By and large, Singapore’s education system, which is among the most highly regarded in the world, is a boon to its publishing industry. No subject is more popular, or more competitive, than mathematics. Known as Singapore math, the city-state’s mathematics teaching method and curriculum is garnering a lot of attention from teachers, publishers, and education ministries across the globe.

The city-state’s high scores in recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reports have done much to spread the word about Singapore math. “The 13 gold medals won by Singapore students in the past five International Mathematical Olympiads further accentuate this achievement,” says Steve Seow, executive chairman and managing director of Star Publishing. “As a textbook publisher looking beyond the local market, we have directly benefited from these results. It is certainly a great time to be in this field right now.”

There has also been good news for the STM and academic segment, which “has a lot to do with the sizable investments from the Singapore government for research at institutions such as the Agency for Science, Technology, and Research, the National University of Singapore, and Nanyang Technological University,” says Max Phua, managing director of World Scientific. “The research community has thus expanded rapidly over the last 20 years.”

There is now greater research output, more impactful discoveries, and increased collaboration between Singapore and other countries in the fields of science and technology. “The current research culture has given World Scientific the opportunity to publish and work with world-class researchers who are based in Singapore, and help to enrich Singapore’s publishing sector,” Phua says.

Better Numbers and Outlook

Things are significantly better for book retailers than they were in 2011, when 30% of Singapore’s shelf space was lost, predominantly because of the closure of the Borders and Page One superstores. The indie bookstore scene is buzzing, with BooksActually, Littered with Books, and Grassroots Book Room, for instance, serving loyal (and somewhat cultish) audiences with specially selected titles and several literary-related activities.

“The incumbent chains have been under great pressure in the past decade, but Kinokuniya has successfully used Singapore as a base to build a brand of book retailing across Asia,” says Peter Schoppert, president of the Singapore Book Publishers Association (and managing director of NUS Press). “Popular Bookstore continues to support the neighborhoods while Times the Bookshop has evolved with its new lifestyle-based concept bookstores.”

Schoppert says the Singapore book industry (which is estimated to generate around $400 million annually) needs to improve its efforts overall. “We are not just a small market,” Schoppert says. “We are a small market reading, writing, and publishing in multiple languages—English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil—and competing for attention and shelf space outside our borders is a real challenge.”

Singapore libraries are doing well, Schoppert says, and much of the city-state’s new five-year National Reading Movement is focused on driving up library reading for both print and e-books. “We are reaching out to the National Library Board with the view that book ownership—having and reading books at home—is an important part of that picture, as well,” he notes.

Challenges Big and Small

Despite the positive developments, Schoppert cautions that “in the medium term, there are significant issues.” He adds: “Demand is flat at best. Decreased share of the wallet for book purchases due to higher spending on private tuition is a concern. There is competition from overseas online booksellers that do not contribute anything to the local ecosystem since their sales are exempted from local tax. Rental remains high.”

The publishers association itself has been making changes, including hiring full-time staff for the first time. It is working with Singapore’s Media Development Authority to design programs to help raise the industry’s productivity and its international profile, and to invest in human capital. “We also need to keep sending the message to policy makers that Singapore—with its competitive publishing industry and dynamic book ecosystem—needs to prepare itself for any structural challenges and opportunities that may come its way,” Schoppert says.

And, while opportunities in overseas markets are growing, digitization is challenging traditional models of learning and publishing both domestically and abroad. “Going digital is a must for the educational industry and its players, or one risks becoming obsolete like Kodak and Nokia,” says Peh Shing Woei, CEO of Shing Lee Publishers. He emphasizes “the need to offer interactive online content with adaptive capabilities to supplement paper-based textbooks,” adding: “Going forward, students and educators will demand access to online ancillaries that are augmented by analytics and AI technology, which will then personalize the learning and teaching processes even further. For Shing Lee, the year 2016 is the year of digital investment and innovations.”

Meanwhile, Singapore publishers are busy attending fairs and exhibitions to gain more international exposure, meet potential collaborators, and create new business networks and opportunities. At the upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair, the Singapore Pavilion will host 13 publishers, including Armour Publishing, Balestier Press, Educational Publishing House, English Corner Publishing, Epigram Books, Ethos Books, ISEAS Publishing, Kitaab International, Marshall Cavendish, National Gallery Singapore, NUS Press, Star Publishing, and Straits Times Press. Four of these companies and Shing Lee Publishers (which will have its own booth) are featured below.

