When he was still schooling, he thought he was going to get his first kiss at one of those silly summer camp games, where the boys literally went chasing after the girls. At those early teenage years when many start battling issues of body image and self-esteem, he was well aware of his awkwardly tall, gangly frame, although his long legs made it easy for him to have ‘caught’ his target. The girl in question then instructed him to close his eyes.

He did just that, and he puckered up. He waited.

When he opened his eyes again, the girl had vanished. She had taken flight to leave him high and dry. After he had gone back, dejected, the first thing he did wasn’t to weep over his heartbreak.

He wrote about it

From a heartbreak victim to a crime victim, he was dining at a quiet fast-food restaurant with a mate. A punitive young man, no more than half his size, walked into the diner’s and demanded that he surrendered his money. He refused. The perp didn’t take the rejection kindly, and pulled out what was described as “the world’s largest nail file” to double down on his very shaky threat. Clearly, this young man was in dire need of experience on his robbery resume.

But it was probably a mistake to be writing off the ordeal as some comedy skit. Observing the whole robbery attempt from a corner was a large group of thugs, in a manner so invested they might as well be grading their ‘apprentice’ on a clipboard.

After he’d emptied his pockets and left unscathed, the first thing he did wasn’t to make a police report, or to tell his parents.

He wrote about it.


Neil Humphreys, veteran columnist and author of the ‘Notes From Singapore’ novel series, was documenting how he came to be a writer at his Esquire Shophouse writing workshop. Unlike most other workshops I’ve attended, no one in the room was mentally wandering off (who just liked my IG post?). No one was thumbing away at a smartphone (man, thought there was a buzz). It was as though everyone was huddled over a campfire in the dark of the woods – except that it’s inside of an intimate shophouse space – with their full attention drawn towards The Writer. The Storyteller.

The scene I’ve just painted, it’s something I knew all along; like a good Marvel film, words have a transcendent ability to shuttle you into a parallel universe. It’s an invaluable gift, or skill for some, that probably would not ever be completely displaced by artificial intelligence.

Yet, here’s the thing. Not a soul in Singapore – not many, anyway – think much of writing. It’s not the ‘It’ profession. And it’s a pity because many a great, influential man in history and present day have been prolific writers. Benjamin Franklin. Winston Churchill. J.R.R. Tolkien. Haruki Murakami. The recently deceased Jin Yong. Even our very own LKY, who, back in 1979, rounded his ministers up for a good whipping over sloppy English, was a hard taskmaster when it came to clear, quality writing.

But look around at the men in your life. Chances are, they’re teachers, engineers, doctors, bankers and serial entrepreneurs hell-bent on wringing out the next Facebook. Writing is pushed to the back of the line, as guys like the Esquire Shophouse, Singapore Writers Festival, SingLit movement and even this troll-ish Facebook group fight a losing battle to make writing sexy again.

But will it ever, though? Will the young men of this generation, who are endlessly fanboy-ing the Jack Ma’s and Zuckerbergs of the world, ever return to the classics and appreciate the power of the written word?

Not when the city’s environment and our cultural upbringing don’t foster it, as Neil Humphreys details.


Welcome to the 5-Minute hot seat, Neil. What’s going on these days? Should we be expecting a new book?

My children’s books are close to being adapted into an animated TV series with an international broadcaster. I’m crossing my fingers and toes with that one. Also, my favourite fictional character/misanthrope Inspector Low (of Marina Bay Sins) is hitting the road next year.

A lot of great men in history have been writers at some point. But here in Singapore, they’re almost non-existent. Is it a lost art?

It’s not a lost art. It’s a forbidden art. Children are told to be dentists and doctors, not writers. When I say to people in England that I’m an author, they say, ‘wow’. When I say the same in Singapore, they say, ‘Really ah? Can make money or not?’ I can’t lie. It’s a depressing and exhausting battle.


A career in the arts, like writing, is akin to ‘eating grass’, many have said. Is there some kernel of truth in that?

Yes and no. I’m 43. If I’m lucky, I’ve got another 40 years or so. So it’s all about life choices.

Pursuing a career purely for financial means has never appealed, which is perhaps surprising considering I grew up in a working-class household where a lack of money was always an issue. And yet, my childhood heroes were always those who had chased their artistic ambitions. Some were rich. Some were not. It didn’t matter to me then or now.

