History of music in Singapore

The lack of historical information makes the history of music in Singapore an issue that is hard to understand, let alone debate. Yet, the diversity of music in Singapore is indeed reflective of our multi-cultural society, with the West an undoubtedly obvious influence as evident in our strive towards modernity in a post-colonial era.

For personal reasons and interests, I am more often inclined to focus on the development and demise of the Rock & Roll scene in Singapore.

The Early Days

Live music in the 50s could be seen as centred around the three different “Worlds” in Singapore (New World, Great World, Gay World) that merged ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ forms of entertainment in one place. Jazz and Swing music the choice tunes at the many ‘tea-dances’ held till the wee hours of the morning.

Musicians back then could be thought of as crooners in the mold of Tom Jones, accompanied by a Piano, double bass and probably a saxophone.

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Great World. Image by James Seah.

Shift in power

The 60s however brought a dramatic change, with Beatlemania and the Rolling Stones taking and influencing the world by storm.

In Singapore however, it was the 1961 appearance of Cliff Richard and the Shadows’ at the former Happy World Stadium that brought about a new legion of eager musicians, who unlike their pre-decessors didn’t study music professionally.

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Cliff Richard & The Shadows

and the big culture shock to the musicians of the day…especially for those of us who became established…was when the Beatles, the Shadows came…Cliff Richard and the Shadows, came to Singapore…..and all of a sudden you have a bass guitar…a very loud amplified sound…not a smooth, well-rounded and refined sound…very raw…If you describe it now, it did sound very raw…when it first came on…it was in its infancy…the recording technician had not gotten in yet…in fact it wasn’t even [mediated by] a recording technician…it was the players…the people who played it were from a different school…they weren’t qualified musicians…they couldn’t read…they just played…Half the time they couldn’t even play the instrument…sometimes its good that way because that’s how a new artform or practice evolves..
– Excerpt from Horace Wee and Sam Gan ( A narrative history of music in Singapore 1819 to the present)

The instrumental configurations of a band now evolved to having a lead-singer, three guitars (including bass), drummer and the occasional keyboardist.

Bands like the Quests and Checkmates took advantage of this opportunity, and with an array of venues ranging from hotel lounges, country clubs and even British Military camps. This led to the formation of many popular bands like Naomi & The Boys and Heather & The Thunderbirds that honed their tunes to fit the largely western customers at the ‘tea-dances’.

The Quests, one of the first few bands to breakout into the scene.

Rock & Social breeds social disorder

The development of Rock & Roll in the 70s however came to abrupt halt when the Government deemed tea-dances, and the accompanying music, as a source for rising social disorder. Brawls and fights were not uncommon at tea-dances, as were the use of drugs and other poisonous ‘Western influences’, described by Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee in a speech in 1973.

Let us not consider the subject of music as a trifling matter, of no import in the state of affairs. The ancients knew better. Both Plato and Confucius correctly recognised which music as an instrument of state policy could play in producing the desirable type of citizen. Neglect in Singapore on this subject has given rise to serious problems. I refer to the widespread popularity of the barbarous form of music produced by the steel guitar linked to an ear shattering system of sound amplification. Voice accompaniment takes the form of inane tasteless wailing. It is 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. It is hardly a coincidence that the problem of drug-addiction has become serious where performers and audience foregather. I trust the Ministry of Home Affairs will take stern action against this menace.31

With the correlation between music and the type of ‘immoral’ citizen developing, Rock & Roll became an evident enemy of the state and many clubs housing local bands began to close, with TV stations refusing to feature male performances with long hair in what is referred to by prominent Music veteran Chris Ho (1999) as the period of the Great Concern about Drugs.

To add to the conundrum, there were a rising number of foreign bands, particularly from the Philippines that competed with local musicians. These bands were cheaper ($2000 a month for a full piece band) and willing to indulge the crowd in other sources of entertainment beyond singing, further pushing many musicians either overseas or away from the scene altogether.

Indie ends as soon as it begins

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As the individuals’ sense of self-fulfillment developed in the 1980s and perceptions of over-regulation by the Government developed, a growing number of individuals arose to challenge and question their identity.

This period coincided with rise of Anarchy in the UK and a new wave of music, particularly that of Punk have a growing influence worldwide.

Influenced by the freedom and liberalization, coupled with the advances in technology that made recordings financially possible, a growing number of bands like Force Vomit, the Oddfellows and Opposition Party made a name for themselves. Individuals also helped to organize many underground gigs and slots on radio were dedicated to local musicians.

Video kills the radio star (MTV kills the local star)

Yet for all the efforts, it was hard to beat the convenience and energy that was MTV (i.e. ‘I Want my MTV).

The accessibility of MTV evidently brought attention and dedication away from local musicians, and with continued numerous factors such as the rise of the internet and piracy leading to a drop in CD sales revenue, local musicians found themselves on the backfoot once again.

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Everyone’s wants their MTV

Local music today

There is definitely a growing number of venues and musicians who are out to make a name for themselves, and it has been interesting to see how veterans like Patrick Chng (Oddfellows, Typewriter) have found ways to help groom and mould their fellow compatriots and future generations.

In the struggle to identity the term ‘local music’, it is perhaps easier to appreciate it as music rather than forcing an identity out of it, unless we deem Siva Choy & Kopi Kat Klan’s ‘Why U so Like that ah?’ as representative of what local music is.

