Interview with PIONEER Magazine for General Lee/Speaking: Singaporeana

PHOTO: PIONEER Magazine

PIONEER Magazine recently interviewed me and General Lee for a story on General Lee/Speaking: Singaporeana. A big thank you to Benita Teo for the well-written story, as well as Chua Soon Lye for the brilliant pictures.

You can read the story and view the pictures in their entirety here. I’ve also included it below for archival purposes.

Also, more PIONEER-related posts here.


GENERAL LEE – SINGAPORE’S HIGHEST RANKING BAND
// STORY BY BENITA TEO
// PHOTOS BY CHUA SOON LYE & COURTESY OF INTERVIEWEES

How did Redhill get its name? Who was Radin Mas and why are so many places named after her? Why is Opium Hill an important part of Singapore’s history?

Many of us may have forgotten these local myths and legends. Rock-and-roll band General Lee is hoping that through their music, Singaporeans will remember the stories of their childhood, and re-discover our country’s rich culture and heritage.

Formed in 2013, the band is made up of lead singer 3rd Sergeant (3SG) (NS) Lin Jiahe, 40; guitarist 1SG (NS) Victor Chen, 41; drummer Corporal First Class (CFC) (NS) Lin Hanrong , 38, and bassist Major (MAJ) (NS) Isaac Tan, 40.

Having honed their craft in other bands, playing covers in pubs and bars, the members of General Lee came together to release their eponymous album of original music in 2016, singing about famous local landmarks in songs such as Redhill Remorse, The Ballad of Bukit Brown and Radin Mas Ayu.

PIONEER catches up with the band in the studio, where they are rehearsing for their upcoming Esplanade show, titled General Lee/Speaking: Singaporeana. This time, they have a fifth “instrument” – poet Lieutenant (LTA) (NS) Laremy Lee, 39, who will be adding a new dimension to their music with his spoken word performance.

Thanks for letting us crash your rehearsal! Tell us more about your upcoming live show!
3SG (NS) Lin: It’s a music and spoken word performance that’s part of Foreword, Esplanade’s annual festival of spoken, narrated and musically interpreted words, stories and literary texts. We’ll be performing songs from our album, accompanied by Laremy’s poems, which were written specially for the show.

Your songs put a unique spin on the stories of our heritage and culture. Why did you choose this topic?
MAJ (NS) Tan:
We often hear young Singaporeans say things like: “Ah, Singapore’s history is so manufactured, we have no heritage, unlike other countries.” But if you dig deeper, you’ll find the heritage, culture, history and mythology that many of us overlook. And Jiahe does a brilliant job at writing about history, rather than frivolous stuff about girls, rock ‘n’ roll and drinking—

1SG (NS) Chen: —although we do have a song about girls, rock ‘n’ roll and drinking! (laughs)

It’s not every day we see a performance that marries rock-and-roll and poetry.
3SG (NS) Lin: We wanted a cross-medium performance that is not commonly seen. We thought about working with a poet, and Laremy was the first person who came to mind.

All of us were from the same hall of residence at NUS (National University of Singapore)! We first worked with Laremy in 2020, when we made a video of The Ballad of Bukit Brown and Laremy wrote a poem that was a response to the song. We put it online and people loved it.

1SG (NS) Chen: This time, we’ve rearranged our music to suit the poetry better. We also have musicians accompanying us on instruments like the mandolin and banjo, which gives the performance an American folk music flavour.

One of the songs you’ll be playing is Opium Hill, which recounts the iconic battle of Pasir Panjang and the heroism of LTA Adnan Saidi and the Malay Regiment’s 1st Battalion. What was the inspiration behind this song and its complementary poem, Hung, by the legs, on a cherry tree?
1SG (NS) Chen: When I was researching for this song, I noticed that a lot of old American country songs were written about historic battles such as the Civil War.

Singapore also fought a number of battles during World War II (WWII), and Opium Hill (or Bukit Chandu) is the site of the battle that we read the most about in history textbooks. Such songs also tend to have a personality attached to them – in this case, LTA Adnan is the hero.

LTA (NS) Lee: While I was researching about the battle, the phrase “hung, by the legs, on a cherry tree” kept appearing. I’m always looking at duality. When the Japanese did this to LTA Adnan, it was to dishonour him for decimating their soldiers.

But at the same time, it has become a symbol of pride for us, because he is a son of our land who defended us. The same image (represented) honour and dishonour at the same time.

Did your experiences in National Service (NS) influence the writing of Opium Hill and Hung, by the legs, on a cherry tree?
LTA (NS) Lee: Definitely. Writing the poem made me recount my own experiences during military exercises when I was a Platoon Commander in 696th Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment (696 SIR).

