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Listen without prejudice

Highs and lows of 60 years of Singapore’s pop music


Published: 10 Jan 2023

Time taken : ~10mins

Esplanade’s year-long project PopLore dives into the heady days of Singapore’s pop music scene, the lean years that followed and how local artists found their voice again.

When Singapore singer-songwriter Sezairi crossed the 100 million streams mark on music streaming service Spotify with his pop ballad It’s You earlier in 2022, he was the first home-grown artist to achieve this feat.

A similar achievement occurred 58 years ago—local band The Quests topped the charts in Singapore with its original guitar-powered instrumental song, Shanty, knocking off no less than The Beatles’ I Should Have Known Better from the number 1 spot in 1964.

So what happened to this vibrant 1960s English language pop-rock scene, when The Quests was just one of many young Singapore bands (including The Crescendos, pictured) performing in nightclubs and signed to international record labels? If they were writing original music, how come, as a child of the ‘80s all I heard on local English radio then was a wash of American and British pop? How did Singaporeans find their voice again in popular music? And how can the system be more conducive towards creative expression?

These questions and more are the subject of a year-long project by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay to celebrate Singapore pop across languages and generations. At the centre of PopLore was a series of live concerts from January to November. 

To support them, my colleagues and I worked with content producers and over 25 artists for a seven-part documentary podcast and three videos on the past, present and future of the music scene.

The “Lore” in PopLore refers to the many insider stories told, as well as a pun on the Singlish ‘‘lor”. Industry figures who contributed include Brian Richmond, Rahimah Rahim, Mohamed Raffee, Lim Sek, Li Si Song, Joe Ng, Joanna Dong, and Sezairi. We also produced an exhibition on live music venues, all as part of the arts centre’s 20th anniversary.

As a former journalist, I relish this ringside seat to 60 years of Singapore pop because I’ve always been fascinated by history. One recurring insight from PopLore is that, perhaps contrary to what most people think, there is a Singapore sound, of a city at a cultural crossroads. The nightlife jewels of the 1950s were amusement parks housing dance halls, cabarets and stadiums, where Chinese opera, the Malay traditional dance joget—with its Portuguese roots—and pop music played by bands entertained people from all walks of life.

In the opening podcast episode, local singer-songwriter Art Fazil shares his view that Malay film music icon P. Ramlee’s distinctive “crooner style of singing” could have been influenced by Elvis Presley. Home-grown musicians from 1990s Mandopop star Jimmy Ye to acclaimed Tamil film composer Shabir speak later of how an eclectic palate of musical and cultural influences informed their music, setting them apart from counterparts elsewhere.

“Barbarous music of this kind”

But the other key reflection from the series is the need to move away from social and cultural norms which remain inimical to creativity and individual expression. This can be traced back to the government crackdown in the 1970s on pop and rock music, when it was associated with social problems ranging from drug-taking to the spectre of an ill-disciplined workforce. 

In 1973, then Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee slammed rock ‘n’ roll as “barbarous music of this kind that is mainly responsible for attracting the mindless young of Singapore to the cult of permissiveness of the western world”. Bans were slapped on long hair and nightclub tea dances where local bands played, denying them opportunities to perform. Taxes on nightspots with live shows were raised.

Industry insiders speak in the podcast of how these punitive measures effectively killed the pop and rock scene, which only several years before had seen record label bosses like EMI Singapore’s Daisy Devan sign local bands and champion homegrown music. Devan, another notable personality who has faded into obscurity, was the first Asian to helm a record label in Southeast Asia, a label that signed The Quests. 

Pioneering pop singer-songwriter Dick Lee, who cites the ’60s band scene as a formative influence, says: 

One minute, there were like 20 bands recording with EMI and the next minute, there was nothing. And there was nothing for years... The music business completely died.

In the ’80s, when live music returned to nightclubs, audiences only wanted to hear cover versions of Anglo-American hits. Original songs took another decade to win hearts and minds.

Expanding notions of creativity and success

Government policy did get something crucially right from the ’90s, which was to start supporting Singapore music by commissioning songwriters like Lee and Linying to write and perform the high-profile National Day songs. Policy-makers did not write off Singapore musicians seeking larger and more sustainable overseas markets as a talent drain. Instead, the National Day Parade and other platforms kept their connections with this little red dot alive, while younger musicians were supported through funding and mentorship opportunities.

Of course, the economy prizes different skills now compared to the industrialising ‘60s, which has in turn raised the stock of creatives. Pop history here has been characterised by three Ps—politics, puritanism and pragmatism—as history writer CT Lim notes in one podcast episode. In comparison, I would add that space for two more Ps, passion and personal expression, is in short supply. 

Take it from Shabir, who grew up in a single parent family and got into gang fights before music turned his life around. In the podcast, the singer-songwriter whose debut single Yaayum has crossed 120 million views on YouTube, talks about how Singaporeans are "boxed up in our mentality of what success should be. But people don’t understand that, doing what you love to do, and being at peace, that can be actually very rewarding, and that can be called success too. We have to have an education system which is forgiving, which embraces authenticity, and individualism. And only if you do all these things, you’re going to have artists of the future".

Ultimately, regardless of how many grants we give out, what will really put Singapore music on the map is a culture where artists are respected as much as doctors or lawyers and given the space to create. This is not changing fast enough, given how crucial creativity and bold ideas are to really take advantage of digital disruption, say artists.

On the flip side, creativity is not just about the space one is given but the space one makes. The digital revolution has made it easier for musicians to make music and collaborate, but it has also made it harder to stand out from the pack. In a PopLore video, Dong and Sezairi—who both shot to fame in talent competitions singing other people’s songs—share the challenges of finding themselves and parlaying that authenticity into their own music to connect with listeners.

Sezairi, who spent many years after his 2009 Singapore Idol win languishing without a record label or a hit song, wrote his monster hit It’s You as an unabashed declaration of love towards the significant other whom he had kept under wraps for the most part of the last decade.

“The correlation between honesty and success is quite proportionate, you know,” he quips, somewhat ruefully. Take it as a lesson from history: strategy and luck aside, the formula for a thriving music scene is musicians searching deep within themselves, and given wings to fly.


Discover more of Singapore pop music’s history at www.esplanade.com/poplore.

This article was first published in The Straits Times on 31 Dec 2022.

Contributed by:

Clarissa Oon

Clarissa Oon is a writer and former journalist who has followed developments in the arts in Singapore for over two decades, and currently heads Esplanade’s communications and content team.

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