English Corner Publishing

Fourteen years ago, when managing director Betty Tan decided to launch a publishing company focusing on children’s magazines, skepticism abounded. “Children’s magazines were basically nonexistent in Singapore at that time,” Tan says. “Teachers and parents equated such magazines with manga, which were deemed undesirable. So we spent quite a lot of time and resources to educate them on the merits of educomics.”

Not surprisingly, when Science Adventures, Singapore’s first homegrown magazine, made its debut in 2002, its circulation was low—a thousand copies per month. Seven years later, it hit 6,000, and today it numbers 25,000. “We export about 5,000 copies to Hong Kong per month and about 700 to Malaysia, where the number is expected to pick up now that we have an exclusive distributor working with us,” adds Tan, whose team has also sold the rights to 120 titles to China, and the rights to 30 to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Throughout, the English Corner team has continued to promote comic magazines as a form of science education to schools and the public. “It is best to get them started before first grade or elementary school so that they begin to understand science principles in everyday life, and develop scientific reasoning at a very early stage,” explains Tan.

But the biggest goal, she says, is to cultivate good reading habits early. “Few children are reading storybooks nowadays,” Tan says. “Their short attention span is ideally suited for illustrated short stories, arts and craft, and activities—which are found in abundance in children’s magazines. So the goal is to get children excited about reading and learning, and to pick up a book and start on longer texts.” To add diversity to the range of educational magazines available on the market, Tan started distributing Highlights magazine in 2008, with 300,000 copies sold so far.

Tan cites Singapore’s low birth rate of 1.4 as one of the industry’s biggest challenges. “Fewer children entering the school system equal lower magazine subscription,” Tan says. “The good news is that the number of children reading on tablets is relatively low despite Singapore having the highest penetration of smart devices in the world.”

NUS Press

A good university press, says managing director Peter Schoppert, “is a hard thing to nurture, and we are lucky to build on a history and tradition that goes back nearly 60 years, to the publishing efforts of the University of Malaya, then based in Singapore.” He adds that English-language university presses “complement each other very well, publishing in different disciplines, with different styles and emphases,” noting, “we do compete, especially for authors, but we also share information and ideas.”

NUS Press has seen modest increases in sales in the past three years, “but the market for academic monographs is shrinking,” Schoppert says. “More research libraries have adopted e-preferred policy and will buy e-books rather than print copies. That is a challenge for a few reasons, not least because we have positioned our e-books as supplements to print, and priced them accordingly.”

It can sometimes be a challenge to publish books on certain topics, such as gay rights, in conservative Singapore and Southeast Asia. “Since we publish academic titles on social science and humanities across the region, we do have titles banned in one or more territories from time to time,” Schoppert says. “What we do is to ensure that our books represent viewpoints from within the region, and that our authors are not ‘outside looking in,’ but are personally invested in the region.” Schoppert says important new titles in NUS Press’s 425-book catalogue include Zhuang Wubin’s Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey; Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power, edited by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker; and The Oil Palm Complex, edited by Rob Cramb and John McCarthy.

Translating academic works from Asian languages into English is also of particular interest to Schoppert and his team, “but, again, it is an uphill battle. Translators and editors have to be sensitized to differences not just in language, but also in discourse and rhetorics. While this is very important work to us and to many of our authors, it is often hard to justify, in business terms, given the time spent readjusting arguments for different language worlds.”

But, with initial print runs ranging from 400 to 2,000 copies, Schoppert considers himself—and NUS Press—fortunate that the region’s book trade still supports serious nonfiction and academic/trade crossover titles.

Shing Lee Publishers

The 2014 launch of the U.K. edition of the Maths—No Problem textbooks was a watershed moment for Shing Lee Publishers. “It opened the door for similar collaborations with publishers around the world,” says CEO Peh Shing Woei. “The timing was great as the local educational market has not been growing due to the low birthrate,” he adds. “We had to look beyond the Singapore shores for future expansion.” (This primary school math series has since been licensed to publishers in the Philippines and Sweden, with the Spanish edition due out soon.)

