I felt a little lost as Luk and I roamed around the Chinatown streets. We found ourselves weaving through small alleyways in search of a location that was, as advertised, uniquely Singapore; but it was much harder than I had thought. Finally, the weight of my camera gear got the best of me, and we ended up sitting down in a small roadside hawker. As Luk sipped on his lime juice and while I set up the camera, I thought about Kevin, a musician who I had interviewed a few weeks ago. While he and Luk had both grown up in Singapore, their 30 year disparity made it seem as though they grew up in two different locations with different opportunities. Yet their ambitions remained the same: to create music. The sound of heavy machinery snapped me back, and I continued to adjust the microphone settings.
Singapore’s constant construction is somewhat emblematic of its history. The sea town that once was is barely visible today. This densely populated, young country, strives to constantly take steps forward and the results have been an impressive list of facts and figures. It is no question that this country is an economical success. But as it approaches its 50th birthday, perhaps the country will begin questioning what others who enter a midlife crisis struggle to answer: Who am I? Shopping malls and residential areas and office spaces are sprawled across the nation, and if you look out of one of the skyscrapers to see this, it’s hard not to question whether the Singaporean culture has been left in the dirt.
“We’re such a materialistic society, sometimes it’s difficult to imagine anyone doing something for the love of it or for the passion of it if you’re not making a high enough salary from it,” said Kevin Mathews, one of Singapore’s pioneering musicians.
Singapore thrives off of its ambition to internationalize itself so that it may appeal to a wider variety of people. In the process of doing so, it inevitably loses a bit of that individual flavor. Singaporeans often chase after the same jobs and lead the same lifestyles and hope for the same goals: cash, cars, credit cards, condominiums, and a country club membership. So while the hope to pursue a form of art may often be diminished, it doesn’t stop some from trying. No matter how pragmatic Singapore may be, the means in which technology has evolved paves a way for up-and-coming artists to branch out.
“Well, on the very simplistic level, all you need to get onto the scene is a mic, a guitar, and a YouTube channel. That’s how most YouTube stars started out, just doing something haphazardly,” Luk told me. Being an optimistic, young musician, he too has uploaded several of his tracks online for free, and is currently working on his debut EP. While he himself may still be unknown, one of his fellow classmate’s, Joel Tan, perhaps more recognised by his stage name ‘Gentle Bones,’ isn’t. With 18,000 subscribers and hundreds of thousands of views per video, it is no question that this interconnected society has benefited him greatly. With such advances in technology, it is seemingly easy to enter the Singaporean scene, which is what Kevin missed out on.
“I do think of that sometimes…when I’m feeling depressed,” he said laughing.“When I was 18 there was nothing in Singapore, I just feel like I would’ve been able to have done much more,” Kevin said in regards to whether he had wished to have been born in this generation. Growing up as an artist in a practically non-existent scene was tough on him. But Kevin was sure to have his big break with his radio hit “My One and Only,” which topped the charts in Singapore. He still encounters those who his music inspired. One of the band members he plays with entered the industry due to that song. And although popularity may have dissipated since then, he still continues to write. “We really really need to push original music in Singapore, because that’s something that has been really marginalised. It says a lot when the original music scene is kind of like a ghetto.”
While these artists may laboriously chase after their dreams, the only musicians in Singapore getting the recognition are the cover artists. With clubs and bars promoting “Original Music Nights” as if it were some rare species, it is telling in that Singaporeans generally want what they’re used to hearing. “People are just too ready to accept the status quo,” Luk told me.
Perhaps it is because we have become so internationalized that we may feel as if we are just one in a crowd. But Singaporeans may in fact be taking their culture for granted. “There is a lot of uniqueness to be found in the culture. We just need art and people to bring it out and show it to the world,” Luk said.
As the audience, it’s easy to blame the artists for pursuing a career in cover songs and thus hindering originality. But truth be told, that’s not entirely true. There are others out there creating unique Singaporean art, and have been for a while. We just have to look for it. Who knew that a Singaporean/Malaysian band known as Truck, could produce songs that emulated the mellow sound of Bread? Who knew of Patrick Chng and his raw, Velvet Underground-esque band The Odd Fellows? Who knew of the Padres and their rebelliously angst-filled songs?
So as Singapore continues constructing and building and internationalizing for its future, as a society, we must not just keep accepting the norms laid out in front of us. Kevin told me with adamancy that we’ve got to be open to original music. “Without that, we’re always going to be copying someone else and not have our own voice.”