Some paths make more twists and turns than others. Former Normal stream student, Kenny Leck, now owner and publisher of BooksActually, looks back on his long, difficult and illuminating life journey.
Once a secret society member, Kenny Leck has come a long way from his troublemaking days. With O-levels as his highest qualification under his belt, the Nanyang Polytechnic dropout has pursued one passion doggedly from childhood, a first love that is also his bread and butter: books.
Obsessed with books
A former Normal stream student of Guangyang Secondary, Kenny was once so notorious his principal wanted to kick him out of school. But, he was also a child who was obsessed with reading and books. In fact, he scored so well in his Sec 5 prelims English test his marks beat the two Express stream classes of that level. This was an achievement which gave him great satisfaction.
“Being in the Normal stream in those days in my school, I didn’t have the option to study literature, which I wanted. It was available only for the Express stream. I’ve always been good in English, like I never had to study for it; not so much for Chinese or Math. At home, my family watched documentaries, Fawlty Towers, Mind Your Language.
I was fortunate to have an English teacher, Ms Lim Soh Khim, also the school’s English HOD then, who did ‘creative timetabling’, by mixing students from both Express and Normal streams for her lessons. This let me learn the subject on an equal par with the other students, which helped to improve my marks.”
Time to grow up
Having done well in his N-levels and O-level prelims, he was shocked to see his high marks drop for his actual O-Level exams. It was during this time his father suffered from health problems. This changed his mindset; he started to grow up.
“I’ve always had a sense about aesthetics. I wanted to study at NAFA. But when I was in Sec 5, my father, who was the sole breadwinner, became very sick. Then, my brother was in NS while my mother was a housewife, so I decided to study something practical that would get me a good job after completing my studies. For that reason, I chose Accounting and Taxation at Nanyang Poly.”
Pursuing his dream course
Kenny, while coping well in his current course, was bored. His father saw this and advised him to do something he liked; which Kenny did. Submitting his portfolio to NAFA gained him a spot at the arts college for his dream course: visual communication. Against everyone’s well-intended advice, Kenny decided to drop out from NYP seven months away from finishing his diploma so he could enter NAFA at the start of the new academic year. But this was not to be.
“My father passed away, and a year later, my mom got very sick and she passed away too. It was a tough time for me. I was young and had to settle both my parents’ funerals.
For my studies at NYP, my NS enlistment was already deferred so I couldn’t defer further to study at NAFA. I had to enlist with the army.”
Shifting his priorities
Following two years at national service, Kenny’s priorities shifted. Pushing NAFA to the back of his mind, he started working, firstly at Borders bookstore for over two years and, later, selling books at book fairs as an independent bookseller. After, he found a business partner and started BooksActually, where he dedicated all his energies to it.
“My late mother left me a 3-room HDB flat. BooksActually had started with one store then rapidly expanded to two in the Ann Siang Street area, which made cash flow tight. I made the decision to sell the flat and pump the money into the business. Right now, we are back to running one bookstore at Yong Siak Street, where we have been for the last 8 years.”
For those not in the know, the bookstore has started a publishing arm, Math Paper Press, which has been championing Singaporean literature since its inception. Its booklist includes Singapore Literature Prize and children’s books, translations and bestselling poetry collections from both local and foreign writers.
Not all roads are straight
Kenny contemplates how far he had come since his adolescence. “Everybody has a different journey. Some people have a longer journey to walk towards the end – they have to go round more bends; while others have a much straighter route. That’s how life is, even if you feel like you have to repeat again.
“If you truly believe in the things you want to do, then make the change, just do it. That’s what life is supposed to be. Because it’s not like you know when you’re going to live or die, right? Nothing should discount you even if you take a longer route.”
Make an impact in others’ lives
Known among his friends for his “never-not-working” motto, Kenny is a workaholic who clocks insane hours as an entrepreneur and publisher, and is a stalwart supporter of Singapore’s literary ecosystem. Profits at BooksActually, while good, are not great; and naysayers are louder than the literary grassroots community he has spawned. Despite the tricky publishing scene here, he continues to publish and sell books.
“What matters to me most in life is not monetary, not tangible. It’s how we impact other people’s lives. Whether it’s a big or small effort, always have some sort of impact, especially on those who are outsiders, the disenfranchised.”
We’re all work-in-progress
The best schooling Kenny has received so far has been from the school of hard knocks. But he has nothing against those who want to study more.
“Do a degree if that gives you satisfaction. There’s nothing wrong with that. But having a degree shouldn’t be the end all to everything. It’s not a guarantee that you are good at everything. If you don’t have life skills, then you would be a failure. So what if you have a degree if you can’t take care of yourself? Your parents can’t be around forever to take care of you.”
For youths struggling today, Kenny leaves these parting words. “My mom has a very good life advice when she was around. She said, ‘It’s never the end’. She is right. This applies to whether you’re studying or in working life. We are all a work-in-progress.”