Why we need more libraries

JAN 24 — Education, education, education. That, stated Tony Blair, was his government’s top priority when campaigning during the UK’s general election in 2001. Alas, the pledge, like many promises made during election campaigns, was more “indah khabar dari rupa”. An OECD study of 65 countries in 2010 showed that the UK had slipped several places in the rankings for reading, maths and science from its 2006 rankings.

Now I read that our own government has decided to set up 1 Malaysia libraries. As an avid reader, I can only applaud this move. After all, anything that gets people reading is a good thing as far as I’m concerned.

I think it is absolutely appalling that our country has such a dearth of libraries — as far as I can tell, most libraries in our country belong to universities though there are a few state libraries around too. 

In our country, even KL residents have to make an effort to go to the library. By contrast, I have access to three libraries within walking distance of my home, and a further eight within my local area easily accessible using public transport.

I know the UK is a more advanced country, but I can’t help thinking that despite Tony Blair and his promises, people in the UK see knowledge provision as a social good, and have therefore ensured that public libraries are made as widely available as possible.

I wonder if we feel the same way. We all know that knowledge is power, yet I’m not sure that we, as a society, really prize knowledge. We send our children to school, so that they learn, so that they can go to university, so that they can get good jobs (in other words, earn a lot of money). When I was filling out the forms for various matriculation courses after my SPM exams, the preferred choice for many people were accountancy, law and medicine. Not many people chose "non-standard" courses. I had mulled over anthropology at UIA, only to be told by an older friend that “anthropology was for people who failed law.”

Over here, I know people who have degrees in physics and English (amongst others), who have ended up becoming software engineers. Like me, they would have done some courses to learn software languages yet the fact that they did not have degrees in computer science was no barrier to getting good jobs in IT. I wonder if I would have fared so well had I gone back to Malaysia after completing my studies. Would a prospective KL employer have hired me to work in IT, armed with a degree in international relations, and some part-time work creating websites?

Dr Abdul Aziz Bari says we will not be the “Harvard of the East” if there is no academic freedom. I quite agree. Unless we are allowed to think and express our thoughts freely without censure, we will not flourish — academically or otherwise. Yet I wonder if the absence of academic freedom is the only reason.

Try as I might, I really can’t see us becoming an education powerhouse. The best universities in the world tackle a wide range of subjects, not just those that make money. Take Harvard, for instance. Prospective students can apply not just for law and medicine, but also advanced theatre training and divinity studies. Cambridge and Oxford have degree courses in history of art and Cambridge even has a Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. I know our universities also offer courses in less popular subjects such as Islamic studies and Malay literature, but amazingly enough a subject as important as history doesn’t appear to be widely available (no wonder our politicians can state that we were never colonised!).

There is obviously enough of a demand for the top universities to offer such diverse subjects. Back home though, can you imagine what a Malaysian parent would say if their son or daughter expressed a desire to learn the history of art? Or if someone expressed a desire to get a degree in the Tamil language? (Offered by UM, by the way.)

Yet I would argue that we as a society gain when we have more and more people who learn for knowledge’s sake (and not just for that MBA). If we knew more about the history of art, for instance, maybe we would be more appreciative of our own heritage. Sure, we still see lion dances but when was the last time you saw a wayang kulit show? How many woodcarvers are there left in our country, and how many of us even know how to do the zapin or the kuda kepang? Do these things matter, you ask. Of course they do — after all, if they don’t, then we wouldn’t have Indonesia accusing us of stealing all sorts of things now, would we?

Besides, a more knowledgeable society would be able to hold its leaders to account far better, no? If we were all more widely read, we would be exposed to more ideas about all sorts of things, from organising a society to, well, learning how to do the zapin.

In fact, I have only two quibbles about the 1 Malaysia library idea. One — drop the 1 Malaysia label and just call them libraries. Libraries are what they are; they don’t need to be rebranded. Two — why stop at Lembah Pantai, Titiwangsa and Wangsa Maju? There should be a nationwide programme of building public libraries in as many districts as possible. If the government can find money for the NFC programme, then surely it can find money for libraries, don’t you think?

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


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