by Lye Han Jun
This is the latest installment in our collaboration with MediaCorp’s ilovebooks.com. Amid the buzz about the National Conversation, Lye Han Jun examines the perspective of (gulps!) a foreigner: columnist Neil Humphrey.
For his latest offering, Return to a Sexy Island, Neil Humphreys went on a tour of “new Singapore’, consisting of destinations that were newly built or had undergone vast transformations over the past five years. These include Resorts World Sentosa, Biopolis, Marina Bay Sands and Aljunied GRC, just to name a few. He even tries to retrace Mas Selamat’s escape route through the Sarimbun mangroves. The product is a humourous travelogue of short, pithy chapters chronicling one excursion each.
Humphreys’ hometown features a bit in this book as well, and the comparisons make me realise how much of our clockwork efficiency we tend to take for granted. However, while he may harbor admiration for our architectural marvels and all the miscellaneous trappings of economic success, he remains clearheaded and is able to provide an interesting commentary on the price of our growth in the past few decades. Humphreys enjoys an particularly interesting vantage point on the trajectory of Singapore’s development: even though he is a foreigner, he is by no means a stranger to our island, and feels himself as entitled to nostalgia about the old days as an ah pek in a coffeeshop. His unique perspective and insights are informed by a trove of memories of the Singapore of bygone days that our generation is not privy to, and his book provides a way for us to access this store.
The picture of Singapore that emerges from within its pages is complex – it can disgust you with its ostentatiousness, self-consciousness and vanity in one chapter and make you puff out your chest to hold a red passport in the next. We may be all too familiar with the concerns of the book – globalization, conservation of heritage, sustainable development – but they are presented here in a candid manner that provokes readers to genuinely care for and think about them.
Apart from social issues, he also brings us around areas of Singapore that we are unfamiliar with, or lets us view familiar places in new light. I found the chapter on the MINT (Moment of Imagination and Nostalgia with Toys) Museum and Saint Jack, an M18 Hollywood film about a pimp (yes, that’s right – a pimp) in Singapore that was shot on location thirty years ago, particularly fascinating because it seemed so. Check out the book to find out more for yourself.
Here’s a minor caveat, though – true appreciation of the writing style in this book requires a degree of familiarity with the Western pop culture canon. This is because Humphreys has a habit of writing about things in terms of other things: Fusionopolis is “part Blade Runner, part Minority Report, part Conquest of the Planet of the Apes…and even part Robo Cop”, and the Skypark atop Marina Bay Sands is “Kubrickian”. The latter description especially gave me pause – did he mean Kubrickian as in scary twins (The Shining), or as in outer space exploration (2001: A Space Odyssey)? After Googling a bit I came to the conclusion that he probably meant Kubrick’s angular visual style of cinematography, but I’m still not entirely sure how that applies in this context. Be prepared to do a bit of research to fully understand all the allusions he makes (who on earth is Simon Templar?).
Nevertheless, Return to a Sexy Island is a meaningful reflection on where we’ve been, where we intend to go next and where we might end up instead, jauntily presented with the self-deprecating humour and saracasm that is the hallmark of the English, making it a lot more engaging than your average National Education lesson. It is an honest documentation of our growing pains as a nation and paints a frank picture of Singapore, warts and all. A worthwhile read for young Singaporeans like us to read and reconnect to the motherland.
The writer’s e-book was sponsored by Mediacorp Interactive. To purchase the e-book and read other reviews (including an exclusive interview with the author), please click here. As part of this collaboration, all RI staff and students are eligible for an exclusive 10% discount from November 26 to December 9. Simply key in the promo code (SGMMCI120251RIR) at the checkout by filling in the blank, and click APPLY.