Commentary: Why are Singaporeans so obsessed with KTV?

Commentary: Why are Singaporeans so obsessed with KTV?

What is it about coming together with a group of friends or family in a tiny space, crooning to old school pop ballads beneath flashing disco lights? Grace Yeoh says it unites Singaporeans better than any National Day Parade can.

Girl singing into microphone ktv karaoke
(Photo: MD Duran/Unsplash)

SINGAPORE: If music is the food of love, then KTV lounges are a glutton’s paradise for many in Singapore.

It seems no matter our station in life, there are specific things that instantly evoke a surge of affection for being Singaporean. These include hearing the Singaporean accent in a foreign country, seeing a “mama shop” (a sundry shop at HDB estates) still standing, and belting out old school pop songs in a KTV lounge with friends. 

Despite KTVs being closed for more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, recent news about the police raid of illegal KTV outlets revealed our inexplicable, and apparently undying, passion for karaoke. 

On Apr 3, police busted into illegal karaoke joints, arresting patrons for allegedly flouting rules under the Public Entertainment Act and Liquor Control Act 2015, as well as for their suspected breach of COVID-19 measures. 

Netizens were quick to zoom in on the most significant detail of the story: “Nearly all had been in the middle of Mandopop songs from singers including Jacky Cheung and Jay Chou when the police burst in.” 

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A circulating photo even showed a patron being questioned by the police, with the TV in the background having a song on pause. The song? 

Smooth Criminal by Michael Jackson — another KTV favourite. 

The jokes wrote themselves. One commenter said: “Rumour has it that the person insisted on finishing the song first before he was to be led away by police.” 

Now, in the middle of a pandemic, this is serious criminal activity – those caught were not only breaking the law for a song but consumed alcohol without a permit, had more than eight people gathered and one person with an outstanding warrant of arrest, according to the police.

Items seized by police during a raid on illegal entertainment outlets on Apr 3 2021
Karaoke equipment and liquor seized by police during a raid on illegal entertainment outlets on Apr 3, 2021. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

Despite the seriousness of this crime, underpinning the amusing online reactions was an acknowledgment of the shameless stereotypes of being a karaoke lover, such as the desperate need to sing (or scream) that one song which defines our KTV experience one last time before we call it a day. 

After a year since karaoke joints ceased operations during the circuit breaker period, this collective memory feels hazy at best. But a nostalgia for good old days fuels a large part of our love for karaoke — and this love will take more than a pandemic to kill. 

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When news broke that local karaoke chain Teo Heng KTV was struggling to stay afloat after they were forced to close due to COVID-19, many friends took to social media to opine the place that Teo Heng had in their hearts. 

The 31-year-old brand was a hallmark of their school and National Service days, having gotten them through multiple milestones in life, from healing after breakups to bonding with new friends. 

In a squeezy KTV lounge, faced with a plate of cold peanuts on the table and a garish music video completely unrelated to the song, with Michael Learns to Rock or Mayday blasting over the speakers, and friends egging you on to sing your heart out, everything else falls away. 

Jewel Music Box KTV
The Jewel Music Box KTV outlet at HomeTeamNS Khatib. (Photo: Facebook/10 Dollar KTV Club)

Each song lined up on the karaoke system is a promise of escape from your worries. Behind the mic, life feels simpler, as though all problems can be cured through four-minute intervals of catharsis. 

All of us occasionally yearn for the past, but when life has been turned upside down in a pandemic and there is no blueprint for navigating uncertainty for the indefinite future, this longing can hit especially hard. 

Some of us still hope to return to "normal life", unwilling to accept that this is normal now. 

In a way, nostalgia is an escape from the present. Before COVID-19 hit, we might have retreated to KTV booths to de-stress from a high-pressure work day, avoid everyday responsibilities for a few hours, or run from personal problems. 

But the desire for escapism amid a global pandemic feels heavier and more urgent, less indulgent or hedonistic. We no longer just wish to escape common problems, but an entirely new way of living we were rudely thrust into. 

There are certainly better solutions to coping with change. But sometimes, it’s the simplest solution that works best, like singing a beloved Jacky Cheung song whose lyrics you probably remember better than your Singpass password.   

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On top of the nostalgia of crooning old tunes in a KTV lounge, karaoke is embarrassingly tacky — but that’s precisely why it’s adored and sorely missed. 

No one cares about sleek, commercial aesthetics in karaoke. The music videos seem to hail from the 80s, complete with shaky stock videos of nature and models gazing wistfully into the distance in the middle of European architecture or endless fields with tulips and marigolds. 

That these videos often have nothing to do with the song only makes for a uniquely KTV memory. Nothing is logical in the darkness of a KTV room, but it doesn’t matter. 

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The "suspension of disbelief" in a KTV outlet further adds to the enjoyment. The minute you cross the reception area, you enter another universe, especially as you pass other rooms with fellow patrons warbling to their own favourites. 

In this universe, the showy and unbridled emotion, from exultation to melancholy depending on the song, proclaimed in every lyric is often absent in the "real" world. 

HaveFun KTV
A room at HaveFun's new NEX outlet. (Photo: HaveFun)

As a natural cynic, karaoke taught me an unquestioning form of joy. You might believe you’re too cool for it, but there is no room for ego or pretence once you’re in a dingy KTV lounge, just the liberation of embracing everything gaudy and over-the-top. 

Now that church congregants are allowed to sing – albeit with masks on – there’s a sliver of hope, a tiny sign we may return to a KTV lounge sometime soon, once the authorities deem it safe.

I have my longstanding set-list of Jay Chou hits and some rather well-rested vocal chords, ready to rediscover a few hours of pure happiness.

Grace Yeoh is a senior journalist at CNA Insider. 

Source: CNA/gy