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Books and reading interest. Is it a growing trend in Malaysia?

The existence of a reading culture in Malaysia is murky and undiscovered since its formation in 1963. A survey done by Malaysian Reading Profile in 2010 conveyed that Malaysians who are at the age of 10 and above only read approximately eight to twelve books a year. In an article made by Borneo Post Online, literacy statistics in 2016 reported that out of 85% of Malaysians who do read regularly, 77% of them preferred newspapers, 3% read magazines, 3% read books and 1.6% read comics. Based on the figures, it seems that Malaysians who are avid readers do not prefer reading books.

In 2017, Dato Sri Michael Manyin, the Minister of Education, Science and Technological Research at the time, said that based on statistics it is evident that Malaysians are drawn to reading lighter materials whereas citizens from developed countries like the US read books. Despite Malaysia's high literacy rate in South East Asia, Malaysians, in general do not read many books when compared to other countries of the same stature.

In the same article, Dato Sri Michael Manyin also added that “The last survey also reported that Malaysians read increasingly less, as they grew older. By the age of 50, for example, only 20 per cent of Malaysians still read books, a drop from 40 per cent."

Other nations with high literacy rates among their citizens such as Finland, The US, and Germany are known to read novels often. To add, some of these nations are home to some of the world's most famous storytellers. American authors such as Harper Lee, John Steinbeck and John Green have gained international recognition and some of their novels are integrated into school syllabi in several countries. Tove Jansson, a Finnish author of the much-loved Moomin books series, is a product of a widely praise educational system.

(Description of the artwork cover for the book by T. Jansson about the Moomin)

Even citizens in neighbouring nations such as Thailand, China and Japan are known to read plenty. The question is, is there trending interest in reading within Malaysia?

The closure of physical bookstores

If one were wary of recent news, many company-owned chain bookstores in Malaysia have been shutting their doors in the last three years. The most recent closure of Times Bookstore in Pavilion Kuala Lumpur and Hartamas Shopping Centre on 15th May 2022 is one example. Additionally, in June 2020, well-known bookstore chain MPH permanently closed 9 outlets nationwide. Though one would assume the closure of physical bookstores is a result of a lack of reading interest amongst Malaysians, that may not be the leading factor.

To accommodate the rise of the digital age, MPH Group said in a statement to SAYS that they are pursuing a new venture and are transforming their bricks and mortar business model into an "e-commerce cum digitalised ecosystem". Due to the worldwide pandemic, many bookworms have opted for online shopping as national lockdowns were implemented in the last two years.

Members of "The KL Book Appreciation Club" on Facebook have voiced that they prefer shopping online due to the wide selection that is offered in online bookstores. In contrast, some state that the selection of books offered in physical stores is scarce and not as varied as customers expected it would be.

One user in the Facebook group said "(Times) Once a giant in publishing and books and mags distribution industry, now it is reduced to a shadow of its former self. Very sad."

Another user also stated that "they (Times) gradually stopped trying to provide quality offerings" in terms of the selection of books and failed to satisfy the customers' wants.

The price of physical books

The current cost of books in Malaysia is certainly not economic but not too expensive depending on the edition. The average cost of an English fiction paperback in Malaysia is RM35, whereas a Malay fiction paperback would be RM25. With the recent implementation of the new minimum wage of Malaysians being RM7.21/hour, it would take 5 hours to afford an English paperback, while a Malay paperback would cost you 3 and 1/2 hours.

For context, in the United States of America, the price of a new paperback book would likely cost an average of 8 to 12 US dollars. In comparison, the minimum wage of Americans is $7.25/hour, To afford a paperback in the United States, a person only needs to work for less than two hours. While the cost of living is rising in America, the prices of books and novels remain relatively cheap. Most Malaysians have to worry about the rising cost of living. Average monthly expenses in Malaysia such as rent, insurance, utility bills and study loans can tally up to more than the minimum wage. Data by iPrice Group Sdn Bhd estimates the cost of living for a single individual in Kuala Lumpur is about RM3262, almost double the newly adjusted minimum wage. Spending their day's worth of hard-earned salary may not be the wisest thing to do.

Interestingly, the reading habit of people in this digital era, especially young adults has changed. It is found that they are spending more time reading electronic materials compared to printed materials like online newsletters or reading e-books.

The big verdict

Based on the aforementioned factors, perhaps most Malaysians view books and novels as an item that requires extra effort and time to fully appreciate their market value. When there are more tempting options such as videos games and watching television or online TV shows, people are not inclined read. While there is a small growth of fervent and passionate readers in Malaysia, it isn't enough to cause a major trend.

What do you think? Do you think reading is essential for Malaysians?

References used and cited:,of%20the%20two%20minimum%20wages

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