SINGAPORE: Dick Lee is one of Singapore’s best-known music personalities. A singer-songwriter, whose song, Home, written almost 20 years ago, still resonates with many Singaporeans and has become almost a microcosm of Singaporean-ness.
His career spans more than 40 years and he remains relevant, composing pop music, scores for musicals and national songs. Today, he also works in fashion, advertising and events management.
He went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about his deepest regrets, his upcoming passion projects and what musicians today need to do to succeed in a competitive global market. But first, his beginnings as an artist.
Dick Lee: For me, growing up was not an easy time because I was a teenager, getting into musical trends and basically pop culture was forbidden then. There was a huge clamp down on the negative aspects of Western culture. For example, rock music equalled drugs. So if you wanted to embrace pop culture, you would have to somehow get involved with heavy metal somewhere along the line.
Bharati Jagdish: Did you?
Dick Lee: Of course I did and parents were very wary if their kids played guitar, even. Rock concerts were banned. Long hair was banned. And so all these things that were cool were illegal, so to speak.
Bharati Jagdish: Is that why you were so attracted to it?
Dick Lee: In a way, yeah. All of us were a little bit rebellious. It didn't stop me from continuing to do music. But it was difficult.
Bharati Jagdish: Because of the judgement, the warnings from scared parents?
Dick Lee: Yes.
Bharati Jagdish: How did you justify it to your parents?
Dick Lee: Well, I did a lot things secretly. It was quite interesting. I'm talking about the early 70s. This was right after the huge music boom in the 60s. I think, to this day, you can still say, it was the golden age of Singapore pop music. When there were lots of local bands everywhere and there were screaming fans. Then, like the Ice Age, it suddenly all disappeared around 1969. Probably when National Service began.
(Photo: Joel Low)
Bharati Jagdish: You really think National Service is the reason?
Dick Lee: I think so. It was around 1970, 1971, when I started to write, and there was nothing. All the bands had disappeared. I think they rounded up all the kids and cut their hair and put them in the army. I don't know. I really don't understand why the bands all broke up.
The recording industry died just like that. And when I appeared, and started to want to write music, I was like a freak. People would say, “Why would anyone want to write songs?”
At the most, people covered songs, and this was also the age of Talent Time. They were the only way for us to sing and be heard and seen. But then, Talent Time contestants sang cover versions too. So I became an anomaly. I wanted to be a singer-songwriter. I wanted to write my own material. The harder it was - I don't know why, I guess I'm a masochist for this sort of thing – the more I wanted to try and prove a point.
Bharati Jagdish: Aside from the rebellious streak, what would you say made you want to write music, and to perform?
Dick Lee: I'm just thinking back. In Primary 6, I was still a normal kid. When I was 10, 11, 12. I started to get very interested in pop music that was very commercial; what we heard on radio, because that's all we had.
I enjoyed it. I was learning piano, and I was getting into the pop music world and reading fan-zines.
But when I was 13, my cousin Kay Siew (Lim Kay Siew, the actor) – we grew up very close to each other, he went to England, to boarding school, and when he came back for his first holiday, he brought pop records, which were completely different from the ones I heard.
They were singer-songwriter pop songs like Elton John. Early Elton John, early Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.
These three albums, I remember. They completely changed my perception of what music could be, because these songs were deep and they were soulful. The lyrics were beautiful, and I was quite literary already at that time.
By Sec 1, I had read every Agatha Christie book, for example. I started to want to emulate those singer-songwriters. And that's what happened from there.
But being a 14-year-old kid, nerdy, goofy kid…
Bharati Jagdish: Awkward?
Dick Lee: Awkward, and writing songs on piano at home…I wasn't the most popular person, and I was considered a bit weird.
I just wanted to be cool but was such a nerd, a strange nerd who played the piano and wrote songs, so eventually, I joined a group, “Harmony”.
My best friend was in this group, and he was a cool guy, so he joined and they needed a pianist, and I could play the piano. So I became the pianist of the group and slowly became more accepted, more cool.
I started to feel that I wanted to find my own path. But I felt so restricted. I felt like I was being put on this conveyor belt that I couldn't get off. And I didn't know how to get off it. I knew that if I went along with it, I'd probably go the way that everyone else was going. Finish O-levels, go to A-levels, go to university, get a job.
Career counsellors and even my parents were talking to me about what I was going to do. I was good at debating, good at talking, so I was maybe going to be a lawyer.
My uncle, Lee Kip Lin, a famous architect, encouraged me to consider architecture because I liked to draw. All these thoughts came to my mind.
