Malaysia’s reading habit

Update (30 Oct. 2013). Added two photos, updated some information, and slightly reformatted the article.

It is well known, even among Malaysians, that Malaysians hardly ever read. So, imagine my surprise when the Information, Communication and Culture Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Rais Yatim, recently said that “Reading has become an enveloping habit for Malaysians with most reading an average of eight to twelve books per year.”

How many books do Malaysians read per year? (photo from

How many books do Malaysians read per year? (photo from

In 1982, the National Literacy Survey carried out by the National Library reported that Malaysians only read an average of one to two pages a year. Fortunately, the reading habit among Malaysians improved to two books per year when the National Literacy Survey was repeated in 1996. Nonetheless, the last National Literacy Survey carried out in 2005 reported that Malaysians still read an average of two books a year. In short, there had been no improvement.

The last survey also reported that Malaysians read increasingly less as they grew older. By the age of 50, for example, only 20% of Malaysians would still continue to read books, a drop from 40% (a figure which is already pathetic) from those in the mid-twenties to thirties age group.

Reading rates in 2006 among Malaysians have not improved since 1995 (photo from

Reading rates in 2005 among Malaysians have not improved since 1996 (photo from

What about the reading rates from other countries? Surprisingly, finding that kind of information from the Internet makes quite a hard work. What I managed to procure was the following:

  • Mexico: 0.5 books per year
  • Chile: 1 book per year
  • Thailand: 2 books per year
  • Philippines: 3 books per year (interestingly, the Bible accounted two-thirds of the type of materials read)
  • USA: 5 books per year (1 in 4 Americans never read a book, but for those who do read, the average number of books they read per year is 7, an average of 5 for males and 9 for females)
  • Japan: 10 books per year
  • France: 10 books per year
  • Canada: 17 books per year

The worst record I got was that in the U.A.E. countries, where their citizens only spent an average of six minutes a year on reading books! The normal reading rate is 200 to 250 words per minute, and let’s further take the average number of words in a book as 100,000, with 250 words per page. This would make an average U.A.E. person covering only 1500 words (about six pages) per year or nearly 0.02 books a year!

Now, if Datuk Seri Rais Yatim is correct that we, Malaysians, read an average of eight to twelve books a year, this would make us one of the most well read people in the world! Could this wonderful news be true?

As they say: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

So how did our Minister of Information, Communication and Culture get that figure of eight to twelve books per year? Was there a recent (but done in secret) National Literacy Survey carried out? Unfortunately, our minister did not quote the reference or explained how that figure was derived.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter. This “latest” figure of eight to twelve books per year clearly contradicts what we know of ourselves and those we know. Ask ourselves, ask our colleagues, ask our friends. Do we like to read?

Evidence of Australians’ reading habit. Compare theirs with ours below (photo from

Why read when you can, err, stare into space? Typical non-reading scene in a Malaysian commuter train (photo from

Perhaps we could believe in a marginal improvement in the reading rate among Malaysians, but an improvement by as much as four to six times? If this improvement is true, it would be blindingly evident around us. You would see people reading on your left, right, and centre. Look around you… see any Malaysians reading? Perhaps reading while they wait for the bus, plane, or train? If you find one, he or she probably has an exam coming up. As a university lecturer, I can confidently tell you that there is hardly a university student whom I have met who willingly reads books (in any language).

Prof. Ambigapathy Pandian from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) has perhaps studied the most on the reading habits of Malaysians. In an interesting paper by him in 2000, he surveyed that 80.1% of university students are “reluctant” readers in English-language materials. In other words, 80.1% university students read because they have to. Interestingly, Malay and Indian students have a higher tendency to seek English-language reading materials than the Chinese.

Based on his survey, Prof. Pandian also outlined a profile of a habitual reader in English. People who read often in English are likely to:

  • live in an urban than in a rural area
  • belong to a family with a high socio-economic standing
  • come from a home where there is a greater variety and amount of materials in English, with more influence and reading models at home
  • attend a school with a greater variety and amount of materials in English, with more teachers who encourage students to read and more friends who read English.
  • be exposed more to English
  • have a more positive attitude towards reading in English.

The Malaysian education system is in dire straits. With the education system reverting back to Malay language as the medium of instruction in schools and the government desperately plugging all holes in a sinking boat, I strongly believe the key to improving our education is the inculcation of a strong reading habit among all Malaysians. Although the government has launched several reading campaigns (the recent one is the Mari Membaca 1Malaysia, launched in March 2010) to increase the reading habit among Malaysians throughout the years, obviously these campaigns aren’t quite working as desired.

