On the Record: Gurmit Singh, actor, comedian, host
One of Singapore's most iconic funnymen, Gurmit Singh left a full-time career in television three years ago to spend more time with his family.
SINGAPORE: Gurmit Singh arrives at the Mediacorp campus for our interview in a black T-shirt, jeans and a black cap that augments his boyish charm. The receptionist who greets him is warmer than she usually is. Who wouldn’t be in the presence of one of Singapore’s most iconic funnymen?
I give them some time to chat before I walk up to the counter to take him to our studio for the interview. Gurmit is the kind of artiste one needs to be prepared to share with all Singaporeans. The characters he’s played, especially the curly-haired, mole-bearing contractor in yellow boots in the 1990s TV sitcom Phua Chu Kang (PCK) Pte Ltd, have made him not just famous, but deeply adored.
The receptionist and Gurmit have a friendly exchange. He laughs when she says she’s sorry that she doesn’t have a VIP pass for him. Throughout, he is unassuming and polite.
As we walk to the studio, I remark that in spite of having left a full-time career in television about three years ago, the spotlight somehow still manages to find him.
“You guys are the ones who are keeping me in the spotlight. I should thank you!
“I didn’t think a few years after leaving show business and at my age, you’d still want to talk to me,” he adds.
At 52, he has a few more lines on his face than he’d like, he says, but while he might be conscious of his age, he says that those around him generally don’t notice.
He’s right. The lines fade into oblivion as there is so much more to notice about Gurmit Singh – a man whose interest in being an entertainer was stoked in the SAF Music & Drama Company, who started his career in the 80s as a performer in Haw Par Villa’s amphitheatre shows, then moved to television to host variety shows like Live on 5 and Gurmit’s World and eventually played the titular character in Phua Chu Kang (PCK) Pte Ltd.
He is facetious, yet mature. He is loquacious, yet often taciturn.
He is a contradiction and this comes across even in his autobiography, What Was I Thinking? released in June this year.
He has also admitted as much in previous interviews, often saying that while his job requires him to be an extrovert, his instincts lean towards introversion.
Since leaving show business full-time, he’s been doing ad hoc TV and event-hosting gigs. PCK still makes appearances in Malaysia. His online business, GIV Global, a physical gold savings programme closed after two years because “the economy wasn’t right".
Right now, he has “no concrete plans” to start a business. He is involved in a multi-level-marketing travel company, but claims he just enjoys the travel perks and doesn’t do any active recruitment, something these companies are notorious for. He claims he’s careful about the companies he associates with. After all, his reputation is at stake
I ask him about the lessons he’s learnt since he left.
“I’ve learnt I’m an idiot,” he says in all seriousness. “I should have made more time for my family. My daughter and I recently went on a driving trip across Europe and I realised how much I’ve missed. It’s little things like learning what they like to do, what they like to eat.”
IT’S NOT ABOUT MATERIALISM
With endorsement deals and gigs on the decline, he and his family have had to be frugal.
He has often said his family understood and welcomed the move because it meant more family time.
For him, the transition was bittersweet.
“But now I make full use of the time I have with my family and I don’t regret it one bit because it’s so much more valuable,” he says.
This is when I decide to discuss the Lamborghini, a car he owned a few years ago when Mediacorp was still at Caldecott Hill. My newsroom used to be close to the open-air carpark and the roar of the engine signalling his comings and goings would penetrate the walls. Publicly, he was called a show-off.
When I raise this, I sense his struggle to hide how such talk perturbs him.
“I know you guys in the compound could hear the Lamborghini. I didn’t do it on purpose. It’s just how the engine is. I wasn’t trying to show off. I wasn’t pressing the accelerator.”
So what was the point of buying the car if it wasn’t to show off?
“To me, it’s not about materialism. I understand what’s been put into it - the effort and the blood, sweat and all that. It’s not just superficial. It’s like driving the Batmobile,” he says with the innocent exuberance of an excited kid.
“It’s like people who buy handbags … I don’t get it. But I know they do. So I respect that,” he adds.
So was he was unfairly judged?
“Some will straight away label a certain product with a certain kind of behaviour. They just can’t see beyond that. So maybe they are narrow-minded.”
He doesn’t have the Lamborghini anymore.
He drives a station wagon. His wife wanted it – a functional car.
“It’s ok. Good car,” he says with a grin.
Does he wish he would one day be able to afford a car like that again?
“No, it’s really not important anymore. I realised I’m happy with less.”
