Monday, August 4, 2008

Goh the bagpipe player

7 to 8 years ago, hanging out with friends (when I was a little bit more sociable then), and at the age when we were more angsty and starting to grow disillusioned with Singaporean life (now I'm almost fully 'grown'), I discuss the issue of "following one's dreams in Singapore".

Can you follow and live your dreams in Singapore?

Out of triviality, I conceived of the hypothetical question, "What if (then Prime Minister) Goh Chok Tong was a talented and skilled bagpipe player?" Of course, I recall my dad, at that point in time, joking about one BBC radio programme 'Wright around the World' poking fun at some Singaporean Ensemble that played the bagpipes, so that laid the foundation for such a hypothetical question.

If Goh was talented and skilled, would he give it all up and pursue his passion? There will be so many doubters and fellow Singaporeans who will conjure the rhetoric of pragmatism and practicality, just to hinder him and make him hesitant and non-committal.

We are not compassionate, benevolent nor encouraging enough, because we still harbour the same mindset we had decades ago when we needed to survive. Survival is only viewed through the financial lens.

There are also structural rigidities, both in institutions and society, that prevent most of us from chasing our dreams. A teenage prodigy or entrepreneur, who happens to be male, will have to shelve his pursuits for compulsory National Service.

Budding musicians have been told the age old thing that "Singapore is too small". Yes, Singapore is small in size, market, population, but can we be more encouraging and look for solutions to help, rather than to hinder? Of course, most of us see it as pragmatism, rather than hindrance, because our priority centres on financial survival/stability.

A close friend (although people whom I consider "friends" are already close, which explains why I don't have many friends or people whom I'll consider friends) told me a story he heard from someone else. It goes something like:

A man worked very hard most of his life and earned all the money and decided to retire early to pursue his first love. It was fishing and he decided to do it for the rest of his life, while living off on the money he had sweat for. As he sat down by the pier to fish, he met a very old man who was also fishing. The rich man said he was going fishing because he always loved it and now he had all the time in the world to do it and that he was happy. The old man replied that he loved fishing too and had been doing it all his life and had always been happy.

Last evening, at one of the sessions organised by IndigNation'08, Otto Fong, former Raffles Institution science teacher delivered a talk. There were many takeaways from it, but one that struck a chord with my wife and I was the part when he decided to pursue his first love, which was to create comics.

My wife was quite fascinated by his passion, skills and technical know-how behind his comics. Being a web-comic artist herself, she plans to do something about her interest too.

Her passion is always in the area of creativity, with drawing of cartoons and comics being the main form of expression. I feel a bit sad that she is more distracted with work and paying the bills than spending more time (while she is young) to hone her skills and gain the experience to reach her true potential (and maybe even beyond it) in comics. She has always told me that given the choice, she would not work at all and just draw comics.

Given the choice, I would make music. I would give music the same amount, or even more, of the sweat and blood my wife would have put into drawing.

My dad had introduced most of the 1960s music, namely The Beatles, to me for the most of my childhood. There was so much musical stimuli and encouragement around me. My parents had always supported me during the 13 years in which I had Electone (electric organ) lessons. My aunt (I think) gave me a ukulele and my dad taught me how to play it. My dad bought me a guitar and taught me how to strum. My brother taught me how to pluck. My dad paid for my first harmonica. My mum forked out lots of money for one Yamaha Electone Organ (the EL-87) in the mid-90s. When I expressed great interest in it, my parents paid for the multi-track studio.

Making music - writing songs, playing the instruments, arranging them and mixing them, everything but the singing part (because I hate singing) - has always been a dream of mine. My younger self yearned for the fame and recognition, but the essence of the dream had never changed: I just wanted to create music.

Otto Fong (it is always common for most of us to use the full name of someone who is famous/popular) had worked a few jobs before reaching his current position. It just goes to show that we undergo stages of change and searching, while balancing the realities of growing up and growing older, the pressures and experiences that come along with them.

Fong said that you had to be true to yourself in order to feel complete. He was true to himself, publicly coming out on his sexual orientation, and he felt complete.

I don't know about 'coming out', but I know what it is like to suppress something that is so important to you. I have always regretted every time I meet someone, experience an eventful episode in my life (most the rejection and helplessness felt in some BGR boy-girl relationship), been randomly or serendipitously inspired, I suppressed the tune/melody that played in my head. I never acted on them by writing it down or developing it with the aid of the organ or the guitar that sit in my room. I told myself that there is no point doing all these because they are useless, there is no future, and people won't like what I do.

In actual fact, these are the little demons that society put in my mind, and I have let them won. It seems so rational the explanations and criticisms that I am just simply wasting my time on something that is so small, irrelevant and not money-making.

Fong said that to pursue your dreams, you have to make sacrifices. That is very much similar to what my mum said more than ten years ago, "If you want to do well in something, you have to sacrifice some things." (I eventually spent more time on my studies and music, and did not hang out with friends at all. I probably have not been to popular teenage hangout Orchard Road with friends until I was past 16 years of age.)

Not only queer people have their closets; the closet is not only a gay slang.

All of us pretend to be "straight" people so we can fit in. It is all out of "practical" and "pragmatic" reasons.

