Experimental Music in Singapore
The experimental music scene in Singapore emerged in 1990s and grew out of the underground rock music scene of the 1980s. In this sense, the experimental scene has a shared history with the development of popular music in Singapore that occurred concurrently with Western popular music movements. Over the past 20 years, the scene has gained momentum and developed into a small, yet vibrant community. Similar underground experimental music scenes have also emerged throughout South-East Asia, e.g., in Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, Yogyakarta, Jakarta and other major centers, which has led to an increase in experimental musical activity in the region.
This paper is a reflective account of the experimental music scene in Singapore that weaves a narrative of my activities and associations as a musician, event organizer, and academic. I lived in Singapore from mid-2006 to mid-2015 where I worked at LASALLE College of the Arts as a Lecturer in Popular Music. During this period I was an active participant in the jazz and experimental music scenes as a drummer and electronic musician. I organized many experimental music performances, including three festivals in 2008, 2010 and 2015 under the name of C.H.O.P.P.A.. It was during these activities that I came in contact with most of the people discussed in this paper, many of whom were either colleagues, friends or acquaintances. The experimental music activities discussed relate to live performances by practitioners who use either acoustic instruments, electronics, computers or any combination of these in a predominantly improvised setting.
In addition to detailing my own experiences, I will be drawing upon interviews, online resources, and relevant literature on the topic. To date there is no definitive written history of the experimental music scene in Singapore, and the topic remains relatively undocumented, with a few exceptions (Tham 2009; Lindborg 2014). Although this paper does provide an overview of experimental music activity over the past 20 years, it does not attempt to be a definitive history; instead, it relates a personal narrative that can contribute towards documentation in this area and hopefully encourage further investigation. This paper will first address how changes in government cultural policy have impacted the arts in Singapore and highlight key performance venues before tracing the early development of the experimental scene through the 1980s and into the 1990s. The decade of activity from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s – which saw the emergence of some of Singapore’s first dedicated experimental musicians – will then be discussed, before finally outlining my own organizational activities and other events that took place from the mid-2000s to 2015.
Singapore’s development into an economic powerhouse since independence from Britain in 1959 has transformed it culturally, economically, socially, and politically. Government cultural policy established after independence focused on fostering nation building and included three key objectives; “ creating a sense of national identity among the various races, eliminating communal divisions and social antagonisms, and  enhancing the capabilities of the mass media so as ‘to transform the people’s understanding of themselves and the country’" (Ng 2010: 302 as cited in Zubillaga-Pow 2014: 203). The government sought to achieve social cohesion through these objectives and was not tolerant of anything that threatened the accomplishment of these goals.
The decade that followed after Jek Yuan Thong became the Minister of Culture in 1968 saw some of the most radical governance and implementation of policies with regard to culture “to promote Asian art and values as ‘cultural ballast’ against ‘Western decadence’" (Zubillaga-Pow 2014: 205). Popular rock ’n’ roll was specifically targeted in the period from the late 1960s to the end of the 1970s as representing “Western decadence” due to its association with sex and drugs. Deemed “yellow culture,” Western rock was perceived to threaten the very fabric of society. The government policies that promoted Asian values of hard work, social stability, responsibility, morality, and community also led to “massive social engineering campaigns, government-controlled mass media and laws to keep public behavior and potential dissent under control" (Lockard 1998: 233). From the 1960s through the 1980s, various social, workplace, environmental, road safety, and public health campaigns were implemented by the government. The banning of local dialects on national radio and television – in favor of the officially recognized languages of Mandarin, Tamil, Malay, and English – was particularly detrimental to pluralism in Singapore. Anyone who challenged the government and its policies faced law suits, harassment, and even incarnation – a threat that still exists today, although there has been a relaxing of the enforcement of these policies in recent years.
Set against this backdrop, the popular music scene in Singapore suffered greatly throughout the 1970s, with many of the venues and bars associated with “decadent” Western culture either being closed down by the authorities or not being able to renew their entertainment licenses. These policies reached well into the 1980s, resulting in a declining music scene. However, the end of the 1980s saw a major shift in attitude towards the arts as the authorities began to regard the potential of the arts as a growth area. After achieving many of their socio-political and economic objectives, the government sought to establish a cultural superstructure that could support Singapore becoming an international arts hub. This led to the reevaluation of cultural policy and to the establishment of the National Arts Council (NAC) in 1991, culminating in the Renaissance City Plan (RCP) launched in 2000 by the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts.
The vision for the RCP was "to transform Singapore into a distinctive global city for the arts" and signaled the state recognition of the arts as integral to developing a culturally vibrant society. The plan was unprecedented in its scope and included a broad-based approach for the development and sustainability of the arts through educational and outreach programs, institutional support, funding for arts companies and artists, new arts spaces, galleries, performance venues, theaters, art schools, scholarships, as well as funding for major festivals and arts events. By 2012, after achieving many of the initiatives put forward by the RCP, the government announced it would spend a further SGD$ 274 million over the next five years to further nurture the arts (Tan 2015).
The experimental music scene finds itself on middle ground with regard to the impact of the state funding. As an art form operating on the fringes, much of the activity is independently produced, yet the scene has been affected by many practitioners being direct recipients of funding, through funding for larger scale events and festivals, and through support for arts venues or institutions that host experimental music events. In addition, many foreign academics involved in experimental music came to Singapore as a consequence of the government’s arts educational policy. Music and sound arts programs at institutions such as LASALLE College of the Arts, School of the Arts Singapore (SOTA), The School of Art, Design and Media (ADM) at Nanyang Technological University, Yong Siew Toh at National University of Singapore as well as Singapore Polytechnic and Republic Polytechnic have incorporated experimental music practices as part of their pedagogical approaches.
With many of the goals of the RCP to develop a cultural superstructure achieved, it is still debatable whether or not the arts community has had enough time to mature in order to sustain the structure. Although the effects of the RCP have benefitted a number of Singaporean experimental musicians and contributed towards an increase of activity in the past 10 years, attitudes towards the government within the community are often critical, especially in regard to censorship. On the other hand, many artists are ambivalent due to a belief that there is little they can do to change the status quo. In an interview on January 30, 2016, George Chua pointed out that many musicians view receiving government funding as simply “playing the game” or, in other words, a means to achieving their artistic goals and objectives. It appears most artists are receptive towards the opportunities that state funding can provide, yet for some there is somewhat of an existential dilemma between wanting to remain independent and having to deal with the harsh financial realities of pursuing a career in the arts in a country with such a high cost of living.