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The music man’s defining presence

Local creative director and songwriter extraordinaire Dick Lee has a presence that is hard to miss

Presence, an elusive quality, is a blend of charisma, sophistication, confidence and poise.

It is hard to fathom, or decode, but it draws you in when you feel and see it. The French call it je ne sais quoi.

This strong and silent aura is instantly sensed by people around, without needing to try to make them feel it.

However, gone are the days of presence gained through intimidation and authority; modern-day presence has been redefined as understated, personable and human.

It is something that is innate. People are attracted to its energy, dignity, grace and, perhaps most importantly, it reminds them of what it is like to stay real.

Homegrown musician Dick Lee, 58, is the perfect personification of modern-day presence.

Throughout his career that has spanned four decades, Mr Lee’s numerous achievements and contributions to society have kept him salient in the minds of multiple generations.

Early start

The fashion designer, director, playwright, musical creator and established songwriter entered the music scene through talent contests at the age of 15.

He would later go on to create history as the first local musician to break into the Japanese market, winning platinum accolades for his album, The Mad Chinaman, and has, to date, written chart-topping songs for many top Asian singers, including Sandy Lam.

He is a household name, and many here still sing along to his wildly popular 2008 National Day song, Home, and have watched his much-loved musicals like Beauty World, Fried Rice Paradise and the acclaimed Snow.Wolf.Lake starring Hong Kong artiste Jacky Cheung.

Last year, the multi-hyphenate returned to his much-applauded role as the creative director of the National Day Parade, a position he held in 2002 and 2010, and celebrated the 40th anniversary of his career.

There is “no real secret” to staying ahead of the curve, says the Cultural Medallion recipient.

“It’s about having a continued interest in your craft and industry, while continuing to improve yourself to stay relevant.”

Hitting the right keys

One of the trickiest challenges he faces when creating music for a mass event is to engage multi-generations and pick music all can relate to.

Oldies might make some young people yawn, while something contemporary may confuse many seniors.

Mr Lee has, however, found a way to overcome that and achieve a balance — pick a famous oldie the younger generation is familiar with and update it with modern sounds.

“Take the National Day Parade, for example. I will add or infuse contemporary elements and not make it a fuddy duddy thing for seniors. Like Home, I write my music in an acquired way so it appeals to everyone,” he elaborates.

Besides being a performer and entertainer, Mr Lee is also a creative director of events for people of different target groups.

For example, charity galas, gala dinners and fund-raisers that he organises usually have older audiences, so a more vintage music selection is used.

His reach extends to people of all ages. He also gives talks to secondary and tertiary students. He enjoys tapping their infectious energy and makes the effort to read up on their interests or go clubbing with his friends’ kids to understand the music they like.

Outside the music arena, the Singapore songwriter extraordinaire is equally known for his fashion expertise and eclectic style, which led him to be named the Audi Singapore Brand Ambassador.

Forward-looking ways

Despite his trailblazing success on numerous fronts, he remains refreshingly humble about his achievements.

“I am really lucky to be able to do what I love and it’s become my career. I just do what I do, and if it doesn’t work, I learn from it,” he says.

His humility stems from his forward-looking ways. He has a habit, he says, of constantly checking himself, stepping out of his own shoes to see if change is needed.

“That’s how I’ve learnt to grow and keep moving on,” he says.

“It feels like yesterday that Mad Chinaman was released and then when I really look at it, I realise, wow, I have come such a long way, haven’t I? But I never felt it. It wasn’t a conscious step-by-step thing. It was a gradual and natural evolution.”

On what presence means to him, he says: “When one has presence, one has a strong sense of self without overtly showing it. It’s one’s achievements and sense of style that create an aura."

The country that could

Take Singapore, for example.

Though known as a little red dot, the country has managed to establish a strong presence on the global stage and it celebrates its 50th birthday this year (SG50).

“I love my country and I’m very, very proud to have been part of its development and growth over the past few decades,” says Mr Lee.

Through his career, Singapore has remained very much on his mind. He watched the first National Day Parade and sung the first version of Stand Up For Singapore when it first appeared in 1984.

As the newly formed country tried its best to shape its identity, Mr Lee, too, wrote about his attempt to be Singaporean in his song, Fried Rice Paradise, in 1972.

But the public was not ready for the song and many could not understand what it meant. In 1984, he released another album, Life In The Lion City, which again failed to capture audiences.

Things took a change in 1988, when the Singapore identity started to take shape. Singaporeans came in droves to watch Beauty World, a musical written with Michael Chiang.

Beauty World’s success led to Mad Chinaman, which successfully introduced Singa-pop to Asia. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Mr Lee says: “Singapore is not just an island with buildings and great infrastructure. It has also got its identity now. I’m very proud to have been a part of the development of this identity.”

Over the past 50 years, Singapore’s presence and identity, through sheer determination and thoughtful planning, have evolved to make the country stand out in the international arena.

Despite Singapore’s young age, its resilient economy has withstood a property bubble and the repercussions of a global financial crisis and is now recognised as one of the financial and economic powerhouses of the world.

On the social and cultural front, Singapore now has — after about 20 years of arts infrastructure development — world-class performing venues, museums and art galleries. 

For many, the country’s presence stands out because it has made a name for itself on many levels.

As Mr Lee puts it: “Singapore is, really, a little country that could.”