Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).


Leong Yoon Pin

The "Father of Singaporean Composers".


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

I became a musician in a very natural way. I didn't say, 'When I leave school, I must do this, I must become a doctor', I didn't do that […] I happened to like music very much at that time so I said, 'Whatever happens, let me enjoy myself with music.'

– Interview with National Library and National Arts Council, 2007.

Leong Yoon Pin is a pioneering Singapore classical musician who is regarded as the "Father of Singaporean Composers". He was a conductor who founded and led some of Singapore's pioneer choral groups from the '50s, and an educator who nurtured a generation of students with unstinting generosity. He was also a composer who possessed a quintessentially Singaporean voice, integrating evocative soundscapes of Singapore in his symphonic compositions, tone poems and choral works. In 1982, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to music in Singapore. He also received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakt (Public Service Star) in 2005 and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore in 2007.

Born in 1931 in Singapore, Leong Yoon Pin grew up the third of seven children. He attended a few primary schools and two secondary schools, receiving a mixed English and Chinese education in the process. After the Japanese Occupation, his father, a radio dealer, became a hi-fi enthusiast and played a lot of Western classical music on his sound system at home. A teenage Leong, who had become a lover of Chinese literature and Rediffusion’s Chinese radio dramas, grew to love music as well and taught himself to play the piano while an uncle taught him to play the violin.

It was not until his 20s after he had enrolled in the Teachers' Training College that he started taking formal music lessons at the college while singing in the Singapore Music Society Choir and the Chamber Ensemble Choir. After he graduated in 1953, he taught music and other subjects as a primary school teacher for a spell, and founded the Rediffusion Youth Choir and served as its conductor. Leong also composed his first choral piece Story of Mulan that year.

In 1955, he was awarded a scholarship to the UK to study music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, graduating in 1958 with majors in composition, piano and voice and became a specialist teacher in music for the next few years. In 1959, Leong became a music lecturer at the Teachers' Training College in Singapore and founded the Metro Philharmonic Society. For this and other vocal groups, he composed several choral works so that they could sing locally written songs. Outside of his music career, Leong wrote regularly under the pen name of Xue Xi Ting for Chinese daily Nanyang Siang Pau.

In 1967, he left Singapore again, this time to study music composition with the famed French composer Nadia Boulanger in Paris for a year. After his return, he was appointed as the resident conductor of the National Theatre Orchestra in 1969 and became the head of the music department at the Institute of Education (formerly Teachers' Training College) in 1971. In 1975, he left again for post-graduate studies in music education at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne on a British Council Commonwealth Fellowship. Once back in Singapore, he served as the resident conductor of the Singapore National Orchestra from 1977 to 1979.

During this period, Leong became known for his generosity in sharing his knowledge and his support for his scores of music students in both his professional and private music lessons. Among the musicians he mentored were future Cultural Medallion recipients and composers Lim Yau and Phoon Yew Tien, and choral musician Jennifer Tham.

From the 1950s to the 2000s, he created a diverse body of works. His creations included two symphonies, a concert overture, a piano concerto, a few symphonic tone poems, an opera, many instrumental pieces and numerous choral works. Several were locally commissioned and had a nationalist slant, and many were Leong's own creative results and personal reactions to Singapore’s socio-political climate.

While his studies with Boulanger in Paris had encouraged his use of Singapore ethnic musical elements, Leong had always been a humanist with a strong sense of social consciousness. He revered Singapore's ethnic folksongs, loved Chinese literature, and deeply appreciated his multicultural environment. He sought to express the soundscape and rich, diverse character of Singapore through the times, integrating the labouring chants of Indian workers, the calls of street hawkers, Malay folksongs, classical Chinese poems, Malay pantun (poetry), Chinese opera and other local elements in his music.

His 1980 concert overture Dayong Sampan, based on a popular Malay folksong, became one of the most widely played orchestral pieces in Singapore. His late '70s symphonies—Symphony No. 1 and No. 2—featuring Indian labourers' chants and Chinese poetry received rave reviews for possessing a truly Singaporean voice. Singapore's first Western opera Bunga Mawar (The Rose) featured his original score set to Malay pantun, and the choral work Sunset, commissioned for the Singapore Youth Festival in 2005, combined elements of the gamelan, the Chinese pipa and Indian harmonies.

Over the decades, Leong also assumed other important roles in Singapore's classical music scene. He served as chairman of the Singapore Composers' Circle, arts advisory panel member of the National Arts Council, and artistic consultant to the Nanyang Technological University, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, The Substation and the Practice Performing Arts School. He also served as the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s first ever composer-in-residence in 2001.

