To Kishore: In Defence of Self-Help
Indeed, Singaporeans do indulge in self-help titles – at least among those who read non-fiction at all. Kishore Mahbubani regards The Sunday Times’ bestseller list as our “national wall of shame” (Article: http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/can-singaporeans-read) and exhorts us to read more “serious books”, like Can Singapore Survive, which he wrote. He then points us in the direction of speeches by 3 of our founders, which he regard as geopolitical geniuses.
With regard to the pre-occupation with self-help – certainly not a uniquely Singaporean tendency – Kishore diagnoses the assumption that “if I take care of my individual self, I am fine.” This is flawed, because our fates are often largely shaped by external forces. Given Singapore’s necessary openness to globalization, Kishore is right in urging us to “replace angst with analysis”. As a Sociology student, I certainly agree.
Yet as a person, I believe his categorical criticism of self-help is rather misguided. Granted, some titles betray narrow-minded motives, such as Money: Master the Game, which he referred to as “embarrassing”. But others read self-help to understand their inner conflicts better, to become a better person. The collective angst of younger generations reflects not degradation, but cultural complexities which shatter traditional role identities and indulge all in covert webs of consumption.
People read self-help to find their place in the world.
What to fight for?
Kishore is picking the wrong battle. Self-help and serious books may differ significantly in their orientation – inward vs outward – but the underlying motivations are not mutually exclusive. Self-help can be a stepping stone to serious books; it is a transition I have made. And since we are not only observers but also participants in society, the right self-help books can help us to reconcile competing ideologies and inform our own actions.
The real battle is between reading and non-reading. Kishore is very pragmatic in his prescribed solution, but he overlooks the difficulties for most in realizing it in real life. It is easy for him to read – and write – serious books, because that is what he does for a living. Not so easy for the doctor or the pharmacist, who have lots to read and recall. Not so easy for the admin assistant or the construction worker, who are entrapped within their under-appreciated work identities.
Reading promises a way out for the latter, more likely through a self-help book than a serious book. But once reading has worked its magic, the pragmatic resistance to serious books – I’m too tired to care about the world – will lessen. Yes, we are hardly reading enough of serious sociopolitical books. We too often escape into our shells of passive consumption or petty activism. But to create conducive conditions for learned conviction, the last thing we should do is to condemn the curiosity of self-help readers.
Self-help can be serious. And serious books are a form of self-help, too.