I suddenly realised that I didn't want to do any of these things. I needed the time to explore, and if I just went along, I wouldn't be given that chance, so I decided to get off the belt.
I failed all my exams on purpose. I sometimes I tell this story when I talk to schools and all the teachers are horrified when I say, "Don't worry! Don't need to pass your exam. If you don't want, just fail everything and then you'll be forced to find your own way."
Bharati Jagdish: You're a bad, bad influence, Dick.
Dick Lee: I know. But I guess, thinking back, what a daring thing that was to do. I'm so glad I did it because what happened was that I couldn't continue to A-levels, and so I had to go and find myself two years before National Service. So I went to work. I worked from 17.
Bharati Jagdish: I understand that you started working at your mum’s boutique, designing clothes for teenagers and running fashion shows. Weren't you scared, going off the beaten path?
Dick Lee: Well, I was just a kid. So there were no real responsibilities. I was very fearless because what is there to fear? I think that the generation, today's generation gives up so easily.
I get sent songs, demos. And I’ll tell them: “It shows that you're not experienced. How many songs have you written?” and they might say, “three songs”. Then I’ll tell them, "Write 50, and send me your 50." And then, I never hear from them. They just give up. They want an easy way. They want to be a star. They don't really have any passion. They don't know how to cultivate their passions. A kind of complacency, and the fact you don't need to think. Everything is being thought for you.
Bharati Jagdish: But you came from a relatively wealthy family. You had a safety net. Not all aspiring artists, musicians have that. They still have to make a living and spend time doing that, so you had the luxury of pursuing your passions, but they may not.
Dick Lee: Yeah, there is that possibility. But the other thing that's different now is that the arts scene has boomed. There are so many more options. There are lots of things that you could do if you like performing. You could be a theatre practitioner or you could play in an orchestra. Look at theatre. TheatreWorks. Beauty World came out of a few lawyers in a small room. It was just passion that created all these things. Look at theatre now. When you have a play, you can apply for funding. Musicians too can do that.
Bharati Jagdish: So what do you think needs to happen to encourage people to pursue their passions and really follow through?
Dick Lee: The thing is that they're being spoon-fed, so how do you stop. The government is trying to help, but then, maybe, too much money is being put into all these places to help citizens. That's a good thing, but I think the result is not so good now. I think they need to pull back a bit.
Bharati Jagdish: So are you saying cut funding?
Dick Lee: I don't know what needs to be done. I think that they need to be out on their own a bit more. I think, yes, make it harder, but the danger is that they'll just give up. But, I'm finding that the over-30s are starting to realise that what they were taught was not so good after all.
Bankers are starting to weave macrame nets. They're starting to quit their jobs and open cafes and I think that is going to be interesting because that is going to create a new sub-culture fuelled by passion. So maybe they're going to come out of it.
(Photo: Joel Low)
THE MAD CHINAMAN
Bharati Jagdish: I want to talk about identity. In your autobiography The Adventures of the Mad Chinaman, you mentioned your time in London when you made an appointment to showcase your music to someone at a recording label, and you mentioned that the man said to you, "So you're Chinese. What have you got to say musically, as a Chinese?"
You said you were stunned, no one had ever asked you that before, and it made you think, "What did I have to say as a Chinese, as a Singaporean? Absolutely nothing", was what you said.
Dick Lee: Up to that point, I had been very confidently writing songs, almost over-confidently, thinking of myself as a great songwriter. And so, what he said really struck me. I decided that this is exactly what I must be doing, and I hadn't been doing it.
Bharati Jagdish: So how did you do it? You’ve said before that your first break came perhaps from an audition you did at Rediffusion for their folk song contest and ended up landing a gig as a guest artist on their talent show and that at some point you wanted to write something Singaporean. How did you define that at that point?
Dick Lee: This is the big, big problem I had then. It wasn't clear what being Singaporean meant. So even if I want to write a Singaporean song, how do I do it? And so, the first approach I took was to make it sound Singaporean, and so I put Singlish in it. And the second thing I thought, "What should the song be about?" So I realised it should be about food, because we all like to eat and Singapore dishes are unique. So I wrote the song called Fried Rice Paradise. And I sang it at the finals, and just like in a movie, one of the judges, from EMI, came backstage and offered me a recording contract. He said that he never heard anything like this and he was British. It took a Brit to recognise that he had heard something that was Singaporean.
Bharati Jagdish: Perhaps it’s because, as Singaporeans, we’re too familiar with it.
