Neil Humphreys is a writer from Britain who lived in Singapore for ten years before migrating to Australia. He has written three books about Singapore, mainly filled with sarcasm, humour and satire. My brother and friend both recommended me to read his book since I am doing something similar, albeit having lived in the country much less than him, and albeit me having to write it in a language I am not best at. I bought his first book, Notes from an even Smaller Island, on Amazon and the book which was supposed to arrive within 2~3 weeks from England, surprised me at the doorstep after 6 days, as I immediately ripped open the cover and I never ripped my eyes from it since then. Overall, it is a hugely entertaining read, but of course if you are a non-Singaporean reading this book, you probably would not understand half of his jokes and satires- just like how he did not understand the quirks in the Singapore movie made for Singaporeans- Army Daze.
I must applaud his efforts in trying to integrate into the Singaporean society despite having not much intention to stay in Singapore for a long period of time initially. A friend of his recommended to visit Singapore, and to that he agreed, as he bought a book on China to find out which province it was in. I must admit that after reading less than a quarter of this book, I started to appreciate my own country more, and as I reached the midway point, I was cursing myself for not having appreciated Singapore as much as I should have. As I finish reading the book, I felt I had just been enlightened on how I should write my book in order to increase readership and not to bore readers to death.
Indeed, as he said, and as many people would say, we do not realize how fortunate we are until we leave a place or lose something. He made a juxtaposition between his hometown, Dagenham, and Singapore, and he brought out many negative aspects of Singapore- kiasuism embodied in every possible way, kids breaking laws by playing soccer in the void deck, locals staring at him because of his outward appearance, aunties and uncles etc. However, what lies on the other side of the balance is the cold hard reality faced by most countries outside Asia: severe swear language, crimes that surpass the level of mere spitting or littering: robbery, mugging or even murder. In Singapore, when a crime is committed, you can afford to walk out of your apartment to witness what is going on, only because you have faith in the police force that catches the criminal. Even young teenagers in England commit crimes, vandalize, break things and necks; whereas in Singapore, the only thing they could break is the English language. Safety, he says, is one of the things he would not forfeit and so it is one of the big reasons why he loves living in Singapore.
He then described what he liked about hawker centres, taxi drivers, HDB flats and basically the cleanliness and convenience the whole city offers. He does, however, bring up an important point that most Singaporean kids are now pampered since they have only lived in a rapidly-developing economy and they get what they want, and even more. No one in the young generation of Singapore has actually ever experienced any forms of hardship and this could pose as a big problem in future.
He also mentioned important points about the over-emphasis on education and the negligence (be it deliberate or not) on sports and the arts. Let a Singaporean kid and a British kid talk to each other and the Singaporean kid would just shut his mouth. Let them talk about, say the eco-system, and the Singaporean kid would blabber and regurgitate every single word on his textbook and the encyclopedia. That is the problem Singaporean kids face. They no longer talk, they just regurgitate what others have said. Not that it is a totally bad thing, since it helps to gain knowledge in various fields, but do we want a nation full of people who can recite every page on wikipedia and not be able to say what he has done that day?
Then comes the problem of kiasuism, something that might be a little hard to cure. He brought up the story of the whole brouhaha about Hello Kitty and how people who could not wait 3 seconds to get onto the train, actually ended up queuing for 8 hours to get a Hello Kitty, only to sell it on E-Bay at 10 times the price. About how many Singaporean tourists travel and visit places just for the sake of visiting, literally, as they appear at one major tourist spot, say the Grand Canyons, stay there for 3 minutes to take photos, and then cannot wait to get the hell out of it.
He also drew out important points about building the Singaporean identity with the key ingredients being Singlish and the food culture. He initially thought Singlish was totally horrendous but he then slowly discovered the joys of it, and even started to criticize the “Speak Good English Movement”, saying that it is preventing Singaporeans from building a national identity. He, instead, proposes a “Speak Good English When Necessary” Movement. I agree, that whilst Singlish should not be lost totally, it should not be the only tongue Singaporeans speak, for the ability to speak English understandable to people from other countries could be a make-or-break factor for Singapore’s future.
All in all, I enjoyed the whole book and would recommend to any Singaporean who desperately wants to find out what’s so interesting about the tiny red dot south of Malaysia. This book might change your mindset.