Man at His Best

Opinion: Telling the truth hurts

Neil Humphreys is holding nothing back

BY NEIL HUMPHREYS | Nov 1, 2015 | Culture

Illustration from The British Library, Flickr Commons

Despite the funny haircuts and the silly speeches, I was glad to see the back of Singapore’s General Election. Being not only a bit of a satirist, but a foreign one with a track record, made me less popular than a flatulent man in a lift. The phone never started ringing.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. A large media company pitched a column idea to me: pick out the funny, unique elements of the election campaigns. Writing the piece while caught between two stools was a thankless task. The shadow of self-censorship hung over every paragraph. It was sanitised satire, sarcasm for the safe, puerile punchlines for the eternally offended.

The column had to be funny, but my humour must always be honest, sometimes brutally so. It must be coated in verisimilitude or it comes across as inauthentic, the cubic zirconia of comedy writing.

Heaven knows Singapore has enough of such drivel filling lifestyle pages and state-subsidised publications without me adding to the mediocrity. But I also wanted the piece to get the green light. An unpublished column is a fish on a bi-cycle, so I compromised. If the piece was published, it might be considered tame compared to the vitriolic click-bait online. If it wasn’t, I was a best-selling author facing the kind of professional humiliation I hadn’t encountered since my days as a rookie reporter, forever being told to “stop writing and start reporting”.

The piece could be spiked.

The piece got spiked.

Apparently, an internal discussion between company bosses concluded that General Election coverage would take a different direction.

In my books at least, I’d long followed Oscar Wilde’s most quotable quote: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” And it kind of worked, for a decade or so, before a couple of things changed—namely, the media industry and me.

Let’s start with me. In 2009, I published my first novel, Match Fixer, proudly tearing down the façade of Singapore football to reveal its seedy, gambling-addicted underbelly. Even between the lines, I hinted at nothing that wasn’t self-evident to those working in football. But industry insiders turned against me quicker than any plodding S League centre-back. Match Fixer should have come with a subhead: How to lose friends and influence no one.

Telling the truth is a tricky business (and potentially, a costly one). In pre-season, three English Premier League sides visited Singapore for friendlies to sell-out crowds. In a column, I questioned their impact on the local game. Zealous marketers and PR firms organised football clinics to trumpet the positivity, but the long-term benefits for Singapore sport were dubious. My comments antagonised an advertiser and an EPL insider, and probably cost me an invite to future parties.

A friend in PR sought to soften the blow by pointing out that she had pitched me for writing gigs to potential corporate clients, but they were wary because—wait for it—I was too honest. In PR terms, I’m an unpredictable loose cannon, difficult to corral, not always willing to be whistled back into the pen.

But the funniest/saddest low point came with the publication of my two books this year. The first, Marina Bay Sins, was a crime thriller involving a deluded female singer married to an equally egotistical self-help guru who manipulates their appeal to finance his wife’s pop career. It was a work of fiction.

The second, Saving a Sexier Island, chronicled my journey around old Singapore, picking out 50 sites that I believed were worthy of preservation. Many of the selections predated 1965, so I wasn’t entirely on message. I was happy to ride a wave of nostalgia, just not the official one.

And in both books, I highlighted the ongoing persecution of the LGBT community and ridiculed the spectacularly inane comments coming from the City Harvest Church trial. I was advised, more than once, that mentioning either one would harm book sales.

So, to summarise, as a novelist, columnist and satirist, I should avoid politics, religion, sexual orientation, current affairs, corruption, gam-bling, football and anything that might upset sponsors and advertisers. What’s left? Kaypoh aunties? Kiasuism? Taxi drivers? Singapore’s penchant for queuing? Those cultural cows have probably been milked enough.

If anything, the General Election coverage demonstrated the need for a little truth telling—and a soupçon of satire—more than ever before. While mainstream and online medias engaged in an Orwellian war for eyeballs, the campaign be-came more about the coverage than the content. And those who held back, those who self-censored, those who tiptoed along the OB Markers are clearly hurtling towards irrelevance.

But the more insidious censorship in Singapore is not political. It’s corporate. As the media industry increasingly fragments and the chase for an audience across so many digital platforms becomes more desperate, the power of the advertiser rises. He has near infinite choices, but only finite resources. His dollar now carries more influence over the writer.

When I was a rookie reporter, I was told not to upset the Government. Now I’m advised not to upset the advertiser. Never mind the politicians. Don’t piss off the English Premier League.

But I cannot compromise. Not now. Perhaps naïvely, certainly foolishly, my non-fiction books and novels will always poke a satirical finger at life’s wallies and wrongdoers, the callous and the cruel, the greedy and the guilty.

Will the truth come out? Of course not. Singa-pore and self-censorship go together like chicken and rice. Unvarnished truth comes at a cost. I’m sure I have lost readers over my public support for the LGBT and foreign domestic worker communities, to give just two examples. (I’m still disparagingly referred to as a “maid lover”.)

But I don’t want those readers. They can wallow in their ignorance and intolerance. I am not a rich man. But I still have the right readers. The inconvenient truth may not be an overriding priority for those obsessed with rice bowls, but it should be for an audience.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Esquire Singapore, Mongoose Publishing, its affiliates or its employees.

First published in Esquire Singapore's November 2015 issue.