Johor getai singers flocking to Singapore

Singaporean sisters Susan (left) and Regina Yeo (far left) take on the competition by playing musical instruments during their shows. Malaysian acts, such as Sun Cola (top), 18, and Fang Fun (above), 50, are known to jazz up their shows with dazzling
Malaysian acts, such as Sun Cola (above), 18, and Fang Fun, 50, are known to jazz up their shows with dazzling costumes and slick dance moves.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Singaporean sisters Susan (left) and Regina Yeo (far left) take on the competition by playing musical instruments during their shows. Malaysian acts, such as Sun Cola (top), 18, and Fang Fun (above), 50, are known to jazz up their shows with dazzling
Malaysian acts, such as Sun Cola, 18, and Fang Fun (above), 50, are known to jazz up their shows with dazzling costumes and slick dance moves.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Singaporean sisters Susan (left) and Regina Yeo (far left) take on the competition by playing musical instruments during their shows. Malaysian acts, such as Sun Cola (top), 18, and Fang Fun (above), 50, are known to jazz up their shows with dazzling
Singaporean sisters Susan (right) and Regina Yeo (left) take on the competition by playing musical instruments during their shows. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Malaysian performers, lured by the strong Singdollar, are giving local entertainers stiff competition

The Seventh Lunar Month is in full swing, during which it is traditionally believed that the gates of Hell open to let spirits roam the streets. But during this Hungry Ghost season, there is a different kind of hungry visitor from across another border: the Malaysian getai performer.

Malaysian acts have long been familiar sights in local getai, which are concerts believed to appease ghosts so that they do not disturb the living.

However, with the ringgit at a record low against the Singapore dollar (about RM2.97 to S$1), more Malaysians are crossing the Causeway to take advantage of the stronger Singapore currency.

The result is a Malaysian invasion, with some Singaporean acts feeling the heat, say getai organisers.

Veteran local getai organiser Peter Loh, 64, estimates there is a 30 per cent increase in the number of Malaysians coming here. He is organising 30 concerts across Singapore during the Hungry Ghost season, which runs from Aug 14 to Sept 12 this year.

For him, it makes financial sense to hire Malaysians because they are cheaper and better.

"Malaysian performers do whatever they can to make their shows more exciting - from spending more money on costumes to changing their act," says the man who has been organising getai concerts for more than 40 years. "Singaporean performers are very sui bian (lackadaisical in Mandarin) in comparison."

If Malaysian getai singers cost me less money but can deliver equally or even more entertaining shows, then why wouldn't I choose to hire them?''

MR PETER LOH, who has been organising getai concerts in Singapore for more than 40 years

In his line-up of performers this year, four out of 10 singers are Malaysians, double last year's number.

In the weeks leading up to the getai season, he received many phone calls and social media messages from aspiring Malaysian singers hoping to be booked for jobs here.

"I don't even ask them to send me video samples of their work when they call me because Malaysian getai singers are, in general, of a high standard," he says.

To him, it all boils down to what is value for money.

"If Malaysian getai singers cost me less money but can deliver equally or even more entertaining shows, then why wouldn't I choose to hire them?" Mr Loh says. "I am a businessman after all."

That said, the A-listers, regardless of nationality, such as Singapore's Wang Lei, Taiwan's Hao Hao and Malaysia's Li Baoen, are still in demand.

This is how the business works: A client, say a wet market association or a clan association, pays a lump sum to a getai organiser to put on a show.

A show typically costs anything from $4,000 to $16,000 and the money is used to cover everything from the performers' fees to stage, lighting and music equipment set-ups. The organisers then take a cut of whatever funds are left.

Mr Aaron Tan, 39, runs Lex(S) Entertainment Productions, which is holding 65 shows this month. He says it is not new that Malaysian performers are shuttling between the two countries.

"What is different this year is that instead of making Malaysia their base and treating Singapore shows as extra income, many of them have switched things around - choosing to make Singapore their priority instead," he adds.

On average, a Malaysian getai singer is paid $80 to $100 to sing three songs here. That is more than the RM180 to RM200 (S$60 to S$67) they would make back home to cover six songs.

Meanwhile, a Singaporean getai singer of similar fame and stature would be paid $120 to $150 for three songs here.

Besides the better money, foreign getai singers also face little red tape from the authorities. They are not required to apply for a work pass to work here while on their social visit pass, which is subject to a maximum period of 60 days. They need only to submit an e-notification to inform Singapore's Ministry of Manpower before engaging in these activities.

This could explain why Malaysian performers are willing to endure the long commute to Singapore, leaving their homes in the afternoon to get to the shows here on time in the evening. Heading back, they also have to deal with traffic jams on the Causeway.

Rising Malaysian getai singer- dancer Sun Cola, 18, for example, leaves her house in Johor Baru by 4pm to get to a 7.30pm show in Singapore. Her mother drives her here and the performer tries to squeeze in two shows a night in Singapore. If time allows, they drive back to Malaysia for her to pull off a final performance for the night.

As much as she would like to stay over in Singapore to save time and energy, she says that "accomodation here is just too expensive".

Across the Causeway, the weak ringgit has caused major headaches for getai organisers as well.

Mr Tan Beng Soon, 51, a getai organiser based in Johor Baru, laments that 70 per cent of his usual roster of singers have been lured to Singapore to perform.

