Public figures and reading: Dr Chee Soon Juan, Ms Sim Ann and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew

Public figures who read

The Chee kids reading in bed (Still from

The Chee kids reading in bed (Still from “Behind The Man”)

There are not many of our public figures who talk about reading and the importance of it in their own lives and their family. I wish more of them do. Reading is of crucial importance to human flourishing, academic learning and self-development, and family bonding. National Institute of Education assistant professor Loh Chin Ee and I made these points in an article recently called “Out with tuition, in with a reading nation” published in IPS Commons and The Straits Times.

Therefore it is a nice surprise to find how much reading featured in the documentary “Behind The Man” about Dr Huang Chihmei, her children, and her husband and Singapore Democratic Party leader Chee Soon Juan. In such a short movie, there are a good of number scenes with books. They were shot by director Tay Bee Pin, or old family video footage of the family having fun reading.

Dr Huang, says at one point: “Also, because my mother was a teacher, she would often encourage us to read beyond our textbooks. Therefore she bought a lot of children’s literature, more than a hundred books. My siblings read them all. When we mention a particular book we had read as children we all know exactly which it is. All these books are our shared memories.”

The older girl An Lyn says, “Our parents cultivated in us to read a lot, to read as a second nature. Because we didn’t have electronic gadgets when we were young, so we just read a lot. And we will always go to the library to borrow books.”

Dr Chee says, “Going through my university days, I just began to develop the habit and the love of reading. And I finally discovered what that did to my self-development. so when we had them [the children] … and it is just a habit as well. Kids tend to mimic what the parents do.“

The younger girl E Lyn reveals when they read, “Sometimes just before bed. It helps you relax a bit, so it is easier to fall asleep.

An Lyn adds, “Or when you are out in a restaurant or something and you are waiting for your food you can just take out your book and read. Or in the car… actually anywhere is fine!”

The boy Shaw Hur is also shown reading with his sisters and father. Don’t miss his hilarious introduction at the end to his sisters’ piano duet of Hoagy Carmichael’s composition Heart and Soul. (Music also played a big role in the famly.)

The other public figure, if you can call her that, who read was the late Mdm Kwa Geok Choo, the wife of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. In his eulogy at her funeral in 2010, he said, “She had majored in English literature at Raffles College [the precursor to the National University of Singapore] and was a voracious reader, from Jane Austen to JRR Tolkien, from Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian Wars to Virgil’s Aeneid, to The Oxford Companion to Food, and Seafood of Southeast Asia, to Roadside Trees of Malaya, and Birds of Singapore.” One of the most touching aspects of their relationship was his reading to her every day when she was in coma.

Another of the few public figures who has revealed a little about reading in her private life is Ms Sim Ann, Minister of State for Education and Communicationd and Information Her work covers libraries and reading, so she has spoken often about the importance of reading. But in one speech the mother of three went beyond cold policy to seemingly reveal that reading was also part of her own family life. At the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in June she said, “There are many activities we can do as parents to help our children learn, but few are as simple, inexpensive and effective as reading to them. Personally, I also think it is one of the most enjoyable pastimes that parent and child can share. When parents take time to read to their children, it helps children to discover the joy of reading and bond with their parents.” I would love to know if Ms Sim herself reads, in particular poetry or prose. Coincidentally, Dr Chee and Ms Sim are standing against one another in Holland Bukit Timah GRC in this election.

It is important to not just encourage reading but to have public figures from politicians to celebrities and business leaders saying they read. I suspect that many don’t read for leisure, but I hope that those who do will come out and champion one of the loveliest of human activities.

I asked Dr Huang what the kids read in the documentary and what the family likes to read. She wrote this reply:

The three kids all read Harry Potter, Maze Runners, Hunger Games, and Insurgent (by Veronica Roth) series (subsequently made into movies).

An Lyn’s recent reading includes books by author John Green (Paper Towns & others) and Where Rainbows End and Love Rosie (both by Cecelia Ahern).

E Lyn’s recent reading: Same with An Lyn’s (they take turns to read these books), and The Death Cure (by James Dashner).

The book Shaw Hur was seen reading in the video was The Death Cure. He recently read “How to Train Your Dragon” by Cressida Cowell.

CSJ’s recent reading:

(1) The Moral Landscape (by Sam Harris)

(2) Justice: A Reader (by Michael Sandel)

(3) Out of Our Minds (by Ken Robinson)

For me, my reading during younger days included poetry and ancient novels in Chinese. For English reading, I read almost everything that was available to me. I actually read a lot of women’s magazines (left around by other girls in my dormitory in the university) to improve my English.

{{Updated with correct appointment for Ms Sim and a typo)


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