That thing we call our Singaporean-ness.
My story is all about my music, or to be more precise, my endeavours to make my music truly mine.
Determination comes into it somewhere and perhaps resilience – never giving up on what I believe in – and it started when I was in secondary school.
I knew quite early on that I wasn’t destined for academic success, but the road I found myself on, was a conservative and conventional one – school, more school, university, job. I didn’t want to go down that road, so I purposely failed my “O” Levels so that I had no fall-back plan.
By seventeen, I was choreographing fashion shows for decent money (for a seventeen-year-old), and taking part in talent competitions, resolutely singing only my own compositions.
It was in one such contest that I decided to write a song which I could call “local” and composed something called “Fried Rice Paradise”. This first attempt at saying something about myself – a Chinese, Peranakan Singaporean – produced good and bad results.
The good one was my first recording contract which led to my first solo album “Life Story” in 1974, and the bad was that the song got banned by the government-owned radio station. (To make the song sound local, I injected a big dose of Singlish, which the authorities disapproved of – citing my “improper use of English”!)
This ban dampened my spirits considerably, but I refused to give up and spent my entire career experimenting and searching for this elusive Singapore Sound.
In 1989 I made huge progress with the release of my wildly Singapore-centric album “The Mad Chinaman”, which spring-boarded my Asian career. Bringing my music out of Singapore allowed me to examine my identity from afar, whilst I experimented with the fusion of east and west.
After seven years abroad, I finally came up with a little ditty that was borne out of my homesickness and longing for my country, and the song, “Home” was born.
Seventeen years later, the song is still sung, not just by myself, but by all Singaporeans, at home and abroad. To me, it is a symbol of how we feel about our country, and I’m proud and pleased that it comes from never having given up my search to find that special thing – that thing we call our Singaporean-ness.