Review: Return to a Sexy Island

[vc_row full_width=”” parallax=”” parallax_image=””][vc_column width=”2/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Reviewer: Yeo Han Hwee” font_container=”tag:h2|text_align:left” google_fonts=”font_family:Abril%20Fatface%3Aregular|font_style:400%20regular%3A400%3Anormal”][vc_column_text]It is said that a year is a long time in politics.

If that is true, five years is a lifetime in Singapore.  In 2011, Neil Humphreys, Singapore’s beloved ang moh, returned to the Little Red Dot after living in Geelong, Victoria, Australia. it was an argument with his neighbour about the installation of water tanks (on his own property) that triggered his return.

In that time, Singapore underwent astonishing changes.  So he decided to do a new book and visit locations and sights that did not exist (or had been extensively rebuilt) during his abscence. This would include things like the Marina Barrage, Marina Bay Sands (MBS), Resorts World Sentosa, the Pinnacle @ Duxton etc. Like the previous books in the series, it is a blend of travelogue, commentary, historical write-up, written in a touch-in-cheek, sardonic style. It is a witty, hilarious read.

For example, he goes to the Sands Skypark to see the infinity pool and decides to go for a dip. He is told firmly, but gently, that only hotel guests are allowed to swim there. In the end, he gets them to bend the rules and let him in so that he can see the view. A mere three weeks after that escapade, non-guests are not allowed up there anymore, even to view the swimming pool. So I guess you can blame him for that.

Perhaps it is just me, but I noticed something a little different about this book. I think Humphreys picked up on two things. Firstly, I think he detected a mindset shift among Singaporeans that wasn’t quite apparent when he wrote his previous efforts. A few years back, the government announced plans to exhume Bukit Brown cemetary, one of our most important cultural landmarks, for an 8 lane highway. This ignited a storm of protest. Nature conservationists, heritage conservationists, the descendants of people whose ancestors are buried there took to starting campaigns on social media and other platforms.

In a subsequent interview with The New Paper, Humphreys said,  “During a visit to the Bukit Brown cemetery, I met all these young, keen, enthusiastic volunteers who were trying to preserve a piece of history. They were angry, young people who wanted a stake and a say in their own society. I think that’s wonderful.”

The second thing, which is interrelated to the first, is that locals are gaining an awareness and concern about where Singapore is heading. That by focussing too much on economic progress, we will miss out on a lot of things of great importance. That to attain high productivity and GDP does not mean we have to destroy our own past.

For example, in the MBS chapter, he wonders out loud, “I was struck by the same exact question that occurred to me as  I bluffed my way through the Formula One racetrack. Who, exactly, are the Shoppes for?” He even avoids buying at the 7-Eleven there as he finds the drinks too costly ($2.20 for a Coke Zero).

Elsewhere, he writes, “In Australia, it is possible to locate a solitary tree in an unchanged environment after 30 years. In Singapore, a futuristic metropolis topped with a swimming pool in the clouds can mushroom around Marina Bay in less than five.”

He articulates this train of thought most fully in the Bukit Brown chapter, “New Singaporeans are beginning to look beyond the mere protection of their rice bowl, they are looking… yearning… feeling for something more. Bulldozing parts of Bukit Brown will again offer something less. People need to feel rooted to their country, to maintain an attachment, to want to stay… They need those historical markers, the physical ties that bind them to their ancestors and their nation’s past.” In that chapter especially, Humphreys captures our country still grappling between the economic rewards of progress and preserving our culture and heritage.

As I write this is, it is just about a week after the General Election 2015, and a month after National Day. After reading “Return To A Sexy Island” I realise that we are a country buffeted by by the tradewinds of globalization and macroeconomic forces. We are a melting pot of Indian, Chinese and Malay cultures. We, as a young nation, are still struggling to come to terms with a post colonial hangover.

But we are all Singaporeans.

And one of the surest ways to give ourselves a unifying identity is to preserve the cultural monuments that anchor us to our shared heritage. Thankfully, I will say that the government does seem to be more cognizant of this. And I hope they will do their utmost to preserve what survives of our heritage.

Otherwise, ask yourself this –  what do we see around us today that will be left standing when SG 75 or SG 100 rolls around?[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_column_text]


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Ning Cai is a Singapore Literature Prize nominated author, who was also long listed for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2016. A bestselling writer, she is also recognised for her illusionist/ escapologist stage character Magic Babe Ning, and recognised by Channel News Asia as South East Asia's first professional female magician.

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