Cambodia will celebrate an annual day of reading from March 11 in an effort to promote the habit nationally, according to a sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday.
The decree calls on ministries, education institutes, local authorities, NGOs and the private sector to join in encouraging all citizens to embrace a love of reading and “the culture of the Cambodian people”.
Although literacy rates in the country are on the increase – UNESCO estimates almost 78 per cent among adults – popular reading habits continue to lag. According to a 2014 study by the literacy NGO Room to Read, Cambodians consume an average of just 1.5 books per year.
Khlot Vibolla, director of the National Library, confirmed that the number of students coming to research and peruse the facility’s collection has almost halved over the past year to around 100-150 per day.
“People in other countries have the habit of reading – when sitting on a plane or bus or whenever they have free time, they’ll always read,” she said. “But for us Cambodians, there is little of this culture.
We must urge our children from age 5 to read for at least 15 minutes each day.”
Book lovers agree that Hun Sen’s initiative is a good stepping stone to cultivating the habit on a popular level.
“We do not read very much as a culture due to past issues around war and immigration,” says Hok Sothik, president of Cambodia’s Librarians and Document Association and head of the local publishing NGO SIPAR.
“We hope that the national day will awaken or renew Cambodians’ desire to read as in other countries.”
However, according to Siv Meng, the author of several romance novels and self-help books (and a regular contributor to the Post’s property section), the new festival needs to be coupled with a boost to education programs as well as to the local industry.
“The Ministry of Education needs to push their reading program in schools harder, encouraging engagement with the world and critical thought,” Meng said, noting that the low quality of contemporary Khmer literature is an obstacle to cultivating a love of reading.
“Often people don’t want to read because the books available in Khmer are no good. Many writers here have become too proud, so they don’t study, read other literature or strive to improve their writing.”