It’s rather dispiriting how we bow at the altar of wealth so readily. I often feel that if a towkay farts here, hundreds of people crawl off and have a crap. The soulless pursuit of materialism for its own sake feels interminable. I really, really feel sorry for anyone in Singapore who harbours a secret ambition to be a writer, a director, a performer or anything vaguely artistic or even sporty. They face the financial perils that everyone faces, worldwide. But they also face the homegrown indifference for the profession itself. It’s such a shame.

I have no doubt whatsoever that Singapore has Booker Prize winners in the making. But they are cajoled into becoming lawyers, doctors or dentists instead.


What people don’t seem to realise is that no matter which field you’re in, you can’t escape writing – work reports, cover letters, professional emails are good examples. And shoddy writing is just… bad, period.

How can aspiring writers and non-writers even begin to start writing well?

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. Start writing. Today. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Tonight. For half an hour. See what comes out. It’ll probably be rubbish. Doesn’t matter. Just keep going.

My first book was written while I was working 12 hours a day as a journalist, in a non-aircon 3-room flat in Toa Payoh, in my boxer shorts. I look back now and genuinely don’t know how or when I wrote it. But nothing was going to stop me.

I had a conversation once with a bloke sitting beside me in the hairdresser’s. He said he was ‘an author’. He’d written seven books ‘in his head’. All brilliant ideas. All best-sellers. He just needed to find the time. That man will never put a word on a page. You’ll either do it or you won’t.

Read what you love. As often as possible. Then write what you love. As often as possible. Writing is still one of the purest professions in one sense – it can’t be outsourced. You’ve got to knuckle down and do it yourself.

Who do you count as some of your inspiration?

Sue Townsend, Nick Hornby, Tony Parsons, George Orwell, Charles Dickens, Spike Milligan, Tom Sharpe, Jake Arnott, Bill Bryson, Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, Jimmy McGovern, Steven Knight, Alan Bleasdale, Trevor Preston, Mike Leigh and especially Andrea Arnold.

Humour, empathy social commentary and a sly streak of darkness unite most of them. There’s a lot of working-class writers in there, too, which are a dying breed. Sadly.


You’ve built quite the reputation as that Toa Payoh angmoh who writes funny stuff. How can a guy who struggles with humour be humorous?

Rule one: Laugh at yourself. Rule Two: See rule one. That’s the starting point.

I’m like a broken record with this one because it’s the question I get asked most. A lot of humour writing here in Singapore has a ‘tekan‘ flavour, lots of finger pointing, very little self-reflection. ‘Tekan’ gahmen! ‘Tekan’ MRT! ‘Tekan’ taxi drivers! It can get repetitive after a while.

The difference between a humourist and the drunk uncle (Drunkle, we’re coining it) at the coffee shop? Self-deprecation.

Let’s make a little swerve from the state of writing to the state of manliness in Singapore. And let’s start with what they’re screwing up when it comes to their personal appearance.

Dear me, you’re asking the wrong guy on this one! Shorts, vest and a pair of trainers, preferably all Adidas – I’m pretty much done.

But I’ll just say this. I’ve lived in three countries. Visited maybe 20 others. I’ve met men of all shapes and sizes. Tall, short, fat, thin, wiry, muscular, dark-skinned and light-skinned… and not one of them ever looked good in a pair of flip-flops. Not one.


Thoughts on the modern day masculinity scene? Are men, especially those in the millennial demographic, the strawberries people label them to be?

As I get older, I have really started to champion the generations below me. Our selfishness, arrogance and innate stupidity have punished them in more ways than we can count. We’ve screwed the planet for them, but go apeshit when someone dares to tell us to reduce our single-use plastics.

Climate change is messing with weather systems, melting ice-caps, wiping out all kinds of animal species and we refuse to reduce our meat or fossil fuel consumption. We just refuse. Not our problem. We had decades of peace and reasonable prosperity in the west and we essentially said, fuck it, we want even more. And we want to share even less. We want to keep out the poor and the desperate.

So we voted for Trump and Brexit as far-right movements advance across the world (and uncomfortably close to home, if you read some of the xenophobic nonsense online). And then, we have the gall to call our kids strawberries? They’ve got to fix this shit. They’ve got to save the planet in a right-wing world of nationalistic madness that we created.

We shouldn’t be insulting them. We should be apologising to them.

A man is at his best when he is…

Sleeping. Even Trump can’t fuck things up when he’s sleeping.