A DESIRE FOR ICE-CREAM
How those who’ve been born into poor families deal with money once they come into it or make it as adults has always fascinated me. Each person does it differently. The story of Gurmit’s relationship with money starts with a desire for ice-cream.
“I thought my mother was the stingiest woman ever."
"I was about eight years old and my mum and I were walking by an ice-cream shop. I asked her for one. Ice-cream then was five cents only, but she said no. I thought to myself: 'This woman is damn stingy! Five cents also cannot buy. What the heck is going on?'"
It was only in his teenage years that he realised how financially strapped his family was. His dad was working two jobs, one as a bank watchman. His mother was doing odd jobs and babysitting other people’s kids.
Now that money isn’t a struggle anymore, how does he feel?
“Even in my 20th year, I had to pinch myself. I couldn’t believe it.”
“CAN I PLEASE NOT BE A WATCHMAN?”
“My grandfather was a watchman at the bank and my father was a watchman at the bank, so I thought I was going to be a watchman at the bank too. But I remember praying as a 13-year-old boy, asking the universe: “Can I please not be a watchman?”
I point out that it’s a respectable job.
“Yes, it is, but I know how hard it is for a family to make ends meet on the salary. To be where I am still feels surreal.”
Could that be the reason behind his extravagances such as the car?
He doesn’t think so.
"I don’t deal too much with money because all our money goes to my wife. She is the CFO but she also knows I don’t have many weaknesses – just cars and a home maybe. I don’t buy expensive clothes or watches.”
It is his wife whom he credits with disciplining him. When they were courting, he admits sheepishly that he couldn’t “save for nuts”. Her idea to set up a joint savings account has ingrained in him a habit of saving that he hopes to pass on to his children.
He seems intent on proving he’s not plagued by avarice.
“This is going to sound boastful but the people who saw the house and the car probably don’t think that maybe I donate to charity as well. I do. But if I say that, they’ll say I’m boastful, so I don’t say it.”
I point out that he’s obviously not afraid of saying it now. Does he think admitting that it sounds boastful negates his boastfulness? Or does he genuinely not care what people say about him anymore.
“I realised when I first came on air that I can’t make everybody happy. A complaint was sent to management. It said: 'I don’t want to support Gurmit or his career ... because his hair parting is on the wrong side.'"
We both laugh raucously.
But even as he laughs, I sense he wishes nobody disliked him.
“I think most people wish everybody would love them. But it’s just not possible. I’ve had to accept that.”
“I'VE FAILED MY PARENTS”
Something he says he still hasn’t quite accepted is the loss of his parents. His mother died in 2001 and his father, in 2003.
He has said in several interviews that losing his parents made him depressed for years.
So has he finally truly gotten over losing them?
“You never really get over it. I’ve learnt to cope with it.”
He has an enduring regret.
“I dreamt of buying them a big mansion because they had such a hard life, buying them a limo and hiring a driver for them. When they passed away, I hadn’t done any of those things. I still feel I've failed my parents.
“They were very happy in their own HDB flat. They didn’t want to move in with me. Maybe if they had been alive longer, I could have at least gotten them a driver and a limo.”
Amid the regret, he says fond memories enter his mind every day.
“They liked to watch Hindi movies together and check out new HDB developments. That was their Lamborghini.”
He pauses and stares pensively at the floor.
“My parents were so cute,” he says wistfully, the timbre of his voice disrupted by a cracking sadness.
“As they got older, they started holding hands in public. I thought that was so romantic. They were actually very conservative when young.”
His family commemorates his parents’ deaths in “happy” ways.
His father loved bak kut teh, so on his death anniversary, they go out for a bak kut teh meal.
“On my mum’s death anniversary, we drink Sinalco or Green Spot which are not easy to find these days. Or we eat wanton mee. These were her favourite things.”
He admits life was simpler then.
During his growing-up years, Gurmit slept on a mattress on the floor and had a little drawer for his possessions.
“It was difficult but it was simple. You either had it or you didn’t. And you didn’t have to have it just because someone else had it. I’m starting to move towards that now.”
“I WON’T GET WITHDRAWAL SYMPTOMS IF I’M NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE”
Gurmit has often said that the thought of not being famous anymore doesn’t bother him.
If stripped of fame what would he do? He originally wanted to be a computer programmer and in fact started on the path to getting a diploma in the field. It was the job offer from the TV station that made him abandon that plan.
I ask him why computers and he jokingly asks: “Why not? You think I stupid, is it?”
