Under-translated and overly vulnerable to censorship, the publishing communities of Southeast Asia nevertheless will soon be ‘making waves,’ according to one of Singapore’s industry leaders.
Publishing Perspectives: Let’s start with Singapore, itself.
Kenneth Quek: Singapore’s publishing industry is stronger than it has ever been. This is not to say there aren’t still a few problems or areas in which it could improve, but our publishing industry is still relatively young and has made incredible strides in the short time it has existed.
PP: And how about other markets in the region?
KQ: Our neighbors’ industries are quite varied.
Both Indonesia and the Philippines have very robust publishing industries, and have produced some international bestsellers.
Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand are at around the same level as Singapore, while for Cambodia, Laos, Brunei, and Myanmar, the industry is still in a nascent stage.
There seems to be growing interest and development in Myanmar now that it has returned to a more or less civilian government and opened up a bit more.
The fortunes of the individual countries’ publishing industries are directly related to their development and economic growth. In general, the prospects for the publishing industries across the countries of ASEAN look positive as the region’s economies develop and the numbers of the educated middle classes continue to grow and boost demand.
PP: Can you describe the challenges facing the publishing industry in the ASEAN world?
KQ: I think the two biggest challenges that face the region’s publishing industry stem from language and politics.
With the exception of Singapore and the Philippines, most of the publishing in the region is not in English, and is therefore overlooked by the West. Once in a while, an Eka Kurniawan is “discovered” and makes it big in the West . But the chances of a writer in this part of the world getting a US or UK publishing deal when they’re not writing in English are extremely low.
I can see a microcosm of this even in Singapore, where we have writers writing in our four official languages: English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. And although we award the Singapore Literature Prize to incredible works of fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction in these four languages, it’s the English works that most excite the majority of Singaporean readers.