By Pete Teo
I played at the Esplanade (Jan 14 – 16, 2005).
For those who are clueless, the Esplanade is Singapore’s shiny new national performing arts centre. And yes, I am aware that Malaysians tend to cart forth stories of chewing gum and blowjob every time Singapore is mentioned in conversation – but please desist this time. The facility is amazing. No other word for it.
For one thing, it is beautifully designed and brimming with state-of-the-arts equipment; for another, the staff is polite, helpful, knowledgeable, efficient, and absolutely everything is shiny and clean. To top it all off, even a grunt like me got my own private dressing room – it had my name on the door, a large mirror, vanity table, storage shelf, sofas, private shower, loo, and there wasn’t a single cigarette mark on the carpet. In fact, apart from the absence of a bed, it was nicer than most hotel rooms I’ve been in (right down to the stack of clean towels piled up neatly on a padded chair sitting politely to one side – possibly for those oft-wished-for post-gig shower with hysterical groupies). Sigh. How can you beat that? Hell, I feel as clean and comfy as breezy Sunday afternoons just thinking about it now.
It was thus when Patrick Chng the promoter suggested that I left my gigging gear overnight in the dressing room, I was tempted to save hotel bills and secretly lodge myself there for three nights. But I didn’t in the end – they had very high-tech looking smoke alarms installed in the room and I wouldn’t have been able to sneak a smoke. Drats. I guess you can’t have everything. Not even at the Esplanade.
Anyway, Patrick is one of those people with a massive heart – big enough to transcend the silly crap that often trails the music industry. Apart from being the guy who runs the MTV Asia website, he also gigs a lot and heads up a community music promoting organization called MusicForGood. In a scene filled to the brim with folks who can’t imagine life beyond pop glamour, it is a thrill to find someone with a community perspective on music. It was thus that, over a couple of beers, Patrick and I nattered about the indie scene in Singapore…
According to Patrick, like many Malaysians, most Singaporeans don’t care for local music either. In fact, as the beer drained, it became apparent that Singapore independent musicians are in a far worse shape than their Malaysian counterparts. For one thing, mainstream media in Singapore seldom afford exposure to emerging local artists – whereas the likes of Daryl Goh, Jason Cheah, lzuan Shah (of The Star), Jason Lo (of 8TV), Gerald Chua, Shannon Teoh, Joan Lau (of NST), Michael D’Oliveiro, Subhadra Devan (of New Sunday Times), Danny Lim (of The Edge), Jake Abdullah (of Hitz.FM), Dave Avran and publications such as KLue, Kakiseni and the Malay Mail make it a point to do so in Malaysia. Other than that, there is also the matter of musicians shooting themselves in the foot by inadvertently weakening the scene because of in-fighting. It was thus, when asked the secret of Malaysia’s relatively vibrant indie music scene, I was happy to answer that we owe our modest success to the willingness by many (though not all) here to overlook artistic and ideological differences in order to jointly promote the scene for both common good and enlightened self-interest.
Still, all this got me thinking: why is it that so many in both our communities ignore our own artists? I suspect the answer lies somewhere between post-colonial complex and plain lack of information. Many of us grow up on a diet of imported arts – and this has somehow led us to not only belittle local arts, but also to be ignorant of it.
Thus, it is ironic that we are often far more knowledgeable about what is happening in Los Angeles or London than in our own backyard. The sad thing is, judging by the emerging crop of artists in the KL scene today, there is no way this sort of cynicism is justified. I am not saying there isn’t any rubbish around, but I truly believe we have enough quality in the local scene to justify sustainable and widespread community support. To this end, the last few years have thankfully seen a significant increase in public interest and awareness for local arts in Malaysia. But this could not have been possible without support from many members of our mass media. It is thus my heart goes out to Patrick (and other like him in Singapore), who has the unenviable task of changing negative Singaporean public perception with hardly any mass media help. I shudder at the thought of how difficult it must be.
Anyway, so there I was, sitting by the sea waiting for my curtain call with the breathtaking Singaporean skyline around me. I began to wonder about this absolutely stunning facility called the Esplanade. Impressive though it undoubtedly is, what good is it if it mostly exists as playground for imported acts? How could an aspiring regional centre for the arts such as Singapore be so bereft of community support for local voices? Does she only aim to consume art and not make it? Where are the choruses of Singaporean voices amid the velvet corridors of this august establishment? Ultimately, I had no answer, nor am I qualified to provide them. I only knew one thing – Singaporean artists don’t need showers in the dressing rooms and lavender scented towels – they’d happily exchange all that for a keen and supportive community. So would all of us.
Still, I enjoyed my weekend in Singapore tremendously. The crowd was relatively quiet but generally appreciative, the facilities were world class, the people were friendly, and Patrick was a phenomenally accommodating host. It was thus inevitable that I left Singapore on Monday afternoon harbouring thoughts of a rapid return to play in the grounds of the gorgeous lady named Esplanade. Hell, I’ll walk to Singapore if I get to play there again – and I’m sure it is the same for the other Malaysian acts featured during the same weekend (Lucy In The Loo and Soft Touch). I only hope that the lady would sing with more of her own voices when we next meet.
I returned home to news that Tan Chui Mui’s short film A Tree In Tanjung Malim (in which I have a lead role) has been selected for competition at one of the top film festivals in the world – the Rotterdam International Film Festival. Further, Mui’s film is but one of 15 Malaysian independent films on exhibition and competition there this year (and TEN from Singapore). Woo or what? This is great. No question. So much so that I’ll strangle the next person who says we haven’t enough artistic talents in this country.
Still, as I put away my gear and hunker down to 6 weeks of intense work before I hit the studio in March, it did not escape me that our voices will be heard in Rotterdam this winter while at home we stand largely mute. I only wished it was funny.
Pete Teo is Malaysia’s eminent English-language singer-songwriter. This article first appeared on Pete’s blog. You can legally download a selection of his music at: www.peteteo.com/commons
First Published: 01.02.2005 on Kakiseni