A reading habit is an essential life skill. Reading not only increases our knowledge, but it also builds maturity and character, sharpens our thinking, and widens our awareness in social, economic, political, and environmental issues. What most of us don’t know that, unlike speech, reading is a learned skill; our brains aren’t hard-wired to read. Although a baby can pick up speech from listening to others talking, reading requires learning. In other words, reading takes effort. It is hard work. But it builds our brain muscles. The effort to inculcate a reading habit pays off handsomely, either directly or indirectly, in our lives.

I like to end this topic by quoting from Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf, a book given to me by my wife, Jennifer, on my birthday:

Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences. Our ancestors’ invention could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be shaped by experience. This plasticity at the heart of the brain’s design forms the basis for much of who we are and who we might become.

Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design, and when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed, both physiologically and intellectually.

Proust and the Squid

Maryanne Wolf


Pandian, A. (2000). A study on readership behaviour among multi-ethnic, multi-lingual Malaysian students. A paper presented at the seventh International Literacy and Education Research Network (LERN) Conference on Learning, RMIT University, Melbourne, 5-9 July 2000.

Web sources



  1. where can i find recent studies on amount of books read by malaysians and other countries e.g. in 2016 & 2017?

    • I have not been following up on this research since writing this article. You will have to search the net and be creative in your keywords, as the information is sometimes buried with other topics. As for Malaysia, there is no reliable data ever since they stopped the national survey. Sometimes they use the number of library books borrowed by Malaysians as an indication of reading habits — which to me is very, very biased data.

  2. I totally agree that the reading habit needs to be cultivated. I am trying to host a Reading Campaign in my Chinese Secondary School. Any tips or suggested activities? Would appreciate your support.TQVM.

    • Thank you for your visit. Here are some of my suggestions:

      1) Have a well-stocked library with a variety of books, not just “proper” books you like the students to read but the type of books the students enjoy reading. You want readers who read without coercion. Don’t feel horrified that you may have to get manga books for your library. But have a balance of books between those that purely entertain and that purely educate.

      2) Create a library conducive to learning and reading. It isn’t easy to create such an atmosphere but try to create an environment where students feel a different kind of environment when they enter the library, an environment where learning takes place.

      3) Have group activities where students read a book that they like (very important) which they can later come back and discuss. The book can have a movie tie-in or related to the students’ interests. The book can just be a short novel or short story.

      4) Relate what the students read to real life so they can see connections or applications. For instance, you can even start a Zombie theme if that is what your students are interested in. You can have a discussion on the zombie genre: what zombies are, how they behave, etc., etc. based on what students see in movies and what they read. Of course, it does not have to zombies but topics our students enjoy.

      That’s all I can think of at the moment. It is not easy to get people to have a reading habit, and even more challenging when it involves many people. Working on individuals is easier because we can focus on the person’s interest (which may differ from the whole group) and reading pace. Anyway, good luck and do share your experience with us.

  3. Hi,
    I am looking for my poor son who are in 8 years old, Declan has reading problem and he is a slow learner but he is not Dyslexia. Appreciated if you can recommend any private tution or centre to us.

    Deeply thank you

  4. Thank you for posting a well-researched article. It’s frustrating that I couldn’t find the stats quoted by Rais Yatim. I am writing blog posts for a local book rental store so will add this link to my post.

    I agree with you on the lack of interest in reading. When I lived in the UK 2 years ago, most people read books whilst commuting. Since coming home in late 2012, I use public transport a lot in KL & PJ and I don’t see the same thing happening here. Instead, commuters rather check their Facebooks. What a pity.

    • Thanks for sharing. Another interesting example of Malaysia’s lack of reading culture is the lack of book cases or book shelves here. You have many designs of sofa, dining tables, chairs, and TV cabinets, but book shelves are very limited. I am going to move into a new house soon, and I am having difficulty getting nice book shelves here. When I asked 3 local interior designers to design for me a wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling bookcase, they express shock. They even thought I am going to open a public library!!! :O It’s so strange and incomprehensible for them that someone would like to have such a large bookcase. One even told me my house would look very boring with bookcases.

  5. Hi, Christopher.

    I enjoyed reading this post of yours. Now, pardon me for my long comment. Ha.

    After reading this post, since I commute to work via the LRT, I looked around and found that, while most of the things said is still applicable, there’s this fairly new phenomenon: the ???, which in Chinese means a group of people who always have their heads look down, thanks to the advent of smartphones, tablets, and the like. Others would rather sleep or stare into the space, as shown in one of the photos.

    I find it hard to believe, and somewhat amusing, when commuters would first look at me, and then the book I’m holding, as though I’m some kind of alien. It’s still happening in 2013! I can’t figure out why. Not sure if cookbooks are a culprit. (Yes! Cookbooks interest me, besides books on languages, psychology, and the like.)

