Singapore

BooksActually founder under fire over misconduct claims

Ex-wife of local bookstore owner Kenny Leck tells of his past relationships with young female employees

For nearly 16 years, iconic independent bookstore BooksActually has been held up as one of the pillars of Singapore's literary community.

But owner Kenny Leck, 43, is stepping back from sole ownership of the store and its publishing arm, Math Paper Press, after digital news site Rice Media published an explosive expose last Saturday about his past relationships with young female employees.

Writer and artist Charmaine Poh interviewed his former wife Renee Ting, a former employee who was in a relationship with him for six years, as well as former staff, one of whom said he made romantic advances to her while married to Ms Ting.

The former employees, who were mostly in their 20s when they worked at the store, described a workplace where they were paid little and sometimes late - Ms Ting stopped drawing a salary while she was dating Mr Leck and lived in the store.

They said they worked long hours without designated breaks and feared reprisals if they spoke up.

In a Facebook post yesterday evening, Mr Leck apologised to all those he had caused pain to and admitted to his personal failings before mid-2019.

"These failings have caused immense pain to specific ex- employees," he wrote.

"It was also a time of personal trauma when I had made mistakes in relation to my marriage to Renee."

He said the divorce was properly initiated, a settlement drafted and he continues to make restitution to Ms Ting.

"There have been allegations, and inferences, that remain totally untrue," he added.

"There will be a time when I will be ready to speak to each in detail publicly, but now is not that time."

He said the current team of five will be the new owners of BooksActually and he will be removed from all decision-making processes with this change.

The piece has rocked the local literary scene, with many calling for accountability from one of the bastions of the book industry here.

In a statement posted on Facebook yesterday, five members of the current BooksActually team wrote that Mr Leck will be relinquishing sole ownership of BooksActually and Math Paper Press, and transfer collective ownership of both entities to the team.

Since 2019, they said, BooksActually has put in place welfare practices including "being paid on time, having one-hour lunch breaks and strictly regular working hours".

"We understand that in the early years of BooksActually, our past employees did not work in a safe and professional workplace environment...

"We will continue to improve our staff welfare and our HR practices. More importantly, we will strengthen anti-harassment policies to ensure that present and future employees are valued and protected."

When contacted, the employees declined to be named.

According to the Rice article, Ms Ting was 19 in 2011 when she began working for Mr Leck and his former girlfriend Karen Wai, with whom he founded BooksActually.

Mr Leck was in another relationship after breaking up with Ms Wai but he ended that and started dating Ms Ting. They got married in October 2016 and divorced in early 2017.

The article said Mr Leck had made advances to another employee, 22, referred to by the pseudonym Mel, whom he told that he would "phase Renee out" for her over the next two years.

Both Ms Ting and Mel left the store subsequently.

ST contacted Ms Ting, who has not responded.

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 let go when Mr Leck told her he was closing the marketing department.

She said she was hurt to have read online comments from writers that they had heard rumours about the allegations or found them unsurprising.

DEGREE

"You knew, and some of you knew to a greater degree than others, but no one did anything about it because you could benefit from this system," she said.

"The thing about the arts scene is that it is small, and you don't have a lot of places to go if you want to get published in Singapore."

BooksActually, with its championing of local writers, is much beloved as an indie institution. Many mourned when it closed its brick-and-mortar store in Tiong Bahru last year, because of the pandemic, to move online.

It has been closely affiliated with literary groups such as the charity Sing Lit Station and the movement #BuySingLit - which Mr Leck previously helmed as co-chair - and has served as the festival bookstore for the Singapore Writers Festival.

The BuySingLit committee said yesterday it "stands firmly against any behaviour that exploits workers in business practices of any nature".

It said Mr Leck stepped down from co-chair of the committee in 2019 and that BooksActually is not involved in any upcoming #BuySingLit activities.

Employment