Rice Media’s expose on BooksActually reveals a skein of rot running through the SingLit scene. Touted as Singapore’s premier independent bookstore, BooksActually was a cornerstone of Singapore literature. Its co-founder Kenny Leck is accused of harassment and toxic behaviour. While Leck claimed that there are allegations and inferences ‘that remain totally untrue’, he has apologised to everyone he ’caused pain to’. In addition, he has handed over full legal ownership of BooksActually to its current team of five and has been removed from all decision-making processes.
Cheryl Tan, one of the women who spoke to Rice Media, recounted her experiences in greater detail on Facebook. She spoke of how she was afraid of Leck, and of the psychological trauma she carried from her childhood. In particular, she said this:
I was afraid for a long time. Some of us especially were looking for careers in the arts scene, a very small scene. I’ve always considered theatre my home, and I love fine art, but BA had connections in every area of the wider arts scene beyond the SingLit community. I was 19 at the time and studying Musical Theatre in Lasalle. This was my first job. Offending anyone at all would mean nowhere else to go.
What hurts the most right now is that I realise some of you knew [about Leck’s behaviour].
But the ones in the SingLit scene who did know, you laughed. You laughed because you benefited from this system, and you were successful and safe and kept relevant. I understand why. Being in such a competitive and small industry has always been a struggle. But then you say this wasn’t surprising. And this hurts because it makes it worse. If you’re not surprised then you knew, personally it makes it so much worse reading your comments now because that means so many people saw us. And everyone just stood by. Why did everyone just stand there? We really needed you.
Md Suhaile added this on Facebook:
On RICE media’s article on Kenny Leck, of BooksActually, I think there are a few issues that should be untangled:
(1) Leck’s personal indiscretions/marriage problems. (2) Leck as employer that allegedly harasses staff and exploits their labour.
(3) The Singlit scene. It is diverse. Some of whom – not all – are strong/close supporters of Leck and/or BooksActually. To some, the circle around Leck also seems to include proponents of cancel culture/accountability culture (choose your term, I’m not passing judgement here, merely observing). They seem to be generally ok with going after people for problematic views, let alone actions, and generally do not accept the difference between points (1) and (2). Also, they are perceived to be quite happy to lump an entire group as unilaterally responsible, which would fall under point (3), and happy to push for a boycott.
I’d heard whispers surrounding Leck a few years ago, but I had no evidence and no idea the rot ran so deep. Without proof, without names, all I could do was to warn people away from BooksActually. But as Tan and Md Suhaile have intimated, the problem does not end with Leck.
I have heard more rumours too. Rumours of how certain high-profile artistes exercise effective control over the arts and culture scenes in Singapore. Without their approval, a creator’s career will not go anywhere.
In SingLit circles, they are household names. They are among the ‘strong/close supporters of Leck’ mentioned above. They are the ones who knew, and laughed.
Without evidence, I cannot name them. I will say, however, that people who hang around SingLit circles can quickly connect the dots between what I said, what Md Suhaile said, and what Tan said.
In light of these revelations, there are three lessons that can be learned from this episode.
Being an arts professional in Singapore is extraordinarily challenging. The audience is tiny. The industry is competitive. Run afoul of the government and it will censor you into oblivion. And that’s not counting the abusers and enablers.
In such a challenging environment, the serious professional must strive to become uncancellable.
I hold the dubious distinction of being one of the most hated writers in Singapore. Every few years, the mob tries to cancel me. Every single time, they failed. The reason is simple: I do not allow others to have skin in my game.
I own my website. I cross-post on Hive, a blockchain-based blogging platform that is natively resistant to censorship. I operate my own mailing list. Instead working with large presses, I prefer to publish on Amazon, Smashwords and Draft2Digital. I secure funding not from government grants, but directly from fans and readers.
Within the writing world, there was a time when publishers held all the power. That time has passed. With the coming of print on demand, self-publishing, and other new technologies, the situation has inverted.
Writers do not need publishers, agents and bookstores.
Publishers, agents and bookstores need writers.
They are reliant entirely on having product to sell. If writers do not give them products, then they will go out of business. With Amazon and other self-publishing platforms offering far more generous terms and greater distribution than traditional publishers, it is small wonder that indie authorship is booming while legacy publishing is flagging.
In my case, I don’t have to worry about offending anyone in power in the SingLit space, because they have no power over me.
If you find yourself in a similar position, seek to remove others’ skin in your game. Develop alternative streams of income. Identify other methods to fund, publish and market your creative works. For writers, publishing houses are now merely one option of many. Government grants are not the be-all and end-all of funding. Exercise your creativity, do your research, and ensure no one is able to cancel you.