Shing Lee’s primary and secondary math series—its most popular products—have been adopted by educators in 40 countries, including Australia, Germany, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Taiwan, and the U.S. Peh and his team have licensed the secondary school series, which is approved by Singapore’s Ministry of Education since 1979, to Italy, and are now in the process of completing the U.K. edition. “As for the U.S., our current K–10 series is Common Core–compliant, while grades 11 and 12 titles are in the developmental process.”

Peh recalls his surprise and elation when, in 2009, President Barack Obama acknowledged the effectiveness of Singapore math, and pointed out how Singapore students outperform their U.S. peers in the 13-to-14-year-old age group. “It threw the focus on math series like ours, and it coincided with a time when overseas teachers were starting to look for new content and resources for use in the classroom,” Peh says.

Today, the 81-year-old company, which started as a humble comics bookshop operated by Peh’s grandfather, is a major player. “We have moved beyond our specialty, which is math, to offer both textbooks and supplementary materials for English and Chinese languages, science, literature, geography, and history,” adds Peh, whose team also offers 10-year examination series with step-by-step solutions. “Products aside, we also offer professional development courses for teachers to help them with the latest teaching trends and pedagogies. Our principal trainer, Dr. Yeap Ban Har, is one of the world’s leading experts in professional development for teachers in Singapore math.”

Star Publishing

With seven series of its textbooks approved by Singapore’s Ministry of Education, Star Publishing has effectively dominated over one-third of the primary school market, as well as over two-thirds of the secondary school math segment. “Given the above market strengths, we started looking into overseas expansion opportunities two years ago,” says executive chairman and managing director Steve Seow. “Since then, we have published math programs for Brunei and the U.S. This year, the Ministry of Education in Colombia has approved the Spanish edition of our primary math for use in its schools.” He adds that the South African edition of the Targeting Mathematics series will be published this November.

Singapore, says Seow, is one of the few Asian countries to use English throughout its education system. “With the growing number of international schools using English as the medium of instruction in Asia, our textbooks are ready to be adopted or used by these schools. Within the region itself, the business potential is immense.”

Seow has over 40 years of experience in educational publishing, having turned a small bookshop into the publicly listed company Pan Pacific before its merger with SNP Corporation in 2000. His two children later started anew with Star Publishing, launching their first textbook series in 2005. In November 2014, Seow took on the role of managing director, and for now he is focused on strengthening the company’s educational offerings and strategizing for the longer term. “Nothing beats sharing our proven textbook program with a global audience, and playing a role in mathematical thinking and development for the next generation,” he says.

World Scientific

In the past 35 years, World Scientific, the largest international scientific publisher in Asia, has grown from a tiny five-person office to a publishing group with nine overseas offices and a 10,000-title catalogue, 70% of which is available digitally. Its best-known series remains English editions of Nobel lectures from 1901 to 2010. Its newest office, in Munich, is focused on selling rights and translating titles into German.

Two years ago, the company created two new imprints. WS Education offers textbooks and supplementary titles, and WS Professional—with upcoming titles such as Lee Siang Tai’s Cities of Love: Roadmap for Sustaining Future Cities, and Jochen Wirtz’s Winning in Service Markets—is for nonresearch and practitioner-based publications.

“In the STM space, which is our forte, there is always something newly discovered in physical sciences and biomedicine, largely due to the immense R&D injections in China, Korea, Singapore, and other parts of Southeast Asia,” says managing director Max Phua. “This has contributed to a highly positive research culture.” Phua is looking forward to continuing his company’s growth to achieve an annual publishing program of 1,000 books and 200 journals, up from the current 600 and 130, respectively. Recent bestsellers from the catalogue include World Scientific Handbook of Global Health Economics and Public Policy, 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing, and Discovery of the Higgs Boson.

Depressed library budget in some countries, and piracy of online study guides and textbooks, adds Phua, are some of the major issues facing the STM and educational book segments. “It will take concerted efforts from everybody—private, public, and governments—to provide the solutions,” he says.

In the meantime, Phua aims to “continue publishing top-quality content in all formats” to further strengthen World Scientific’s presence across, and outside of, Asia. “We see ourselves as a bridge between authors and readers, educators and students, the East and the West,” he says.

PW would like to thank the National Arts Council of Singapore and the Singapore Book Publishers Association for supporting our efforts and making this report possible.

Return to the main feature.