide in the country between those who buy and keep books in the home as a resource for all in it, and those who understand the value of books but are unable to build up a collection. Either they cannot afford it – or, dare I say it, there are not enough books on the market they think are worth buying.

I believe this divide is drawn sharply between families fluent in English and those that are not.

And I believe this translates into a divide in education, so that the few fortunate enough to have access to “many resources” are above average performers on the world stage, while the others get left behind. Those that jump the gap are the lucky ones; the others are left behind.

The solution for this is not straightforward. Even the promise of technology and the rising number of e-book readers are not the panacea they first seem. For example, although it is convenient to carry and access for an individual, e-books are not easily shared between people, nor can they conveniently grab the eye as you walk past the bookshelf, catching attention and rewarding curiosity.

Data for Malaysia are much harder to come by (as always), but what scraps we get seem to indicate that there is much work left to be done. How else can we explain how a nation with seemingly voracious reading habits cannot translate it into success on the world stage?

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.

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Lifestyle , column , contradictheory , dzof azmi


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