For his significant achievements in Singapore music, Leong received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) in 2005 and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore in 2007. In 1982, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to music in Singapore.

In April 2011, Leong passed away in Singapore at the age of 79. His legacy lives on in the generation of musicians he nurtured during his life and in the Leong Yoon Pin Music Fund, which was established with a $500,000 donation by Leong’s family towards the development of music education at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. His original music manuscripts were also donated to the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory at the National University of Singapore. Leong's collection of music books and personal artifacts has also been archived at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ library for music education and research.


5 Aug 1931

Born in Singapore.

1938 to 1945

Attended People's Free School, Xing Dao Primary School, and Xing Hua Primary School, Singapore.

1946 to 1947

Attended Dong Ling High School, Singapore.

1947 to 1949

Attended St. Patrick's School, Singapore.

1951 to 1953

Attended Teachers' Training College.


Member, Singapore Music Society Choir.
Member, Chamber Ensemble Choir.

1953 to 1955

Founder and conductor, Rediffusion Youth Choir.
Teacher, various primary schools, Singapore.
Composer, Story of Mulan.


Composer, Ode to the Sea.

1955 to 1958

Attended Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, UK on a scholarship. Graduated with majors in composition, piano and voice.


Specialist teacher in music, Singapore.
Music lecturer, Teachers' Training College, Singapore.


Founder, Metro Philharmonic Society, Singapore.
Composer, In Memory of Qu Yuan.

1961 to 1964

Writer, Nanyang Siang Pau. Under the pen name Xue Xi Ting.


Composer, The Peacock's East-Southerly Flight.


Composer, The Bell and the Maid.

1967 to 1968

Studied music with French composer Nadia Boulanger on French Government scholarship, Paris, France.


Resident conductor, National Theatre Orchestra, National Theatre Trust, Singapore.
Composer, Holiday Camp.


Head, Music Department, Institute of Education, Singapore.

28 May 1975

Composer, Symphony No. 1, premiered by Metro Philharmonic Society.

1975 to 1976

Attended University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne on British Council Commonwealth Fellowship for post-graduate studies.

1977 to 1979

Resident conductor, Singapore National Orchestra, National Theatre Trust.


Member, Advisory Committee on Choral Music, Ministry of Culture.
Composer, Symphony No. 2.


Composer, Dayong Sampan Overture.


Composer, Like a Rapid Stream.

1982 to 1985

Chairman, Singapore Composers' Circle.


Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to music in Singapore.
Works performed in Dance Suite at the International Festival of Youth Orchestras, Rome, Italy.
Composer, Song of the Phoenix.


Composer, Episodes in the Journey to the West.


Composer, Mountain Flute.


Composer, Nine Cantos.


Composer, Prelude Orientale. Commissioned for Piano Open Category in the Music Festival, Singapore.


Composer, Dragon Dance.
Works performed in Sketches for Oboe and Piano at the ISCM-ACL World Music Days Festival, Hong Kong.


Works performed at World Music Contest for Symphonic Bands, Kerkrade, Holland.
Works performed in Nightmare and Nostalgia at the Llangollen International Music Eisteddfod, Wales.


Composer, The Giving Tree.


Composer, Temasekian.


Composer, Daybreak and Sunrise. Commissioned test piece for Singapore Youth Festival.


Composer, Street Calls.
Composer, Love Quatrains.
Composer, Metamorphosis.
Works performed at Kumamoto Music Festival, Japan. Six-volume album of symphonic work published, National Arts Council and Composers and Authors Society of Singapore.


Composer, Spring Has Come. Commissioned and performed by Singapore Chinese Orchestra conducted by Qu Chun Quan.

1994 to 2006

Member, Arts Advisory Panel, National Arts Council.


Work Jubilation published in album by Singapore Youth Orchestra conducted by Lim Yau.


Composer, Blessing the Seas.


Composer, Western opera Bunga Mawar (The Rose).
Work Dayong Sampan Overture performed by Washington Symphony Orchestra, Singapore.


Composer, Pedlars and the Soprano.
Composer, Here Comes the Bride.


Composer-in-Residence, Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
Composer, Gegentala.


Composer, Frogs in the Rain.


Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).
Composer, Sunset.


Received Lifetime Achievement Award, Composers and Authors Society of Singapore. Composer, Piano concerto.

13 Apr 2011

Passed away at 79.


Leong Yoon Pin Music Fund established at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts through donation of $500,000 by Leong’s family.


TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

You have 3 out of 3 articles left this month. Create a free Esplanade&Me account or sign in to continue. SIGN UP / LOG IN