    I blame Malaysians’ poor reading habit on the local education systems (I was an indepent Chinese school student) and the lack of role models. My parents own a wealth of books — that is, if cookbooks count, too — and they’d read bedtime stories to us and encourage us to read. Unfortunately, none of my siblings are into reading. My partner too. A sibling said he’s sick of books after having to live through piles of (text)books for years, and would rather game the whole day or watch stuff on YouTube when he isn’t studying.

    As for me, though I’d been toying with my parents’ books for years, I only became an avid reader in my early twenties, when I was an undergrad abroad. I attribute the change to my experience in the States — the people whom I got to know there — own motivation, and the friends here who also enjoy reading.

    The problem, then, I realized, lies in people’s social circles and the rote-learning mode of the education here. Not because books are pricey, or the people don’t understand English; I still buy books when they cost like above RM100. And I’ve seen people who have hardly even picked up a book from their Big Bad Wolf loot to read. Maybe because the books seemed too cheap to not buy?!

    My American “family” read every day, and before bedtime. I saw students who’d read — not textbooks — under a tree in a park at my college, or on the library couch. My American friends said they simply wanted to know more; they didn’t equate reading textbooks with (leisurely) reading. And at least most of the Americans I’d met never considered getting straight A’s as cool, so they hardly studied all day long, pulled all-nighters just to score.

    Also, on the Chinese prefer reading in Chinese, I have to admit that’s quite true. Most of my Chinese-speaking peers said they don’t understand English, which, again, isn’t an excuse to not reading; there are gobs of good Chinese books out there. And not sure if you have realized this: even fresh grads these days can’t write proper emails in English! I see this almost every day at work. Ridiculous.

    P.S. Really sorry about my long rant(?). Ha.

    • Thank you for sharing. Certainly not a long rant, but useful information. Yes, I agree that in US (or Europe), reading is a habit among many people. They don’t view books like we do — books to be read only for exams. Malaysians do read, as you have witnessed but mostly reading text off their smartphones. Reading books always requires more concentration because the information is always a little more complex than that found on Facebook postings or entertainment websites. Book sales like the recent Big Bad Wolf are a blessing but I do wonder sometimes if people do read all the books they chuck into their shopping trolleys.

  6. I beg to differ with the notion that Malaysians hardly ever read. Quite a lot of Malaysians do read, I bet even daily, but their reading materials are not in the form of hard copy of books or newspapers. They read, but they read blogs, online articles, online magazines and online newspapers. These are the reading materials that they prefer since most of the Malaysians own smart phones nowadays and readings like these are accessible to them.

    You may see a typical Malaysian public transport passenger ‘reading texts’ from their smart phones but they can be actually reading some articles posted online and not merely sms-ing. I think to measure the reading habits of a certain citizen, to merely judge their reading habits on books cannot accurately portray their real reading habit.

    For me, the reading habit of Malaysians are not really the issue here. It is what they read, or choose to read, is the real issue.

    • I agree that Malaysians read daily. Reading road signs, food labels on a breakfast cereal box, and Facebook postings are considered reading. Unless one is literally in the middle of a jungle or desert, it would be pretty difficult to go through an entire day without having to read at least one word. But these reading surveys (as well as my blog article) isn’t about whether Malaysians read anything at all. Instead, these surveys gauge (whether directly or indirectly) whether Malaysians have a habit of reading more complex text. Now, what is a “complex text”? It is a text that go beyond a few words and text that contain more intricate/complex ideas that require a little more thought and comprehension than just from reading text from Facebook or forum postings.

      Yes, Malaysians read “words” everyday, but do Malaysians have a habit of reading more advanced text? And that is the point of these reading surveys and my blog article. People could read a printed (hardcopy) book or magazine or reading from an ebook (softcopy) — it does not matter. The reading medium isn’t the issue. One issue is do Malaysians even read ebooks?

      I agree with you that what Malaysians read is important. The Malaysians of tomorrow may be prolific in playing computer games, sending SMS, and internet surfing, which are skills requiring reading, but if a reading survey shows that Malaysians read exactly 0.0 books (whether printed or softcopy) in a year, it carries very serious implications. Why? It indicates that Malaysians are at the most superficial readers with possibly low concentration and poor comprehension skills especially if they are reading complex texts.

      • Most of the examples provided constitute what I have learned to be “passive” reading. I’m pretty sure the sort of reading this blog post and its sources are dealing with is “active” reading, regardless of whether the reader is going to be tested on comprehension or mastery of the content. Be it leisurely, to kill time, or to acquire a personal growth skill, active reading is what facilitates development of new synapses between neurons: essentially a muscle-building exercise for the brain. Moreover, dare I suggest most of the passive reading examples run the risk of GIGO (garbage in, garbage out), leaving the reader worse off. Also, my experience as an instructor mirrors the author’s regarding tertiary students’ reluctance (or is it disgust?) to read.

