SINGAPORE – For nearly 16 years, the legendary independent bookstore BooksActually has been one of the pillars of Singapore’s literary community.
However, 43-year-old owner Kenny Leck is stepping down from sole ownership of the store and its Math Paper Press publishing arm after digital news site Rice Media published an explosive reveal on Saturday (Sept. 25) about his past relationships with young female employees.
Writer and artist Charmaine Poh interviewed Mr. Luck’s ex-wife Renee Ting, a former employee who had been in a relationship with him for six years, as well as other former associates, one of whom said he made romantic advances to her when he was with Mrs. Ting was married.
The former employees, who were mostly in their mid-twenties when they worked in the store, described a job where they were paid little and sometimes too late – Ms. Ting stopped getting her salary while she was with Mr. Leck and lived in the Load. They also said they worked long hours with no set breaks and feared reprisal if they spoke up.
Mr. Leck told The Straits Times that the allegations were untrue and that he and his partner, with whom he has been in a relationship for three years, refused to speak up.
The play rocked the local literary scene, with many internet users demanding accountability from one of the bastions of the book industry here.
In a statement posted on Facebook on Sunday morning, five members of the current BooksActually team – known as âBook Elvesâ – wrote: âBooksActually is a unit and an ecosystem larger than any individual. To this end, Kenny becomes the sole property of. give up BooksActually and Math Paper Press and transfer joint ownership of both companies to the team. “
They added that BooksActually has been adopting social practices since 2019, including “on-time pay, hour-long lunch breaks and strictly regulated working hours.”
âWe understand that our former employees did not work in a safe and professional environment in the early years of BooksActually. We recognize the efforts and sacrifices of all former bookstore employees and we are deeply saddened to learn more about their experiences.
“We will continue to improve employee well-being and human resource practices. More importantly, we strengthen harassment policies to ensure current and future employees are valued and protected.”
When contacted, the employees declined to be named and said that further details of the transfer of ownership would be disclosed.
Ms. Ting was 19 when she started working for Mr. Leck and his ex-girlfriend Karen Wai in 2011, with whom he founded BooksActually.
Mr. Leck was in another relationship after breaking up with Ms. Wai, but ended the relationship and started dating Ms. Ting. They married in October 2016 and divorced in early 2017.
According to Rice’s article, Mr. Leck had made advances to another employee, 22, under the pseudonym Mel, whom he said he would “phased out” Renee for her for the next two years.
Both Ms. Ting and Mel then left the shop.
ST contacted Ms. Ting who did not respond.
Artist Cheryl Charli Tan, 23, who worked in marketing at BooksActually from August 2017 to January 2019, told ST that payments were often delayed. At one point, she said she was owed about $ 2,000 for six months. She was fired when Mr. Leck told her he was going to close the marketing department.
She said she was hurt reading online comments from authors who heard rumors about the allegations or who didn’t think they were surprising. âYou knew, and some of you knew better than others, but nobody did anything about it because you benefited from this system.
âThe special thing about the art scene is that it is small and you don’t have many places to go if you want to publish in Singapore. There are only a few publishers you can turn to. “
BooksActually is hugely popular as an indie institution with its cats and dedication to local writers. Many mourned when it closed its brick and mortar store in Tiong Bahru to go online during the pandemic last year.
It is closely associated with literary groups such as the Sing Lit Station charity and the #BuySingLit movement – which Mr Leck previously co-chaired – and also served as the festival bookstore for the Singapore Writers Festival.
The BuySingLit committee said in a statement that it âstands firmly against any conduct that exploits workers in any business practiceâ.
âWe take all allegations very seriously and do not condone inappropriate behavior or advocate similar behavior in the works we create, publish and distribute. We encourage people to seek help when working in an unsafe environment.
âOur hearts go out to the ex-staff who have spoken out, and we hope they find the support and healing they need. We will not allow the actions of any one to interfere with the good works of the literary community for which we are here to support and serve them. “
It added that Mr. Leck stepped down from the co-chair of the committee in 2019 and that BooksActually is not involved in the upcoming #BuySingLit activities.
Math Paper Press has published numerous works by local authors over the years, including Singapore Prize-winning poets Joshua Ip and Cyril Wong, and Alvin Pang’s bestseller What Gives Us Our Names.
Pang made it clear that he did not receive any royalties on âWhat Gives Us Our Namesâ and that all proceeds went to the store.
ST contacted 18 local authors, 14 of whom were published by Math Paper Press. Most did not respond or declined to comment on the matter when they knew about the alleged conduct or would continue to support BooksActually.
Cartoonist Sonny Liew recalled being on Facebook in 2018 when he questioned the lack of transparency in BooksActually’s fundraising efforts to buy its own retail space.
“The response from some was that they felt BooksActually were facing many challenges and so they agreed to continue to support and donate however the money was used,” Liew, 47, who is not a writer from Math Paper Press, said ST.
âI thought there was a discrepancy between the usual need for accountability and transparency in financial matters in other contexts and a willingness to let things go in the case of BooksActually.
“In a way, that was fine – everyone has their own preferences – but I was wondering how much of that might be tied to the network of mutual or even vested interests that BooksActually had built around themselves, and with the power of “projected narrative – of David versus Goliath – as the Rice play mentions.”
Poet Gwee Li Sui, 51, who is also not an author of Math Paper Press, called for support for the former employees cited in the Rice article. “I think it’s important to listen objectively to what these women are saying and protect them from backlash,” he told ST.
Writer Alfian Sa’at said on Facebook Sunday that he plans to donate part of his advance from The Invisible Manuscript poetry collection, published by Math Paper Press in 2012, to the women who spoke up. “I do this because it feels terrible to know that this resulted in the staff who stored and sold my books getting paid less because I was paid as a writer.”
In an earlier post earlier that day, he said it was âworrying that some of the women interviewed were afraid to speak up because they believed the person’s claim that he knew many rulers; the arts when he says that. ‘”
Hedwig Anuar Children’s Book Award-winning author Xie Shi Min, 31, said she had previously become suspicious of the store’s work practices when Ms. Ting posted on Facebook that she was not being paid. She stopped patronizing the store and raised her concerns to a few friends, but didn’t dare speak out publicly.
“I didn’t think anyone would believe me because I’m a young writer and so I wouldn’t be taken seriously,” said Xie, who is not a Math Paper Press writer. “It burdens me and I want to show solidarity with these women.”
Many customers are already distancing themselves from a bookstore that they once saw as a haven.
30-year-old marketer Joshua Poh said he was shocked and disappointed and will no longer buy from BooksActually or work with book reviews until Mr. Leck is held accountable.
“As book buyers, we vote with our wallet,” he said.
“It is critical, however, to separate the bookstore from the writers it works with, and I will look to other ways to support local writers and publishers.”