Dick Lee: You know, the 90s, the 80s to 90s was the age of fusion, and everything fusion. Food was fusion and, you know, sushi entered the market and Zen things, and all that. So that was a very artificial era of East meets West. This is why, I think you can't do it that way anymore, just put Singlish in a song and call it Singaporean. People may laugh at it, if you did it today. We’ve moved on from there.
Bharati Jagdish: What, in your view, is the best way to do it today?
Dick Lee: Well, I think you have to be confident in yourself. And that is what I have been striving to be. To know who I am. As a Singaporean, as a Peranakan, you know, as a nation So this is all the big issues that I have, you know, so who am I? I mean, why am I making this? What am I making music as? What am I saying, you know? I think that not enough musicians today are conscious of this. Of finding themselves.
BEING SINGAPOREAN AND GOING GLOBAL
Bharati Jagdish: Some artists complain that it’s harder to gain acceptance today from the Singaporean audience.
Dick Lee: It's so difficult to go into this because of the issue of language. You can't say that Singaporeans don't accept Singaporean musicians, because the Chinese market certainly does. But in English, that is another problem because in English, the problem I faced was that I'm competing with all English-language music from the world. And in those days, our product was inferior.
Even if my songwriting was strong, you had better products from the West, better-marketed products. So, if you're a fan of music in English, more likely you're going be a fan of some band in the States rather than a local band. But that's changing. I see that a lot of local bands, like the Sam Willows, for example, and Gentle Bones, they're all having good support. But the problem is our market size. However good that support is, it's just not enough to give them a sustainable career.
Bharati Jagdish: So they have to go global.
Dick Lee: I think there's still a race issue.
Bharati Jagdish: How so?
Dick Lee: I can't see in the foreseeable future where American audiences will really go crazy for a Singaporean-Chinese singer, because they have so many of their own musicians and this a problem we're already seeing in the Chinese market. In the 90s and early 2000s, Singaporean artistes could break into the Taiwanese market. But now they're thinking why should they sign the Singaporeans? They have so many talents of their own.
Bharati Jagdish: So what do they need to break into international markets in spite of the obstacles you’ve mentioned?
Dick Lee: I don't know what happened. Why is it that Singapore talent was able to break into the Chinese market, but then how come I broke into the Japanese market, I also don't…
Bharati Jagdish: What do you think it was?
Dick Lee: I think it was just the right time, right place. I came up with something that the Japanese noticed as being completely original, and that was when I tried to do something Singaporean. So, my answer to questions like these are in my own experience, my best successes have been when I tried to be Singaporean, and I made it a point to be Singaporean.
Bharati Jagdish: Because that’s unique.
Dick Lee: And if I try to just write a song that sounds like an Elton John song, and it just -
Bharati Jagdish: What's the point?
Dick Lee: Yeah, what's the point. But when I wrote Home...
Bharati Jagdish: So if you had to put it in words, what does it mean to be Singaporean and how can that be projected through a distinct Singapore sound that would make even global audiences sit up and listen?
Dick Lee: I think I need to go back to the journey of finding myself through my music. I mean, if we could just go back to what happened when Fried Rice Paradise was released on my first album in 1974. The first album being Life Story and Fried Rice Paradise was on it. What happened when that was released was that Radio Television Singapore banned the song.
Bharati Jagdish: Because of the Singlish in it.
Dick Lee: Correct. So that was very discouraging. That taught me better not to try to be Singaporean. It's bad. However, Rediffusion liked it and they played it, so that the song became popular that way, and of course Singaporeans who heard it enjoyed it. It became a kind of a cult hit, and that was the first inkling I had. But I was struggling with this, whether or not I should put my Singaporean-ness in my music.
Bharati Jagdish: But here's the thing. What is your Singaporean-ness? Aside from Singlish, what is it?
Dick Lee: In the early days, I had to use things like Singlish and write about landmarks. I didn't know how else. So I started by doing it that way. All my attempts in the 80s, when I came from my studies in England, failed because there was no interest in what was Singaporean. There was no interest from the public. That's very, very important.I did an album in 1984 called Life in the Lion City, about Singaporean things. Nobody was interested in what I had to say. There was Singlish in it. There was everything, but they didn't care.
Bharati Jagdish: Why?
Dick Lee: Because maybe that was a period when we were really growing. We were getting out of Third World status. We were trying to be as international as possible. Until the national songs started appearing in the National Day Parade in 1984. So from those years, the years that followed, through, I don't know you want to say…indoctrination, and -
Bharati Jagdish: Conditioning.
Dick Lee: Conditioning. Propaganda. The public, Singaporeans started to have a sense of national pride, and I think it's those national songs that did it.