I guess one of my many closets is the musical one. There could be Sam the sociopathic anarchist (but there's no place in society for sociopathic anarchists, not that they would want a place in society in the first place). We have heard of gay-bashing homophobes with deep-rooted hatred for gay people who are closeted. Perhaps my being upright, too righteous, politically correct and "by-the-book", could be indicative of a closeted anarchic self.

I have had more than ample musical training to express and manifest any musical idea or tune in my head, but for most of the time, I never acted on it. I confine my music to close friends because I am afraid of criticism and discouragement. What scares me more than people is discouragement and antagonism (and maybe rejection) from people, which explains why I often reluctant to engage others.

The most creative I have ever been was when I was aged 11 to 16. And I know why. These were the years when I acted like I wanted to. I felt free and true to myself. I did what my heart felt (of course, taking into consideration I had the shelter of being a kid). I knew I was good and talented and had the potential to make better music than some of the stuff that was playing on the radio. As I got older (in teenage), I felt a greater need to fit in, to listen to others as if their opinion mattered more than my beliefs and identity.

Thereafter, I was more reserved, reclusive and full of unhappiness (although they actually served as creative inspiration for more songwriting). It did not help I was engaged in a fruitless pursuit of a girl I had a crush on. When I decided to end the chase and just be contented being single, I met the woman who would be my girlfriend and wife. I was still reserved and reclusive, but was much happier.

The woman I met said she liked my songs (prior to us dating). I always thought my wife (that woman) was always just being nice whenever she said that. She would always lampoon my songs with off-tune singing to irritate me, but I soon realised that she actually remembers the lyrics to most of them.

Years back, I was hooked up with Clement Chow, local songwriter ("Count On Me, Singapore" being penned by him), and also met Ken Lim (from Hype Records), and I felt very discouraged by these guys. Ken Lim even asked me to learn Mandarin. I sent demos to different production houses, with no goal or ambition, and duly got no response. So the dream died a slow tragic death, fading into nothingness.

One opportunity came in the form of those street busking festivals in 2003, and I formed a band with my good friend and two other guys and we played the first and last half-hour set containing a sample of my songs. It was a wonderful feeling, a small sense of accomplishment. I wanted more, but did not pursue it.

I chased material (money) for happiness. Money only helps to a certain extent, but in the end, money does not make me a happy person. I guess it is only feasible to be the man who works hard to earn all the money, so that he can retire early to pursue his true love.

There is a house to pay for. There are families (old and new) to love. Along with them come the conventional means to fulfilling them. Passions and interests just get pushed further down (and out of) the priority list. People will probably get to see a different side of my wife and I when we become debt-free, but in the mean time, we have to work to rid the debts. We are of course also prepared if we are never to be able to attain such a privileged position.

So many people have died, taking their hidden talents and secret passions with them to the grave. They have never had the chance to share what they love to do or what they could do with the rest of the world. It could have been world-changing or life-changing, but under certain circumstances (social and economic, among many), they decided not to pursue their dreams and passions.

How many Singaporeans have grown old or died, along with their passions and interests (I'm referring to the non-money related ones)?

My passion and self-belief have been shattered and disintegrated, and I am responsible. I never dared take the risk nor made the sacrifices to pursue them, and I let doubters and critics win. I am sure there are many others out there like myself.

Fong's talk was inspiring in many ways. His passions and his abilities just dovetailed and the result is a testament. Doing it and having done it are, in my opinion, what made him happy. People buying his work and praising him, are just a bonus.

Maybe it is about time I pick up the pieces one at a time and start making music again. If you have it in you, it will never leave you, and only you have the power to make it stay or go away.

7 to 8 years later, I now look at the hypothetical question. There is no point answering it, because it does not concern the self. I realised the world does not end when people do not give a shit about you, but only when you give up on yourself.

If you are interested in listening to the stuff I have done over the years, 1997-2007, go here:


spursian said...

I can empathise with you what you're going through. It's always difficult in our current society to pursue what we would really like to do since like you have rightly mentioned, mortgage to pay, families to take care of. The question now will be is it too late to pursue those dreams?

I've also learned the Electone like you for 9 years. The irony was I hated it when I was learning, with exams and all that. It's only after I stopped for a few years, for no rhyme or reason, I started playing the piano and composed and recording simple tunes out of nowhere (which of course should be attributed to my years of learning the Electone).

As now I've hit my early 30s, there are so many times I would just like to quit my job, go pursue my passion in either learning culinary or music again. Of course, the same close people will just tell me this will not work out in Singapore. "Where's the security? It's tough to be a musician. It's hard work being a chef." Of course the worry is also will it reach a point when we realise we can't make a living out of what we love to do. Will that destroy our passion when the nitty gritty of survival comes in?

Enough of my rambling. By the way, which artiste are you listed as in the link you've provided? Would like to listen to some of your songs.

Sam Ho said...

hi spursian,

i'm under the name glamhour. all the songs are there, 14 of them.

i think the beauty of having dreams is not the need to fulfill them, but to chase them.

Glass Castle said...

Have you read The Gift by Lewis Hyde? He speaks about this exact issue. It's well worth a look.

- Jolene