This book is a sequel to Neil Humphreys’ previous book on Singapore, Scribbles from an Little Island. Humphreys had lived in Singapore for ten years before leaving for Australia. He wrote his first book soon after he had arrived in Singapore, and this third book, and also his last, was written just before he left the country. I must say I enjoyed much of the book, laughed throughout the entire book at all his satires of Singapore society, was impressed by his knowledge of the little trivias and his efforts to trample on every single road and track down every hidden mystery most Singaporeans could never be bothered to figure out. This book gave me a fresh new perspective on how Singapore can be viewed, and helped me break out of the enclosed mindset of which we have been taught or brainwashed to look at. It also made me appreciate the little things, good and bad, which we tend to overlook being citizens of the country. We take the good things for granted, and as for the bad things, we just thought them of weeds of the society, complained all day long about it but never take the initiative to pluck them out, let alone look at the weeds from a new perspective.
In Singapore, most people are destined to their fate and do not strive hard to achieve something extraordinary or different from others. We must have gotten tired hearing about the social conformity and piles of social stigmas in Japanese society, but the two phrases are so rarely mentioned in Singapore, as if they do not seem to even exist in Singapore’s dictionaries. Is that really true, though? Look around yourselves, and look at yourself. How much different are you from the rest? In terms of clothes, appearances, what you are doing, what you have been doing for the past ten years, and what you will be doing for the next five years. Perhaps it is only fair to say that each country has its own set of social rules and stigmas as guidelines to our lives. We are strongly influenced by our own cultures. What Humphreys has managed to do in this book is to draw out these seemingly invisible social rules that have governed the ways we have lived our lives, yet we have never realized them.
As it is in many countries, there are many aspects of the society that are generally seen as the “norm” within the community, but once taken out of context, it becomes a laughing stock beyond cultural boundaries, or a cultural mystery that attracts anthropological detectives, or maybe a cultural antique that fits in any museum. The language we speak is often a talking point by foreigners, but his juxtaposition with English in his country (or maybe the more widely-recognized as Standard English) is just amusing.
The intricacies of Singlish were as confusing as they were entertaining. I was alarmed by how comfortable local men were discussing their reproductive organ. I can vividly recall David saying, “That guy likes to talk cock.”… And I thought Singapore was a conservative society. Growing up in England, friends would discuss their erratic bowel movements before they would ever tackle the subject of their tackle. But everyone “talks cock” in Singapore now.
The libraries in Singapore are havens for muggers (a jargon probably only used in Singapore to refer to someone who studies a lot). Where else in the world can we find so many public libraries always ready to serve these muggers? And where else in the world are children and students provided with so much access to free resources and books, yet most people do not use them. Libraries are places for us to mug, not read books. Well, I have no right to say this. I used to be one of those.
I wonder if anyone has ever even paid attention to the graffiti in Singapore. Singapore is a clean country (at certain places) but it is not free from litter nor graffiti. Humphreys brought out several examples of lame graffiti and graffiti with horrendous grammatical and spelling mistakes. Perhaps this is what makes Singaporean graffiti more influential. It not only vandalizes public property; it vandalizes the English language as well. If we could correct all the English in the graffiti, it might be a good way to educate people!
Who can deny that Singapore is ever-changing? The last time I went back to Singapore, the whole city had transformed. Even the lobby of my house had been renovated. Humphreys described how he observed the evolution of Sentosa. In 2004, Sentosa was nothing more than a glorified building site, with the Merlion offering panoramic views of half-naked Indian construction workers hanging out their washing. Indeed, my favourite attraction, the water-based theme park Fantasy Island, had been transformed into a car park. So many attractions were being closed and new ones opened that it was difficult to keep up. But Singapore can rebuild an entire island quicker than Londoners can rebuild Wembley Stadium and I was eager to see Sentosa’s progress and find out why over five million people were still flocking to the incomplete resort every year.
Needless to say, if you have lived in Singapore for ten years, you will never be spared from army talk. Every man has gone through national service in Singapore and it is inevitable that when you are surrounded by men, and you have run out of topics to talk about, reminisces about army will naturally surface. What Humphreys took note about army talk is rather interesting. Please pardon the vulgarities in the following quotes.
National Servicemen are all fluent in bizarre Hokkien and Singlish phrases that mean nothing to anyone else. Approach a Singaporean woman and say “fuck spider” and she almost certainly will not clean your rifle. In the army, however, the spider refers to the dirt in a rifle during an inspection. Then there is the bizarrely sexual Hokkien rebuke often used by a superior officer to berate an idle subordinate. He might say something like, “Recruit, I told you to make your bed, but you just kiao kah yo lum par”. For non-National Servicemen, kiao kah yo lum par roughly translates into “raise your leg and wiggle your balls”. Now, I find it a mite peculiar that an officer orders a soldier to jiggle his genitals, but there you go…It is Army Speak. If you do not know the language, you can go “fuck spider”.
Chatting about politics in other countries is common at coffee tables, but negative talk about local politics is almost a taboo. As Humphreys interestingly pointed out, Singaporeans are certainly a funny lot when it comes to picking their protests. In previous general elections in my Bishan-Toa Payoh constituency, no opposition candidates have stood against the PAP incumbents, which meant a walkover, so voters were denied the chance to troop down to the ballot box. But there were no organised complaints nor protests. Threaten to close the island’s only hot spring, on the other hand, and the petitions come out. But in the build-up to the election, the populace was up in arms over a more pressing issue- the price of a cup of coffee had gone up 10 cents… The message came through loud and clear. Singaporeans will accept a one-party state, but do not take away their hot spring and never mess with their coffee.
Last but not least, I was most impressed when he made the conscientious effort to check out the meanings and origins behind every road, building and historical site. Being a country populated by people of various backgrounds and tongues, it is not rare to see road names in various languages and dialects, but we just take them as names, with zero consideration of where it came from. Also, sometimes the way we think is restrained by our history textbooks that we believe that any facts that come outside the history textbooks are considered out of syllabus and therefore not worth knowing.
Incidentally, have you ever thought of the origins and meanings behind Bukit Timah, Sentosa (Pulau Blakang Mati), Toa Payoh, Orchard Road & Scotts Road, Kampong Glam, Geylang or why Sengkang is filled with place names such as Compassvale and Rivervale? Humphreys had managed to solve all these mysteries that are obviously out of syllabus and so we do not need to know for our tests.