Bharati Jagdish: You're saying it's about timing, it's about the zeitgeist.
Dick Lee: And the development of a psyche, and culture of a country that's very, very new.
Bharati Jagdish: So what would you say is that distinctive Singapore sound?
Dick Lee: Why must it be distinctive? This is the thing that I realised in the 90s, when I went to Japan, because the more I experimented with it, I found that I was trying too hard. I would think okay, let's make a song Chinese. Let's put some Chinese instrumentation, maybe the er hu. So, immediately it sounds Chinese, right? But does it make it Chinese? A Westerner could have done that too.
Bharati Jagdish: But you have said that you succeeded over the years because you made it a point to be Singaporean. So if someone is searching for that today, what would your advice be?
Dick Lee: I realised that I needed to stop looking for the sound. I needed to just feel. Mad Chinaman became a hit in Asia, and I went to Japan. The Singaporeans embrace it, but regardless of that, the Japanese journalist who found it didn't know that it was a hit in Singapore. He just heard it, and he said that it sounded very, very different. And he couldn't pinpoint what it was.
And later on, the producer who eventually produced my other albums told me, when he heard the first track that opens the album, Rasa Sayang, it felt like a tropical breeze washed over the whole room. That is such an intangible thing. It's like a scent, and I think that made me realise that it's a feeling.
The producer didn't know it felt Singaporean, because he had never been here, but that was a clue for me. That was a little hint. In the 90s, when I was in Japan, I started to experiment with the idea of not trying so hard to make it sound Asian, because at that point I was trying to be Asian.
I was waving an Asian flag, rather than the Singapore flag.
And I started to think, “Okay, I'm Asian anyway, why do I have to work so hard to make a point of it.”
I was going for the feeling of being Singaporean. I tried to just write from the heart, and my heart, being a Singaporean heart, would direct me, musically.
I think a musician today, a Singaporean musician today needs to find a way to be Singaporean. Because if not, then what are you? You also need to give the audience something new and different, because you're not from their country.
It’s so difficult, but I mean it took me a lifetime to find the thing that I'm really comfortable with and to find the confidence to say that whatever I write is Singaporean.
This is what I know now. And it has somehow been imbued into my own style. As a songwriter, I have my own personal style, and I think there is a Singaporean thing, a scent of being Singaporean in my style.
Bharati Jagdish: Can you put it in words? What is this Singaporean scent?
Dick Lee: It should not be definable. What makes an American song American?
Bharati Jagdish: Aside from the accent, what else, right?
Dick Lee: Yeah. You somehow know it.
Bharati Jagdish: Do you think you'll be able to write another Home?
Dick Lee: I wrote one last year.
Bharati Jagdish: Our Singapore.
Dick Lee: Yeah.
Bharati Jagdish: Didn't do so well. There was a lot of criticism.
Dick Lee: Home had the same criticism at the start. Home opens with a negative line.
"Whenever I'm feeling low.” Nobody liked that. Everybody said, "What kind of Singapore song starts like that?" But if the public likes it, they're going to just like it and they're just gonna continue using it.
Bharati Jagdish: So you feel Our Singapore might grow on people as well?
Dick Lee: Yeah, maybe. I'm already being asked to perform it this year at the anniversary of Lee Kuan Yew's death.
Bharati Jagdish: Now, you do have your detractors as well. Some people have called your music propaganda-laced. What do you have to say to that?
Dick Lee: These days, it seems like I write national songs and musicals. I'm not inspired to make albums. Who buys albums? So now, the music work I do is all commissioned.
(Photo: Joel Low)
Bharati Jagdish: Why don't you want to do your own work anymore?
Dick Lee: I'm not inspired anymore.
Bharati Jagdish: Why not?
Dick Lee: I don't have time now, and I've moved on to other things, and...I don't know, I'm not motivated to write.
Bharati Jagdish: What used to inspire you?
Dick Lee: I used to want to just make music.
Bharati Jagdish: How does it feel to not be inspired anymore? Do you regret that?
Dick Lee: No, no. I don't because I perform. A lot. I perform my songs.
Bharati Jagdish: But does it make you happy? Doing only that?
Dick Lee: Yeah! It pays well. Yeah, it's all business now. It has been for the last 20 years. The minute I went to Japan, it was a career. I joined an industry.
Bharati Jagdish: How much of the commercial work is inspired by artistry or is that completely on the back-burner in the quest to be a commercial success, or doing commissioned work? It sounds like you’ve sold out.
Dick Lee: There's an art in that. How do you make a song popular? Everyone must be able to sing it. Then it becomes popular. So to write a song that everyone can sing is artistry.