The owner of Huana Music Productions, which runs concerts in Johor Baru, says: "This year, I had to source for singers from outside Johor Baru to fill my shows, going to places such as Penang and Pahang.

"The currency exchange rate of the ringgit to the Singapore dollar has made a huge negative impact on my business, but I don't blame singers for trying to find work in Singapore. It's understandable."

In Singapore, some local getai organisers are sticking to hiring as many home-grown singers as possible, even if they can save money by having their pick of Malaysian stars.

Mr Zhu Geliang, 63, who runs Singaporean getai production company 528 Getai Shows, says: "Out of 10 getai singers at a single show, I will hire only two non-locals. I have been doing this for the past 20 years and I will continue to do this because I need to give the opportunity to Singaporeans.

"I was a getai singer myself here once, so I believe strongly in supporting locals."

Still, he concedes that he cannot make his shows 100 per cent Singaporean as there are plenty of "truly fantastic" performers hailing from the north.

He adds: "On top of singing, Malaysian performers are usually very good dancers too and they are a lot hotter and sexier than many Singaporean performers. Audiences will definitely appreciate that and we want to put on a good show."

Malaysia's Sun Cola has boosted her act this year by incorporating complex aerial hoop dances, on top of her signature belly dancing routines.

Mr Zhu says: "Singaporeans tend to be more conservative - maybe because they are on home ground, so they are afraid that they would be seen and judged by their friends or family."

Mr Tan Eng Chye, 72, a getai show regular, agrees with that view.

The retiree, who watches at least three getai shows a week during the Hungry Ghost Festival every year, says: "I really like Malaysian performers such as Sun Cola and Yaya because they put on energetic shows and their costumes are always so wild.

"Singaporean singers can dress in very flashy costumes as well, but they seem more shy."

Singaporean getai duo LV Sisters decline to generalise about their peers in the business, but the pair, comprising real-life sisters Susan, 19, and Regina Yeo, 17, admit that they would be "uncomfortable" showing off too much skin.

Susan says: "I am a very traditional Buddhist and I am also a grassroots leader with Sengkang Community Club, so I don't think it is a great idea to wear overly revealing clothes when we perform."

So how do they rise above the growing competition? Susan says: "I recently started playing the keyboard and my sister plays the guitar in our shows, so it makes things more interesting. We want to be all-round musicians."

Lex(S) Entertainment's Mr Tan says: "No matter how much the fees are or where the entertainer is from, everything boils down to talent. If you're outstanding, organisers will fight to hire you.

"If more foreigners are performing on the local getai scene, then I see it as healthy competition for the performers, because without any competition, they will start slacking. Or, should we call it a form of cultural exchange?"

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee


Shaking it up with belly dancing, aerial acts

Sun Cola (Yang Guang Ke Le), 18

Lithe and bubbly, the Johor Baru-native captures the attention of every audience member whenever she hits the getai stage in Singapore.

The sweet-faced 18-year-old, who started performing on the getai scene here only two years ago, has yet to break the ranks of an A-lister in the business, but she is certainly gaining plenty of traction.

Her method? By actively changing her act every year, which has gone from just singing when she first started to singing- cum-belly dancing last year and, most recently, to incorporate aerial hoop dancing as well.

She is believed to be the only act on the getai scene here who makes use of such complex dance styles.

"I love to dance, so I'm always open to learning new dance styles and I thought it'd be fun to bring some of that to getai too. They help to set me apart from other getai performers and I think it's important to always improve yourself," she tells Life backstage at a getai show at Pasir Panjang Food Centre last Thursday night, where she had just completed an energetic belly dancing routine.

Set against Shakira's hit song Whenever, Wherever, followed by the Shakira-Beyonce duet Beautiful Liar, she shook her hips, did the splits and launched into crazy back bends in a winged, midriff-baring outfit, much to the delight of the hundreds of people watching.

Some particularly enthusiastic onlookers rushed to the front to video her performance on their smartphones, clapping and cheering her on.

The performer, whose real name is Lau Jiayi, admits that adding so many dance moves to her repertoire is physically taxing.

"I remember when I was belly dancing at one show, my bare feet got all these splinters from the wooden stage and it was so bloodied. And when I was rehearsing the aerial hoop dance moves in the studio back in Johor Baru, I fell down all the time and was bruised everywhere."

The high school graduate gets paid a flat $100 to perform three songs, regardless of whether the getai organiser requests for her to sing or dance.

During the Seventh Lunar Month this year, she is booked almost every night to perform in Singapore.

Her mother, who is also her manager, drives her here for the shows. If time permits, they will rush back to Malaysia for Lau to put on a final show before turning in for the night.

The performer, who has been singing in the Johor Baru getai industry since she was 12, was discovered by a Singaporean getai organiser and invited to perform here two years ago. She is the youngest of three children and her father is a renovations worker.

Although sex appeal is part of her act, especially when she is writhing in revealing belly dancing outfits, she says the inevitable lecherous leer from certain audience members has never made her uncomfortable.

She says with a laugh: "The audiences here have been very supportive. I've never felt that they are dirty-minded. I trust that Singaporeans have the eye to appreciate all art forms, including getai and belly dancing."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2015, with the headline 'Johor getai singers flocking to Singapore '. Print Edition | Subscribe