Opening Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the Official Opening of Punggol Regional Library on 5 April 2023.
Chairman and CEO of the National Library Board, Mr Lee Seow Hiang and Mr Ng Cher Pong,
Excellencies and Distinguished Guests
Community Partners, Residents of Punggol,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good morning, and I am very happy to join you this morning for the official opening of Punggol Regional Library.
I know it is something that everyone in Punggol has been eagerly anticipating. I know it has been well worth the wait. Because Punggol is now home to the biggest public library in Singapore.
It is heartening to see such strong demand from residents for a library, even in this digital age of mobile phones and social media. It highlights the importance of books. In fact, books have played a special role in human history and culture for a very long time. In the past we had ancient scrolls rather than books – I was reminded of this because if you followed the news earlier this year, the Egyptian Museum had unveiled an ancient scroll. It was found completely intact deep underground in a tomb near one of Egypt’s oldest Pyramids. The scroll, like the surrounding pyramids, was built to last, literally, because it was meant to guide the tomb’s inhabitant into the next life. It was also very long – it was 16m long; obviously great thought and effort had gone into it. And this is typical of ancient scrolls of that time. A lot of detailed thought had gone into it, built to last for generations. In fact, built to last till the afterlife. And those were the kind of books or scrolls people had in those days.
When you think about scrolls, and the idea of scrolling today, I think we have a very different image. Because we talk about “scroll and swipe”. “Scroll and swipe” is something that we do on our phones daily. We scroll and we swipe to follow the news, to find music, or perhaps even to decide who to date. Not everyone, but some people do it and it is fine! In many ways, it is the exact opposite of what was done in ancient times. The new-fangled digital scrolls are meant to be short, to catch our attention for a just moment in time, and then to disappear. So they are not built to last, unlike ancient scrolls. Such digital content can be everywhere one day, and seemingly nowhere the next day.
So this is the challenge of our times. Everything is faster and shorter. Trends come and go more quickly. It is very easy to get caught up in the latest novelty, until something else catches our attention and we move on. Some worry that in time to come, we will end up with a society where attention spans get shorter, and everything is about chasing instant gratification.
And there are good reasons to be concerned. Social media has provided many conveniences and brought us closer together, but there are also potential downsides which we must guard against. Already you see more people putting limits on their social media use, for themselves and their children.
More fundamentally though, I believe all of us adults and children alike – innately desire deeper connections with the world around us. We don’t want just fleeting engagements on social media. We want more enriching, more meaningful experiences. That’s why, despite social media - we are also seeing people seeking out longer-form content. Longer videos or podcasts. Even articles on platforms like Medium and Substack are doing well. With the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, at one time people were once convinced the book industry would suffer and eventually die off. But in recent years, we have seen a rebound in book sales across many countries. Certainly, in Singapore, people have been reading books more regularly over the years.
So our cultural institutions must evolve to these trends – not to imitate or reinforce the culture of instant gratification, but to offer more opportunities for our people to have deeper and richer cultural experiences.
Our public libraries have always played such a role, and must continue to do so. NLB has already been adapting to digital trends. All of these books are available on a digital app, Libby. If you have not gone to it, you can do so. It is so accessible you can borrow anything from your home digitally. And some may say that if you have a digital library, why even bother to have a physical library? After all, everything can be borrowed from the app nowadays. In fact, I think the opposite applies. In this digital world it is even more important to have a physical library. A space where we can bring people together, to connect with knowledge and to connect with one another. And this certainly applies to this new library here in Punggol. It not only has an excellent collection of books for people of all ages, but it also comes with many exciting new features, so let me just highlight some of them.
First, there are more spaces for people to discover knowledge in new and engaging ways. We have an exhibition space to help people, especially our seniors, to explore and experience new technologies, like AI. We have got a DIY space for children, set up in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, for children to tinker with their hands and create items; to play and learn at the same time. And for Punggol residents, there is something special for all of you. Because we also have an exhibition space to learn more about the rich heritage and history of Punggol. From the old Punggol Zoo, Kampong Punggol, the old boatels including the defunct yacht boatel, and the Punggol seafood restaurant. So you come here and you can learn about the rich heritage and history of Punggol.
