I was scrambling to pick up a book from the shelves in the living room last night, as I needed something to read (or rather fall back on, as an alternative to the Internet) during my Saturday in camp. Rather unfortunately for me, a large proportion of the books in the living room were textbooks or music scores; failing which, they would be non-fictional volumes, either about geopolitics, motivation or finance management. This is unsurprising due to the nature of my parents’ work. I did however, spot a book which I had wanted to read years ago (because of my sister’s “this might be offensive but it’s a good read” introduction), but dismissed as I was still obsessing over (trying to get enough sleep after) computer games at that point. I placed the book somewhat reluctantly in my bag and prepared for a day of the Internet, not knowing that barely 14 hours later, I would have finished the book, thoroughly overwhelmed with thought.
The book was Neil Humphreys’ bestselling Notes from an Even Smaller Island, the title being an ostensible reference to Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, which was written about Britain. I did initially think it would be a book about an expat’s dismissive opinions of Singapore after having had a number of unpleasant experiences in the country, but my sister doesn’t call books good for no reason. This book is instead written in the perspective of an overstaying tourist – one who still compares his roti prata with sandwiches back in England, but who probably has visited more attractions in Singapore than the average Singaporean has. Humphreys does opine profusely about the many (and I would say, plausible but hard to believe) incidents that happen within his relatively short stay here, and many of these accounts are littered with expletives; but every single time, there is an underlying societal issue which Humphreys is attempting to highlight, and his style, though controversial in a conservative society, brings them out superbly.
Indeed, Humphreys accounts are by no means completely negative, if at all irreverent; he constantly reminds us of his respect (and in many instances, awe) of some Singaporeans, from the loud/ foul-mouthed auntie to the over-talkative taxi driver. What I find so impressive in this book is how he has managed to bring out so many thought-provoking issues within a meagre volume of slightly over 200 pages. Some of the things he points out have been at the back of my head for a number of years now (Ugh, must we burn so much paper for the dead, even years after their passing? Is there another way to send them stuff other than by damaging our health and environment?) while others simply have not surfaced before, perhaps due to my upbringing (Hey, reselling Hello Kitty’s for $50 after purchasing them at $10 actually sounds like a great idea, oh damn this guy just said I was kiasu – no wait, maybe I am, after all…).
I particularly like how he described the arts and sports scene in Singapore, though his accounts now are definitely a little backdated now (as is the part about public spitting, which has been outlawed), since we are reveling in the age where foreign talent wins our sports medals and artists go overseas to make a living and get known in Singapore while they’re overseas. The part about choosing a “practical” career over one in arts/ sports has been reverberating in my life the past few months, or even years; I have seen friends who are artistically talented take university courses with little to do with their interests; and also friends who have taken the “alternative” path being labelled as “foolish”. All of these might have been different if societal pressures were angled a little differently in Singapore.
Humphreys does make me feel guilty sometimes (but dude, I had to squeeze into that MRT!) – but after all, this is about the good, the bad, and the ugly in Singapore, and I can’t claim to represent the “good Singaporean” through and through. Many of the stories he describes about Singaporeans make me wonder how people like these can exist in Singapore (I was pretty appalled by the recount of his visit to the US, and as a local, I would never want to partake in a tour if this alienation was to happen to others on the trip), some of them make me wonder what kind of person I am, and others just leave me with the warm fuzzy feeling that’s probably the reason why I didn’t run away from Singapore or something. Equally heartwarming is how he distances himself from high-nosed expatriates here who think lowly of Singaporeans (though I have to say, even I, a frequent Singlish user, mock Singlish, so it’s probably not that bad if expats do), preferring to assimilate into the culture, its education, people and all. I have to say, I was not too happy when I read online that Humphreys had moved to Australia, but I guess he did bid a fond farewell in his third book of the series, Final Notes from a Great Island (though I haven’t read it, but I will).
All in all, this book is quite a humorous read, and I recommend it to anyone who has come to Singapore and wondered about how things go around here.