People: Neil Humphreys


(Angmoh, a colloquial Hokkien term for caucasians)

One of Singapore’s best-loved writers, London-born Neil Humphreys unleashes upon his readers his 12th book, a gripping crime story laced with his trademark satire of Singapore and society. Marina Bay Sins tells the tale of Detective Inspector Low as he works to solve a double-murder case at Marina Bay Sands whilst tackling his own inner demons and political strife.

In a 2-and-a-half-hour chat with the UrbanWire, the excitable and passionate author divulges the backstory about his 12th book.


Return of Detective Inspector Low

“I wrote Marina Bay Sins because of a character in Match Fixer,” says Neil about Detective Inspector Low, who appeared in his first foray into fiction in 2009, about corruption in the S-League. (Interestingly, in 2013, 14 Singaporeans were arrested during a crackdown on global match-fixing. Did Neil know something we didn’t?)

An undercover cop posing as an Ah Beng [Hokkien for a gangster], Detective Inspector Low worked for an Ah Long [Hokkien for a loanshark]. Neil liked the character so much, he wanted to take him out of Match Fixer and gave him his own series in Marina Bay Sins.

“He’s bipolar and he does all the things we wish we could do but can’t. But because he’s brilliant, [people] have to tolerate him. He was more of a plot device but I liked the character.”


Family Humour Maketh a Man


A former speech and drama teacher-turned-sport and humour columnist with Today newspaper, Neil first made his name as an author with his hugely popular trio of humorous Notes From An Even Smaller Island series. In recent years, the father of six-year-old Abbie Rose launched his bestselling Abbie Rose and the Magic Suitcase series of children’s books.

In Marina Bay Sins, his writing returns to his satirical and cynical style. Is this his usual style or is it a British thing? “It’s too simplistic to call it a British thing,” says Neil. “I’ll bring it closer to home, to family.”

Neil thinks it’s a question of nature versus nurture, mentioning the effect one’s household has on one’s sensibilities and humour. “I grew up in a funny family. My mum made me laugh, she took the piss out of [made fun of] me, and she took the piss out of herself. My uncle was the same, my sister’s the same. My sister’s hilarious.”

Controversy Versus Discussion


In a world where keyboard warriors and 17-year-old punks (read: Amos Yee) often rage online to court ‘likes’ and hits, the line between controversy and discussion can get uncomfortably thin.

Neil is no stranger to this. Though some critics have said that he is offensive in his writing, it doesn’t bother him because what he is chasing is the opportunity for thought and discussion.

“Controversy for controversy’s sake works but only in the short term,” says Neil. “If anything is pissing me off, I’ll write about it; if it doesn’t, I won’t. Not because I’m surreptitiously thinking that [writing for controversy’s sake] will get me more hits.”

“It gets boring and it can’t last. It fizzes out. It has no wit, no intelligence. It’s funny for five minutes but you can’t make a career out of it. But most of all, it becomes bullying.”

Neil states that he thinks people read his works because he gets away with saying what they wish they could say. He sparks discussion with his inflammatory words and gets people to think. He jokingly brings up his new “title”.

“My friends call me the ‘Kevlar Angmoh’ because I’m ‘bulletproof’ when it comes to criticism.”


Chasing His Dream 


In his long ramble, Neil inadvertently tells us his journey to be a writer. After migrating to Melbourne in 2008, Neil found employment in a local newspaper doing editing and sub-editing; a job he wasn’t particularly fond of. “But it gave me enough time to write. I got more writing done in Australia than ever before,” says Neil, who wrote his first two fiction novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech in Australia.

“The problem I had [with writing] in Singapore is that [my bosses] kept trying to stop me from writing. The further up the corporate ladder I went, the less I wrote. I don’t want the f*****g money. All I wanted to do was write. …So in the end I quit; they thought I was bluffing but I quit. And I went to Australia to write.”

Looking back on the past 19 years after he first landed in Singapore, Neil laments on the roundabout journey he took to become a full-time author.

“I’m 40 now and it’s taken me such a long time to get where to where I wanted to be. I don’t regret it but I could have done it much faster.”


Next stop: Saving a Sexier Island


Hot on the heels of Marina Bay Sins is his upcoming new book, offering an introspective look at Singapore. “This is what my next book’s about: saving a sexier island.”

In it, Neil describes Singapore as a nation where everyone’s financially sound but lacking in compassion. “We have no artistic soul. We have no empathy. The arts see people, economists see digits. And now we’re paying for that because…the next generation are saying ‘you know what, f**k off, I’m more than a digit, I actually care about things.’”

“There’s enough people now saying that it’s not enough… because they want Singapore to be something more.

Despite these, there’s still much that Neil loves about Singapore – the efficiency and safety, for instance – and that is why he chose to raise his family here.

“I love Singapore but that doesn’t mean it can’t do better,” sums up Neil. And that, perhaps, is why this angmoh does what he does best: poking fun of us good-naturedly without resorting to petty name-calling.

(Photos courtesy of Renald Loh)