10 things to know about the 80s

The Straits Times and Business Times are organising an all-star concert in August to celebrate 50 years of popular music in Singapore. In this fourth instalment of a five-part series, RACHEL CHAN looks at the entertainment scene in the past 50 years

1 Speak Mandarin Campaign

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Launched in 1979 by Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the campaign made the strongest impact in the 1980s.

Rediffusion replaced all dialect programmes with Mandarin ones by 1983 and television programmes in dialect were phased out in 1981. Hong Kong's Cantonese dramas and Taiwan's Hokkien series had to be dubbed in Mandarin.

Until today, many can still remember the campaign theme song Da Jia Shuo Hua Yu (Let's Speak Mandarin), which was released in 1981.

Mr Tony Wong Ching Chi, a music specialist with the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, composed the melody and Mr Sun Yi, a writer with the China Television Service in Taiwan, wrote the lyrics. There were three versions: one was performed by Taiwanese singer Tracy Huang, one by veteran local singer Ling Xiao and one performed duet style by local performers Dawn Yip and Marcus Chen.


2 SBC drama serial theme songs

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When Radio Television Singapore was corporatised to form Singapore Broadcasting Corporation in 1980, it was given more money and muscle by the Ministry of Culture to upgrade its broadcasting services and deliver better programmes.

In 1984, it produced its first drama blockbuster The Awakening, which was sold to TV stations overseas. The 53-episode serial cemented Huang Wenyong and Xiang Yun’s status as the leading onscreen couple of the 1980s.

As viewership ratings of Channel 8 drama serials soared, so did the popularity of theme songs. Catchy tunes such as Voices From The Heart from Neighbours (1986 - 1988), Kopi-O from The Coffee Shop (1985 - 1986) and the title theme song of Sunshine After Rain (1987) were the top three favourites of TV viewers in the 1980s.


3 Xinyao

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Remember songs such as Kopi-O, Flowing Water and A Step At A Time? These locally composed Chinese songs were part of xinyao. The term “xinyao”, Mandarin for “Singapore folk songs”, was coined in 1982 at a seminar titled Wo Men Chang De Ge (The Songs We Sing). It was organised by Nanyang Xuesheng, a student supplement of the Nanyang Business Daily, and discussed the emerging trend of locally composed songs.

Throughout the 1980s, numerous concerts, competitions and album launches propelled the xinyao movement into the public consciousness. Eric Moo, Liang Wern Fook, Billy Koh and Roy Loi are some of the pioneers who achieved commercial success with songs.


4 Ramli Sarip

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At a time when long hair and rock music were frowned upon by the authorities, Ramli Sarip and Malay heavy metal rock group Sweet Charity were packing in the crowds at live performances.

Ramli, 63, fondly known as “Papa Rock” by fans and those in the industry, was a co-founder and frontman of Sweet Charity, which was said to have ignited a “rock explosion” in Singapore and Malaysia.

After Sweet Charity disbanded in 1986, Ramli continued pursuing a highly successful solo career with 12 solo albums under his belt. The iconic troubadour is known for his raspy vocals, straggly waist-length hair and flair for songwriting.

As a solo artist, he transitioned from more hard-rocking tunes to a more contemplative, Malay folk and traditional-inspired sound. His best-loved original compositions include Bukan Kerana Nama (Not For The Name) and Perjalanan Hidup (Journey Of Life).

Ramli spends most of his time in Malaysia and holds the honorary title of Datuk, which the state of Malacca conferred on him last year.


5 Madonna

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This pop diva raised eyebrows in conservative Singapore with her self-titled first album in 1983. She went on to titillate and provoke. The blend of religious images with sexual symbolism in the music video for Like A Prayer (1989) was deemed unfit for television and banned here.

That, however, did not stop Like A Prayer from becoming a best-selling album here in 1989, with 60,000 copies being snapped up in three months.


6 The Sony Walkman

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Before MP3 and the CD, the Sony Walkman was once responsible for changing the way people experienced music. Where vinyls once ruled the roost, the Walkman enabled audiophiles to enjoy stereo sound on the go.

The device, which made its debut in Japan in 1979, went on to sell 1.5 million units by the end of 1981. It was released in Singapore in 1980 at $300.

Taking Sony’s lead, other portable cassette players by brands such as Aiwa, Panasonic and Toshiba helped the cassette tape outsell vinyl records internationally for the first time in 1983. By 1986, the word “Walkman” entered the Oxford English Dictionary.


7 Hit album/cassette Class Acts (1985)

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Remember Roses by Gingerbread and Within You’ll Remain by Tokyo Square? These were two chart-toppers from Class Acts, an unpretentious compilation of nine songs by five Singapore bands – Tokyo Square, Gingerbread, Zircon Lounge, Speedway and Heritage. Produced by WEA Records, it sold 23,000 copies within the first three months of its release in 1985.


8 Launch of BigO magazine

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This was an underground magazine which went beyond the printed word to promote local independent bands. Established in September 1985 by brothers Michael and Philip Cheah, BigO magazine, which stands for “Before I Get Old” ( a line from the song My Generation by English rock outfit The Who), devoted itself to promoting local music, particularly that of home-grown indie bands.

The monthly periodical, available at Baroque Records at Delfi Orchard, Supreme Records at Lucky Plaza and The Attic at Centrepoint, began as a monochrome photocopied publication and moved to full colour in 1992.

On top of publishing articles about Singapore acts, it released several of their demo tapes and CD compilations, and even organised concerts for home-grown indie bands such as The Oddfellows, Corporate Toil and Opposition Party.

One could get a cassette tape free with the purchase of the $2.50 magazine in 1986. BigO took a break from publication in 2002, but has since established a website.


9 Clampdown on piracy in 1987

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Those who were teens in the 1980s may remember going to the now-defunct Supreme Records to transfer music from vinyl to compact cassette tape, but this practice was officially criminalised after the Government passed the Copyright Act of Singapore in April 1987.

This was a watershed year for intellectual property rights in Singapore, as the country established full copyright relations with the United States and set up the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore to safeguard the interests of local composers, lyricists and publishers. Many record shops selling pirated cassettes, which were all the rage in the 1980s, were subject to frequent raids after the enactment of the Copyright Act and many eventually went out of business.


10 Dick Lee

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Lee, an award-winning singer-songwriter, was a child prodigy who released his first original compositions in a 1974 album titled Life Story.

In 1985, he produced an album called Return To Beauty World, whose title track evolved into a musical three years later.

While Beauty World – a collaboration with playwright Michael Chiang – was not the first musical to grace a theatre stage here, the glittery extravaganza had several iconic theme songs and paved the way for future home-grown musicals.

In 1989, the platinum album The Mad Chinaman catapulted Lee to regional prominence. Comprising familiar ditties such as Rasa Sayang and Bengawan Solo, the album was inspired by his musical upbringing in Singapore.

This year, the 59-year-old celebrates his 40th anniversary in the arts and entertainment industry.

Sources: remembersingapore.org, The Straits Times, National Library Board, Jamie Koh for the National Library Board, Singapore Heritage Society, Singaporerevisited.wordpress.com, TIME.com