I recall the anticipation, the adrenaline rush and the smell and cacophony of blank rounds being fired, and thinking: so this is some semblance of how people feel in wartime. Thinking back about my experience helped me channel some of these ideas and emotions into my writing.

3SG (NS) Lin: I was an Infantry Scout Commander in 754 SIR. I fondly recall a particular knoll in one of my training areas that gave me the inspiration for Opium Hill. The image of soldiers lying in wait in a defensive position on top of that knoll was what I envisioned the brave 42 probably saw and felt in that dire situation as they fought to defend their homeland.

1SG (NS) Chen: As an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Specialist, I was on standby as part of 36SCE’s (36th Battalion, Singapore Combat Engineers’) first response team the day after September 11 in 2001. Watching the events unfold that evening before I booked into camp was a sober reminder that Singapore’s defence lay in our hands. I wanted to convey that sentiment by portraying the bravery at Opium Hill in the medium closest to my heart – music.

CFC (NS) Lin: I used to be a drummer in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Band before being posted as an infantry soldier to 812 SIR, where I carried out island defence. I recall us writing Opium Hill when my unit was preparing to be operational. The battle simulations helped me see through the eyes of our war heroes when we were writing this song.

MAJ (NS) Tan, you’ve been a ROVERS (Reservist on Voluntary Extended Reserve Service) since 2019 and you’re currently the S3 of 737 Gds (737th Battalion, Singapore Guards). What gives you the motivation to keep serving?
MAJ (NS) Tan: I used to be an Officer Commanding (OC) in 745 Gds – a rather unwilling one. But my turning point was this one mission – I was exhausted and my men surrounded me and gave me water. Someone said: “Sir, if you peng (collapse) now, who will lead us?” To this day, that’s what’s kept me going, and I ended up seeing them through to the end of their ORNS (Operationally Ready NS) cycle.

It was also my wife’s idea! When I asked her if I should continue to extend my service, she said to me, “If not you, then who?”

I feel a sense of duty towards the junior and senior commanders and all the men who rely on me, and I want to help them understand why they must defend this land. At the end of the day, as long as they can go out with good memories that they can share with their families, and build strong, long-term friendships outside of In-camp Training, I’m satisfied.

General Lee/Speaking: Singaporeana

In an extension of our previous collaboration, I will be performing together with my good friends General Lee in General Lee/Speaking: Singaporeana on Thu, 24 March 2022 from 7pm to 8.30pm at the Esplanade’s Concourse.

This is a music and spoken word performance focused on telling Singapore stories and will feature General Lee’s original songs from their their eponymous debut album released in 2016, as well as poems written by me in response to their music.

This interdisciplinary collaboration brings together music and literary arts to imagine (or reimagine) Singaporeana – Singapore stories of our country’s history, myths and legends, and to tell (or retell) them through word and song.

General Lee will also be rearranging their music in collaboration with The Good Company to incorporate acoustic instruments integral to American folk music such as fiddle, banjo, mandolin and dobro, in what is likely to be the first performance of its kind in Singapore.

The Good Company – comprising Kailin Yong, Greg Tucker-Kellogg, Kelly Olafson and Mark James Garratt – is a collective of musicians well-versed in the acoustic instruments that define the sound of Americana, or American folk music. This includes country, bluegrass and old-time music of the Appalachian Mountains.

More information can be found on the Esplanade’s website here.

See you then!

Looking beyond the pain over PSLE

Covid-19 has been tough on this year’s cohort, pointing to further action needed as the children go on to secondary school. Parents too need to consider the broader shifts in education and the lessons they impart their children in their responses to exam setbacks.

This year’s PSLE exposed a chasm between what the majority of this cohort of Primary 6 pupils were prepared for, and what they were ultimately able to do. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG


Laremy Lee
For The Straits Times

So palpable was the pain from this year’s mathematics primary school leaving examination (PSLE) that it even affected those of us who did not sit the exam.

It prompted my 29-year-old cousin to recount, over WhatsApp, her traumatic experience in 2004, when she sat for her PSLE: “For my cohort, our science PSLE was the toughest. Science was my best subject. But I could neither do the paper nor finish it in time. I was quite shaken and on the verge of breaking down. Our teachers confirmed it was the toughest science paper they had seen in years. So how (this cohort of) pupils must be feeling totally resonates with me.”

(Continue reading the full article here.)

(Published as “Looking beyond the pain over PSLE” on 7 Oct 2015 in The Straits Times.)