Attending a function yesterday to witness the gift of a cheque for $500,000 from the family of the Singaporean composer Leong Yoon Pin (who died last year) and the creation of a music fund named in his honour at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, I walked into the Lee Foundation Theatre just as a video was playing of an interview Leong himself gave in 2007.
In it he railed against local radio stations for not promoting the music of Singaporean composers. Even in 2007, though, I fear he was wide of the mark; the sole attempt in Singapore to offer a radio station devoted to classical music is so unutterably dreadful that its commitment to music at all has to be seriously questioned. Certainly live music is way off its agenda, and any hope Singaporean composers might get of an airing is totally forlorn.
Returning, momentarily, to the purpose of last night's event, it was an act of incredible foresight on behalf of the Leong family to create the fund and kick start it with such a generous donation, especially since its purpose is to encourage composition within the Academy. Training and supporting local composers is essential if the music scene in Singapore is to flourish, and while competitions and showcases might draw attention once-in-a-while to what is going on on the creative front, what is really needed is good, solid, behind-the-scenes support to those who are steadily developing their skills as composers. We had, at the function, examples of seven of Nanyang's student composers' works, and while these were very much works in progress – indeed, only two of them had been given proper titles – and probably will embarrass those composers when, in the years ahead, they look back on their early efforts, it showed that good, solid and worthwhile work is being done. The pieces may not all have had the ability to absorb an audience, but they all showed a high level of craft and, in some cases, a certain flair which, given careful nurturing, will grow into something worthwhile. For my money Muhamad Muhsin's String Quartet movement and Wee Ni Swen's Masquerade showed the most promise.
The thing is, as Leong said in his interview, composers "work in the background". But Singapore culture is all about up front sexy images, and few are willing to recognise, let alone support, the essential background work of composers in providing the environment in which the Vanessa-Maes and the Min Lees of this world can go on to become role models for today's aspiring musicians.
What is even less recognised here in Singapore is the importance of radio as a means of promoting classical music. My background is in radio and I have long been a passionate advocate of it. In Hong Kong I was involved in one of the great classical music radio stations of the world – RTHK Radio 4 – and I have no doubt the thriving and world-renowned status of Hong Kong as a classical music force is in large part fired by what the radio station does. As for my native UK, I am proud that it still boasts, in BBC Radio 3, a dedicated classical music channel which is the envy of the world - a trawl through local music blogs the other day found one claiming that BBC Radio 3 was "awesome – the greatest classical music radio channel on the planet" – and the commercial station Classic FM is about the most successful broadcaster in the UK at the moment. The classical music scene in the UK is certainly thriving, but rather than merely reflecting it, BBC Radio 3 positively feeds it – the BBC is the largest sponsor of classical music in the world and their list of works commissioned by British composers alone reads like a catalogue of every great British composition of the 20th century and beyond.
There is no argument. A dedicated classical music radio station is still essential in the development of a nation's classical music environment. The argument that "I can download all the music I want from You Tube", or, "I can access all the classical music radio stations of the world from the internet" is plain daft. The prime function of a local broadcaster is to cater for a local audience, even if those on the other side of the world can hear it too. People in Singapore know a disproportionate amount about what goes on in the UK classical music scene because they access the BBC online. People in the UK know absolutely nothing about what goes on in the Singaporean music scene because there is nothing to be found about it online. (True, the UK ranks second only to Singapore in readership of this blog – 1329 hits there, to be precise, yesterday - but I am hardly the ultimate resource for anyone looking to see what the state of musical life is here.) Radio stations serve two functions; serving the needs of the local community by providing both entertainment and education, and promoting a country to listeners overseas. Might I suggest that if you access Symphony 92.4 neither of those functions are being addressed in any way?
I spent some hours at the studios of Symphony 92.4 last month and was pretty appalled at what I saw. When I asked the long-suffering Programme Director what amount of live coverage she handled, the answer was an unequivocal "none". It was, I was told, "too expensive". In any other radio station, that would be a ridiculous answer, but to say Symphoyn 92.4 functions on a shoestring is to understate the case. They don't even have more than a handful of CDs, virtually all their playlists are bought in from an internet company on which they periodically superimpose presentation. But that presentation is horribly misguided. "We don't go in for that sterile and old-fashioned 'That piece was…Now we are going to play…", I was told. Instead they get "celebrities"' to chat every so often, "which is what the Singapore audience wants".
I seriously doubt that the Singapore audience really wants that, but even if they do, is it merely the function of a station dedicated to classical music to provide entertainment? Is there not both an educational and a promotional role to be played? I have suggested a series of programmes to Symphony 92.4 which would be both entertaining and educational, and have prepared some ideas for programmes which would serve as both an outlet and a showcase for young Singaporean composers. It would be cheap – because the composers themselves would produce the recordings and allow them to be played on air – but would it be popular? Probably not, but there comes a time when service to a community has to take precedence over pandering to their desires.
Clearly the state of classical music broadcasting in Singapore is pretty desperate, but the late Leong Yoon Pin could well do it a lot of good through his words than through his cheque book. The question is, will Singaporeans ever listen to him or do they only ever pay attention to written figures beginning with $ and ending with copious quantities of 000s?