Even if you are an employee in the arts industry without aspirations of becoming an artist yourself, there are still other things you can do. You can pursue side hustles. You can make wise investments. You can upgrade your skills. In so doing, you give yourself the freedom to switch to another employer, to go into business for yourself, or even to work only if you wish to.
When others hold no power over you, you become free.
It Takes A Community
Abusers don’t work alone. As with the case of Kenny Leck, they may have a community of enablers to support them.
The abuser-enabler relationship is based on mutual support. The enabler turns a blind eye to the abuser, or actively assists with harassment. In turn, the abuser showers the enabler with benefits. These were the people Tan referred, the ones who knew about Leck and did nothing.
This is an endemic problem. In my own field of science fiction and fantasy, sexual abuse is far more common than reported—and is actively covered up. In her autobiography The Last Closet, Moira Greyland shares her experience of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her parents. She also reports how the fandom helped to hide these crimes. Castalia House’s Safe Space as Rape Room series goes into even deeper detail, exposing other celebrity authors as predators—and those who enable them.
The BooksActually controversy does not end with Kenny Leck. It has only begun. The ones who knew and laughed, the ones who supported Kenny Leck, the ones who benefited from his patronage and helped to cover his crimes, they must be held accountable too.
Leck’s behaviour match those of self-professed male feminists who turn out to be predators. Such people publicly declare their support for liberal values, the better to attract the idealistic and the naive. Once they choose their prey, they slowly get closer, then unmask themselves and become full-blown creeps and monsters.
The high-profile artistes I mention above follow many of the same patterns of behaviour. Like Leck, they signal virtue and support for liberal values. Like Leck, they have ensconced themselves in positions of power within the community. Like Leck, they exercise a great degree of control over the careers of budding artistes.
I have also heard that they have killed creative works for the high crime of disagreeing with their politics.
The abusers and the enablers must be held accountable. The sun must shine on every dark corner in SingLit and expose this feast of wriggling maggots.
On the flip side, it also takes a community to support an artist.
Nothing good can come from staying in a community that does not serve you. Though my works are technically SingLit, I have maintained my distance from the community since the start of my professional career. I have found, and contribute to, communities that serve and empower their members. PulpRev, Superversive, and other such groups are ready to support like-minded indie authors in their professional and personal pursuits. Without them, I could not have gone as far as I have.
Cut out those who enable abusers from your life, and welcome those who empower you. This is the way to health, happiness and success.
Speaking up against an abuser in a position of power can be frightening, even dangerous. Tan was afraid for her future career prospects. Other staff and writers also report having negative experiences with Leck. With the power he wielded over people, it’s a small wonder that his excesses continued for so long.
However, if you do nothing, nothing changes.
The abuse continues. The abuser continues to harm others. The enablers continue to profit and get away with it—and may themselves become abusers too.
The victim is in the most vulnerable position—and also in the best position to end the cycle of abuse.
Who holds the most evidence of abuse? The victim. Whose testimony is most reliable? The victim’s. Who has the power to end it? The victim.
Leck finally apologised and stepped down after the women he’d harassed spoke up against him. In the same fashion, every abuser held to account for his crimes met his downfall at the hands of those he had abused. The testimony of the victim is critical to every case made against every abuser.
Speaking up can be an extremely difficult process. Facing one’s traumas and fears is not for the unprepared. But this is also necessary, if you want to end the suffering and prevent others from being harmed. There are many resources available to assist victims in overcoming trauma and attaining justice. Know that if you have suffered at the hands of another, you are not alone. Seek out help, and it will be given. Help is out there. All you need do is reach out.
Of course, you should be intelligent about this process. Whenever there is a reasonable expectation of retaliation, you should first defend yourself. Eliminate the abuser’s skin in your game as far as possible. Seek out a supportive community. Face your fears and trauma. Then deliver your testimony and put an end to the suffering once and for all.
The Tip of the Iceberg
As a man who walked away from SingLit, all I can do is bring an outsider’s perspective to this affair. My books guarantee that I will remain an outsider. They simply aren’t literary or Singaporean enough, not in the eyes of the SingLit insiders. Is it due to people like Leck and his circle of enablers? Perhaps, but I’m not going to speculate any further. What I do know is this:
Abusers seek out positions of power, and use that power to exercise control over victims and create a patronage network of enablers. The enablers feed the abusers and support them to varying degrees. They seek to take away power from their victims. But in reclaiming that power, in finding their own support network and holding the abusers and enablers to account, the victims become free.
I fear the Kenny Leck affair is but the tip of the iceberg. Those who have supported him, those who style themselves liberals and social justice warriors, they have to be held to account. As do all other abusers and their enablers.
They have sown the wind. Now let them reap the whirlwind.
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