Bharati Jagdish: But where is “you” in all of this?
Dick Lee: I am in all of this. That's me. Luckily my personal tastes are very, very plebian. I have no aspirations to be avant garde, and I don't even understand it. I just come from a mass market sensibility and I like blockbusters, I like musicals, for example.
My taste is very mass. My own personal taste. And I think that is the harder nut to crack, because it's very easy to be self-indulgent and do some strange piece, you know?
But it's so hard to please the masses. And get into the way they think, and that's where I come from and that's where my audience base is. And that's why I've lasted 40 years in this business.
Bharati Jagdish: That's the reason for your longevity?
Dick Lee: I think so.
DICK LEE, THE FILM-MAKER
Bharati Jagdish: You started off solely as an artist. Aren’t you sad that that is not entirely the case anymore, that the commercial imperative has to take centre stage?
Dick Lee: Yes, so I think this year is the time for me to do that, and that's why I'm making a film, for example. I'm going to start doing a lot more passion projects.
Bharati Jagdish: So tell me more about this film.
Dick Lee: It's a new challenge, something I've always wanted to do. Didn't have the opportunity, didn't have the know-how. I still don't have the know-how, so I have a co-director. And the thing is that MM2, the film producing company that came to me, originally came to me with the idea to do a film about my teenage days, and how I became a musician.
And at first, I rejected it, and I said, "No, lah, not interesting."
And I wrote another story, but after a few years, the film got postponed a few years because I did two NDPs in a row and all. So finally, I'm doing it, and finally we've gone back to the original idea.
Bharati Jagdish: Why did you reject it at first?
Dick Lee: I don't know. I have no idea. I just felt, "No, no, no, I don't want to talk about that."
But then, you know, in my show, in my concert, The Adventures of the Mad Chinaman concert, I do talk about it, and everybody loves that story of how I got my auditions and basically, it's a story of a nerd who wants to be cool. So it's a coming-of-age story about dreams.
Bharati Jagdish: What made you made you want to eventually do it, when at first, you seemed so unwilling?
Dick Lee: He convinced me. He said that it's a great story, you should do this and he said, "Singapore needs to hear this."
Bharati Jagdish: Do you think Singapore needs to hear this?
Dick Lee: Well, I think Singapore needs to see what the early 1970s were like and how difficult it was, what a different place Singapore was when I was growing up. I want to depict that. One of the things was how it was easy to buy drugs. We were smoking weed in school. How detrimental that could have been. And this was just at the cleaning up point, 1970 to 1971. It was a cowboy town, Singapore. There were gangs, there were gangsters.
Bharati Jagdish: Why do you think it’s important for us to know all these things?
Dick Lee: I think a lot of people don't know. A lot of the young generation have no idea that it was like that. And how easy they have it. You know, what the struggle it was for us even to play music. We used to play secretly. Also, the message there is to believe in yourself and just pursue it.
Bharati Jagdish: At this stage in your life, do you have any regrets?
Dick Lee: Yes. I think one of the biggest ones would be letting it go to my head. Becoming difficult, becoming unreasonable sometimes. Being a diva, in other words, you know? That's all so unnecessary.
Bharati Jagdish: Any specific examples?
Dick Lee: Oh, just being insensitive to my family. Just behaving badly, basically. And not caring about what I say and hurting people by my actions, just because I'm not happy, no other reason.
Bharati Jagdish: And you think you're a big star?
Dick Lee: Yeah.
Bharati Jagdish: How long were you like this before you realised you shouldn’t be?
Dick Lee: Years, years. It's not that I'm always like this, but I think...I let it get the better of me quite easily – get to a point where you just become very unreasonable.
Bharati Jagdish: What made you realise you shouldn't?
Dick Lee: I started to hurt people I loved. And that was painful to watch.
Bharati Jagdish: What would you like your legacy to be?
Dick Lee: I have a lot of works that already are in repertory, like Beauty World which just had its fifth production after 17 years, so I'm not worried about that. I think that Home is a song that hopefully will continue to be sung. That's all. That's enough, that's more than enough. And besides that, I have a couple of Chinese songs which are now evergreen, because they appeared in the 90s. That's my claim to fame.
Bharati Jagdish: If it had to be encapsulated in one line. “Dick Lee was...”
Dick Lee: Composer. He wrote hit songs.
Bharati Jagdish: Really, as simple as that?
Dick Lee: Well, I'm a musician at the end of the day. Take everything, strip everything away, I'm a singer-songwriter. “Singer” had to come with it because no one else would sing my songs. But I'm a songwriter.