10 comments

  1. fried ice bass and vocalist the rock trio 1960-70 in singapore.

    Social Disorder, music.. WOG (western oriented gentleman)..
    Yes, quite interesting anecdote down memory lane (Horace Wee quote). I was in fact one of those who jammed with Horace after I quit my rock trio Fried Ice. We had just lost our gig at the Wisma Indonesia due to the long hair ban. Horace and I played on, but only in his studio, while Horace kept playing on RTV Spore wearing a short hair wig, lol.
    Over-zealous on the part of the govt? Definitely misplaced with good intentions. The world was on a social revolution with Woodstock. But Sadly, Goh ‘s point of view about “barbaric music and WOGs” left Singapore in a sad state of inertia while the world went steps ahead in music. Many of us musicians left the country where we could play on. Singapore became an economic success with a sorry era in music.
    I am not sure where you are today in music forms, but being one brought up in a career where music is music (classical, folk, country, ..jazz and rock .. regardless of being devil’s music or whatnot),
    we had the best careers of our life pulled from under us when the long hair ban came about.
    No one really knew what to think of it, except cut our hair or move away.

    I still miss the country , but I also feel that like most things in life, the more you tell the kids what not to do,
    you actually make them want to do it more than ever.
    We could have had a great culture of east meet west had we not stifled it with the experimentation as Horace Wee so aptly put it in his writing mentioned above.

    Still, much like over-zealous parents, we sometimes hurt our children with our nearsightedness
    in an effort to “protect them”.

    Nostalgia. Cheers for allowing me to take a short walk down memory lane.
    Regards from an expatroit.

    • nickyeo

      Hi Matt,

      Thanks for sharing your experience with me, great to hear from someone who really was part of the scene at that time. Honestly haven’t had much chance to listen to songs from that era mainly due to the lack of availability of it nowadays, but my personal interest in the Madchester and British Invasion scene does sort of give me some insight as to how awesome it must have been like when bands such as yours were around.

      • matt- tan (Fried Ice co-founder , bass guitarist and vocals)

        nicky, thanks for the prompt response.
        youtube has alot of music from my era. we played those music in singapore at our tea-dance and the naval bases and spore american schools, when i was part of the trio Fried Ice.
        for your info, i name a few groups that were the main influence to our group.. so you can follow up on them on social media like youtube.
        here goes… cream, jimi hendrix, jethro tull, ten years after, jeff beck, john mayall, peter green fleetwood mac, .. those were the main influence of my rock trio (Fried Ice).
        the other 2 groups Straydogs and Pest Infested, were also much part of this british invasion ; if not more, since they came before us. but Fried Ice was more influencial with the british and american kids in Singapore. The Straydogs .., members of which were my neighbours as we lived in the same district in Katong, .. were in fact more influencial with the locals as they did a few recording unlike Fried Ice of my forming which never did any recordings. the latest Fried Ice did, after i had left Singapore, i believe , they continued to eventually make a recording. but by then, i had lost touch with the scene.
        it would be wonderful if someone from my time esp the other 2 band boys, Raymond Anthony, and Gerard Bheem, read this and contact you with their own story of what happened to Fried Ice after I left.

  2. matt- tan (Fried Ice co-founder , bass guitarist and vocals)

    here’s a very thorough coverage of the Singapore music scene.
    http://singapore60smusic.blogspot.sg/2010_03_01_archive.html
    If you are interested, do check out Andy’s awesome blog. i just contacted him with more info of my group Fried Ice, with hopes that he would now included them in his so absolutely maravellous archives of Singapore’s music scene of my “heydays”.
    cheers.
    matt-tan(Fried Ice)

    • nickyeo

      Hi Matt,

      Definitely have listened to some of the artists and bands that you’ve named, even heard Andy talking about his blog a the Singapore Heritage Fest 2012! Will def scour youtube again for more of such awesome music.

  3. Ray Anthony (FRied Ice) is on Facebook, as is Jimmy Appadurai-Chua (Straydogs). Ray Plays in Taipei and JImmy in Cornwall, UK.

  4. hello again Nick, Happy National Day to you. I was informed of this long weekend event by Andy Lim.
    I was also contacted by Joseph Pereira who told me he has written something of the music scene as well.
    You might already know him . I have not looked for much here on the web , but so far, it appears that Andy Lim’s blog has done an awesome job at covering a lot of history of the music scene in Singapore. And now, I found out that Joseph Pereira has been reporting of the scene as well, along with his first hand account from Ray Anthony, the co-founder with me of Fried Ice. Joseph’s account of Fried Ice is more of the 5 piece band after I left the trio and moved to Canada. I have just given Andy Lim some infos of the original Fried Ice , the trio and in later dates, I will give him more of my recollection of the music scene during those good old days when I was playing at the Naval Bases and Singapore American Schools. It will however be an account of the original trio, something which sadly, not many locals got to experience. So, check the blog out . Hopefully it will give you more insight of the music of that period. Cheers from Canada.
    Matt (co-founder , bass and vocals of Fried Ice).
    p.s. unfortunately nothing of the original trio was recorded. but i do have some music from 1993 to 2000
    of my own compositions and music performed by myself (all vocal, instruments) recorded in my home studio back then in ottawa-hull, captial of canada. rough mixes but the only archive available of my original works. if you ‘re interested, give it a listen. enjoy. see the link website.

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