PoPINIONS

THE CULTURAL DESERT

“In March 1978, months into his job as minister for culture, the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong found himself facing MPs who despaired that Singapore was a ‘cultural desert’.” Straits Times article, 2006.

32 years later, is this still true? Well, let’s narrow our focus to Singapore-English popular music (“pop music”) – is there a pop music culture in Singapore? Well, taking culture as shared beliefs on society, politics and human nature – the prominent shared social belief about pop music in Singapore is – rather crudely – that foreign pop music is good, local pop music is crap. This belief also extends to the value attributed to foreign pop songs over local pop songs.

Therefore, in general, Singaporeans would rather listen to Singaporean musicians playing note perfect copies of a foreign pop song, rather than a local pop song. This fact is evident once you step into any of the nightspots in Singapore. Invariably, there will be a Singapore band playing copies of foreign pop songs. Singaporeans are not interested to listen to Singaporeans playing their own original pop songs.

What happened to shape attitudes in this manner? I have a theory, of course (but you knew that already).

You know the story, back in the 60s, there was a vibrant pop music scene in Singapore. Singaporeans flocked to tea parties, feted Singaporean bands playing Singaporean pop songs. The singles and albums sold well, the musicians were celebrities and Singaporeans did not consider their countrymen to be inferior.

But come the 70s something changed radically. The authorities did not understand rock music with its drugs and free sex associations and so moved to wipe out any trace of its influence on Singaporean youth. Even superficial connections like long hair were roundly stamped out. Rock musicians were the scum of the earth, the dregs of society – it was synonymous with being a drug addict, hooligan and a waste of life. The derogatory term “band boy” entered our vernacular. No parent in their right mind would want their child to be a rock musician.

This socially engineered attitude would pervade Singapore until the late 80s, when relaxations on local media allowed foreign rock music influence to return to our shores. So now, you could find foreign rock music on local TV and radio, an appreciation of foreign rock music was developing. Of course, in the 90s, a full blown local rock music revival saw many local pop songs on the TV and radio, unprecedented since the 60s. The influence of the press (Chris Ho’s Pop Life column, BigO magazine and local radio) managed to bring local pop music to a cult-ish level, with albums selling about 2000 to 4000 copies.

Fast forward to the 2000s and a shift in policy to rebrand Singapore as a vibrant, global city – suddenly grand prix, casinos and arts promotion are the order of the day. Appreciation of foreign rock music is at its height with 2 to 3 well-attended gigs happening a week (I can only remember David Bowie once in the entire 80s!) and cover bands dominating the pubs and clubs circuit.

But what about poor old local pop music? Still in the doldrums because, by and large, Singaporeans cannot accept other Singaporeans as artistic, creative people. Cos to be artistic and creative in Singapore is to be economically unproductive and an attitude to be rejected and even destroyed. Singaporeans have been educated (socially engineered) to be compliant employees and not independent, creative thinkers. Why do you think that the most successful Singaporean entrepreneurs tend to be the ones who had “less education” – y’know “drop-outs”? Freed from the shackles of our education system, these uneducated folk take risks and think “outside of the box”.

This cuts both ways. One, our musicians generally place limits on their own creativity and two, the Singaporean audience will not support or appreciate them as artists. Chicken and egg, really. Singaporean musicians think they are not good enough (and do nothing about this) and the Singaporean audiences think that Singaporean musicians are not good enough, as well.

That all said, we have actually progressed to such an extent that Singaporeans are able to accept local musicians as competent enough to play covers! Remember, there was a time where even this was not thought possible. But now, this fact does not raise eyebrows anymore. So does this mean that there will come a time when Singaporeans will accept original local music? Anything is possible of course but the way forward is really for Singaporean musicians to engage the private and public sector and audiences both locally and overseas by honing their craft in anyway possible.

Haha gotcha right? You thought that this would be yet another gripe from this morose old fart, expecting everyone and their dog to do us poor musicians a favour! Well, no point fussing over things you cannot control but instead spend time and effort (and money!) on things you can control – your music! Here comes the sales pitch – I believe that I can help you improve your music, if that’s what you want as well. If you are serious, drop me an email – info(at)powerofpop(dot)com to discuss how this can be achieved, for a reasonable price of course. Nothing is free in this world, my friend. I will be waiting, as usual.

…still there’s more…