  7. Just too add to Pei Pan’s comments (Google Translate – Al humdu lillah!); yes, books are very cheap in Australia. We have discount book stores everywhere alongside the more expensive mainstream book stores. Sometimes walking into Borders or Popular here in Malaysia, I develop symptoms of anxiety just looking at the prices!

    With so many wonderful Malaysian authors (I’ve been reading lots of books by Malay sociologists and political analysts), I still have to wonder why books are so expensive here.

    Of course, the fact that some libraries ask for a RM1,000 deposit before students are permitted to borrow books probably acts as a read disincentive to reading too! Books are paper! Not gold!

  8. Wow! That reading rate of 1-2 pages per year is pretty terrible! Despite the latest statistics, I would rather suspect this supposed increase in reading patterns of Malaysian might be a reflection of the research methodologies rather than an actual upward trend.

    I am from Australia originally, working here in Malaysia in the tertiary education sector. When we have students fail their courses abysmally and have to withdraw, we require them to return all course materials and textbooks. I would estimate about 40% of these withdrawing students, after 1-2 years of studying, are returning their textbooks STILL in the original SHRINK WRAPPING!!! In other words, students are going through their courses having NEVER opened a textbook!

    Oh, the humanity!

    P.S. Killing students is a capital offence in Malaysia still, right?

  9. Tak, saya tak maksudkan harga buku di Malaysia mahal jadi itu menjadi satu alasan orang Malaysia susah nak beli buku. Saya maksudkan harga buku di Australia lebih murah hanya sebagai bandingan dengan harga buku di Malaysia.

    Bercakap tentang perpustakaan, amat menyedihkan. Buku-buku di perpustakaan kebanyakkan buku-buku lama. Untuk menunggu buku keluaran terbaru amat susah – termasuklah di perpustakaan universiti.

    Seorang pecandu buku akan tetap membeli buku tidak kira sama ada buku itu mahal atau tidak. Harga buku bukan penghalang kepada budaya membaca.

  10. Orang-orang Australia memang suka membaca – dalam tram, di lapangan terbang, dalam kapal terbang, di kedai kopi, di mana-mana sahaja. Saya kira mereka harus di beri pujian yang tinggi kerana semangat membaca. Tambahan pula buku-buku di sana amat murah berbanding Malaysia.

    Di Malaysia membaca belum jadi budaya. Orang sekeliling pula seakan-akan tidak memberi “galakan” apabila melihat orang lain baca di hentian bas misalnya. Biasanya akan di label “tunjuk bagus”, “nerd”. Belum jadi budaya, sudah terhenti dengan perspektif masyarakat. Jadi, orang-orang yang suka membaca di tempat awam menjadi “malu” untuk membaca.

    • You are right to say that the reading culture does not exist in Malaysia and that people who read books (not newspapers or magazines) in public are often looked at strangely. This is very unfortunate. However, I disagree that Malaysians do not read because of the price of books here is expensive. Yes, it is expensive but not exorbitant (not very expensive). If people want to read, they would still buy or borrow books. People still splash out money to buy expensive phones and their accessories and on fashion wear. Reading takes effort. It is slow and requires mental work, so people do not like this especially today when we crave for quick and easy access to information and entertainment.

  11. I totally agree with your points of view because I also believe in the power of reading. To be honest, I am not a bookworm, and I am still struggling to ‘install’ the reading habit in myself. However, I once had made a risky decision, because of something I accidentally read. And miracles did happen because of that. Of course it has proven to me that we are what we read about.

    • Thanks for your comments. A good way to start reading habitually is to read on topics/stories you enjoy. Don’t force yourself to read on topics that don’t interest you or because everyone is reading on those topics. Slowly, eventually, you will have a big library of books!

      • Very sad to hear the stat of Malaysian readers , Mr. Chris , I wonder if the there is anyway we can increase the interest of Malaysian people to read, what if we divesified the books to different tools such as e-books , audio books and miniature books. In order to sell more cheaper books , we should promote our local books more than foreign books. I want your feedback on this matter.
        thank you.

        • Sorry for the delay in replying. Reading rates are falling, even in the UK, because we are living in a fast world, where access to information and entertainment is fast, massive, and easy. Reading, however, is slow. For Malaysia, the problem isn’t cost of books. Regular book sales are common and people are more willing to change their phones for a brand new one than to buy books.

          The good news is independent publishers are on the rise, selling fiction in Malay language which in turn encourage local writers.

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