He then explains the machines excite him because of the sheer tasks they are capable of.
THE BUTTERFLIES IN HIS STOMACH ARE "MOTHS AND HORNETS"
Gurmit has mentioned his introverted nature several times over the years. So how did an introvert find his funny bone?
“Before Secondary 1, I was very angry. I don’t know why. I would get into fights. One day I made my best friend cry and it made me think that if I kept doing this, I would have no friends. That scared me and I thought I better be more jovial and I started clowning around.”
But he adds: “It still takes a lot for me to get in front of the camera, in front of people to do what I do. I’m always scared. The butterflies in my stomach are more like moths and hornets.
"But once I step out on the stage, the camera, it’s not about me anymore. It’s about the audience. Performing and touching people with my work makes me really happy so I’m okay to put up with the discomfort I feel before.“
Many of the characters he has played are caricatures - a Chinese contractor and an Indian snack-seller among them. He declares his mixed parentage proudly. He’s half Indian, a quarter Chinese and a quarter Japanese, but could the roles he’s played be damaging people’s perceptions of the various racial groups in Singapore?
“Every culture has its stereotypes. We need to educate our children about racism in other ways. There are real-life examples of real people they need to be exposed to, but to take all these characters out of entertainment too would be going too far. There need to be more roles depicting minority races in various roles, not just in caricatures, but I think in the end, we are just one race: The human race.”
MORE DRAMATIC ROLES ON THE CARDS?
Today he wants to develop his craft in more dramatic roles. He speaks proudly about his role in the 2013 movie Taxi! Taxi!. Performing in a particularly poignant scene gave him immense satisfaction.
“The aim is to impact the audience. It’s to make you cry, to make you laugh, to make you wonder. If I can, I’m happy.”
So is he actively looking for a more serious role?
“I always believe that if you force something, it won’t work. I’m just keeping my mind open, my channels open, talking to people, letting people talk to me.”
Having directed some episodes of PCK, he wants to explore his directorial talents further too, but he’s not actively seeking projects.
He goes on to lament how some in the industry become disillusioned quickly because they do it for the wrong reasons – the money, the perks, but don’t realise the hard work involved.
So what did he do it for? The money? The fame?
“No. I did it simply because I enjoyed it. It was fun in spite of my fear.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF FUN
He found out very early on that it was vital to have fun on the set.
“When people laugh, the inhibitions are gone. That’s when they become more creative.
"Sometimes the props guy would get involved in directing and often their ideas are great.”
He feels this is lacking in the education system. His own children are 20, 16 and four years old.
“Our students don’t have fun in school. The education system isn’t changing fast enough to make our students expressive, creative and confident.”
Parents who hot-house their children make him angry.
“They want their children to do well in exams, but their children will actually benefit from more play.”
He claims he refuses to let his kids get drawn into the rat race, going as far as to take them out to watch movies during exam time.
In a world of instant fame, I wonder how Gurmit compares his experience and whether he’s concerned the medium that he was such a big part of might become irrelevant?
“We just have to make it interesting and exciting for people. Content is still the most important thing.”
What would he say to viewers who say the quality of Singapore-made TV programmes is questionable compared to imported shows?
"There are foreign shows out there that are good, but there are bad ones too. The bad ones are not acquired and therefore are never shown here. We only see the good ones. So is that a fair comparison?”
STILL STRUGGLING WITH AN INFERIORITY COMPLEX
While he speaks with conviction, he brings up the fact that he hasn’t managed to shrug off his inferiority complex. I’m curious to know what fuels it.
“I don't know. I was always very bad in school, wasn’t very good at anything. So all these things subconsciously played out in my head. I would tell myself I’m ugly.”
He breaks eye contact for a moment.
“Sometimes I was so depressed that I thought of ending it. But I realised that if I took my own life, it would cause permanent depression to my parents, so I didn’t. Nowadays, I cope by telling myself that if I say that I’m ugly, I’m actually implying that my parents are ugly too. So how can I be ugly?”
His faces brightens again as he tells me that being funny has helped a lot. “Then people stop noticing my imperfections.”
Doesn’t he wish these insecurities would stop plaguing him?
“I do. But also I feel that they’ve kept me grounded.”
As we end our conversation, his parents come up again.
Asked what he would like to be remembered for, he says: “I think it will be a great homage to my parents if people remember me as a good person: a good father, husband, friend, colleague. I think that’s what my parents wanted me to be also. Just a good person. That’s what I want on my tombstone.”