Second, it has more activities and programmes to support the needs and interests of the community. The library is no longer just a place you come to read and borrow books like what many of us used to do when we were young. But the library is now a place where you come and learn together. Because NLB will curate a wide variety of programmes – from sessions for entrepreneurs to present their ideas to potential investors; to sustainability workshops where you can learn about things like composting and recycling. By doing this, the library will create meaningful opportunities for people, for residents to learn from experts and learn from one another and to create communities of learning where we can all learn and thrive together.
Finally, the library will be an inclusive library, accessible to everyone. Punggol Library has a collection of special format books, assistive technology, and sensory-friendly spaces for those with special needs. There will be special features for people with disabilities, including a dedicated passageway for wheelchair users to easily borrow books. This was prototyped and developed by NLB itself, after it learnt that wheelchair users found it difficult to put books on the borrowing machines. I understand that this is the first of its kind in the library world, so kudos to NLB for coming up with this innovation. It shows that if we apply ourselves to issues like this, we can find innovative solutions to make our libraries more accessible, and our society more inclusive.
All in all, Punggol Regional Library reflects our vision for the modern library – a space that is rooted deeply in the community, where everyone can come to discover and experience something new, regardless of their needs or interests. I am glad that the response from the public so far has been very positive. Within one month or so of operations, and with just two floors opened rather than the entire library, visitors to the library are already comparable to other regional libraries which are fully opened. And the number of library loans are 75% higher too; it is quite incredible. Maybe it is a novelty effect, maybe Punggol residents have something special, or maybe it is the new features that NLB have come up with in this library. But whatever it is, these are very good results. And with the opening of the remaining 3 floors today which are catered to youth and adults, I am sure that visitorship and loans will go up further, and you will set new records in Punggol before too long.
The team at NLB of course, has worked very hard to make all this possible. For them this is not just a work project; it’s really a labour of love, and something they feel passionately and strongly about. Congratulations to all of you and thank you for your contributions and efforts!
Of course, this library is not just the result of NLB’s hard work alone, it is also the outcome of many stakeholders and partners: NLB’s Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee, some of you here, provided inputs on how the library could be made more accessible. We appreciate your feedback and inputs. We have many volunteers who contributed selflessly giving their time and expertise to support the library and are continuing to do so, thank you very much. We have authors, poets, as well as embassies and community organisations – that is why many of our ambassadors are here – who contributed valuable books and other content, thank you. We had members of the public who shared their feedback and ideas on how the library should be designed. I must make a special mention of the members of the Punggol community who specifically contributed their stories to the heritage collection and I think many of you are here too. Thank you very much. Of course there are many organisations and corporates who worked with NLB on various aspects of this modern library. There are too many for me to mention all of you individually, but let me thank all of you for your active participation and contributions.
Punggol Regional Library is our latest iteration of what a modern library looks like in Singapore. It will not be the last that you see, of a modern library. There will be further updates in time to come. NLB will continue to engage Singaporeans to explore and develop new library services. So for all of you here today as well as Punggol’s many residents, please provide your feedback and ideas on how the library can better serve your needs and how we can continue to innovate.
We want to continue to find ways to improve and do better. But what has not changed, what will not change is the core mission of the NLB: It’s the same mission that made me spend nearly every Saturday afternoon in that old Marine Parade Library. Some of you know the brick red library. I would go there either with my brother or with my friends. And we would be reading for hours. We would also go through the books in the new arrivals section, and choose carefully the ones to borrow to be read at home; and we would do this over and over again every weekend and never get tired of it. Because there is always something new and interesting to look forward to. Today, libraries remain that special place in our community that preserve our collective stories, open our minds to new discoveries and possibilities, and offer us deep and enriching experiences. So let us continue building and reimagining our libraries in Singapore. Together, we can keep our libraries special places for all Singaporeans, young and old, to learn and grow, and to build many more new memories and shared experiences together.
Thank you very much.
Explore recent content
Explore related topics