Thank you for my musical journey

A skit from the early days of the SAF's Music and Drama Company; preparing for a roadshow; the MDC's Chinese orchestra in 1992.
A skit from the early days of the SAF's Music and Drama Company; preparing for a roadshow; the MDC's Chinese orchestra in 1992. PHOTOS: MINDEF
A skit from the early days of the SAF's Music and Drama Company; preparing for a roadshow; the MDC's Chinese orchestra in 1992.
A skit from the early days of the SAF's Music and Drama Company; preparing for a roadshow; the MDC's Chinese orchestra in 1992. PHOTOS: MINDEF
A skit from the early days of the SAF's Music and Drama Company; preparing for a roadshow; the MDC's Chinese orchestra in 1992.
A skit from the early days of the SAF's Music and Drama Company; preparing for a roadshow; the MDC's Chinese orchestra in 1992. PHOTOS: MINDEF

The articles on this page are excerpts from the book Giving Strength To Our Nation: The SAF and Its People, published by the Ministry of Defence, a collection of stories that celebrate the men and women of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), and those outside the military who have contributed to building a strong SAF over the years.

Dick Lee overcame a desultory start in NS to become a creative wizard with the MDC's aid

I know what you're thinking. Posted to Music and Drama Company (MDC) in NS. So lucky.

I'll have you know it was very hard work... we rehearsed endlessly, and during show season, we visited every single camp, ate the terrible food like everyone else did and performed our hearts out for a jeering audience who would rather have had booked out than be confined in camp to watch some show. And for each performance, we had to load up and transport every piece of sound system, costumes, props, lights and musical instruments to the camp... and reverse the process when the show ended. We finished late and the memory of the silent journeys back to camp in the dark three-tonners still stays with me. As MDC pioneer Rashidah Arshad once said: "It was the camaraderie that kept us going."

I was not initially posted to MDC on enlistment. How I got there was completely by chance. So, come to think of it, I was so lucky after all.

On enlistment morning, because of my extremely bad eyesight, I [was] lumped with all manner of physically challenged people: one walked with a limp, another had a club foot... Only another boy seemed quite robust and he appeared to be smiling at me... [He was] Lim Siauw Chong (who later was to found TheatreWorks). I asked him what he was doing there and he said he had some blood disorder or something.

We, this crew of motley unfit, were relegated to filling out SAF 11As, as military IDs were called.

That was the age of the pen and not the PC. Every ID card had to be written in exactly the same handwriting. So, we first spent interminable days writing, writing, writing. We filled exercise books of squares - pages of As, Bs and so on till it was time to go home. Then we graduated to filling in little slips of paper, sticking on pictures of bald-headed boys and laminating the whole lot - day after day. I thought I'd go mad.

To save myself from turning into a zombie, I took long walks around the camp at lunch time. During one of these walks, I made a resolution that would change my life. I called it Facing Facts. If I had two years of tedium ahead of me, I could spend it in misery or make the most of it.

Then one day, on one of these contemplative walks, I heard music coming from what looked like a church at the edge of CMPB. After a few days of observing the same, I thought, if nothing else, singing along in a church service would definitely break the monotony.

So, that fateful day, I poked my head through the large double doors of that edifice. To my utter surprise, I saw uniformed men and women dancing and singing a Broadway number! What was this place and why wasn't I in it?... I found my way to the main entrance and read the sign: Singapore Armed Forces Music and Drama Company.

The MDC was formed in 1973 by the very enlightened then-Minister for Defence, Dr Goh Keng Swee. It was a vehicle to boost the morale of soldiers and spread the national education message through song and dance. "Vehicle" is the right word. For in those early days, four three- tonners were parked next to one another to form a makeshift stage.

Whatever its history, I knew this was where I belonged! It was home, surely! While I was standing there wrapped in my hopes, a young female sergeant appeared. "Hello," she said. "Can I help you?"

And so it came to pass that two days later, Recruit Lee Peng Boon, Richard, presented himself at the SAF Music and Drama Company to audition. I was led into a room by the aforementioned female sergeant now known to me as Sergeant Shida Rashid. There, uniformed personnel lolled about, on tea break apparently, in various forms of repose: some were reading, some were chatting and all the women were knitting.

"Audition," Sergeant Shida announced. "Quiet!"

I stood nervously by the piano as the sergeant went to get the auditioning officers. The entire room stared at me. I could feel their pity.

The doors opened and three officers marched in, aligned themselves at a long table and asked me about myself. I mentioned my album, Life Story, and said I choreographed (but I didn't specify fashion shows).

I was asked to sing, and launched into my jazziest rendition of Alfie by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. When I finished, there was silence. The Commanding Officer nodded. Was that how soldiers clapped?

He said: "We will provide you with five dancers. Come every day at lunch time for a week to choreograph and practise, and you must be in the dance."

Dance, did he say? Yes, my mother had taught me how to foxtrot and cha cha, and I could do the salsa hustle, but did that make me a dancer - or dance choreographer?

I returned to my unit and told Siauw Chong what had happened and shared my fears. He said he wanted to try, and that I should too.

So, for the next week, I sprinted from the ID writing and spent my lunchtime at MDC. Siauw Chong had gotten himself an audition and we were to perform in each other's items. His was an exotic number with us dressed in Thai headdress and billowing Aladdin pants, dancing ethnically to the funky theme from Shaft! I chose Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye, from the movie Phantom Of The Paradise, and worked out a song and dance routine with three couples doing a few side-stepping, hand-flinging movements inspired by the Supremes.

At the end of that week, we were assessed by what looked like the entire company, and we received the news a week later that we had been accepted into MDC.

The Broadway number I [had earlier] witnessed... was the MDC's first-ever show number. This I learnt from... Corporal Chris Ho (now known as X'Ho) who left MDC several months after I joined.

The first-ever show put up by MDC had, in fact, included a dance besides the mandatory sing-a-long. It was titled Combat Dance and involved dancers in Temasek green uniforms imitating military training movements. Although our audition pieces were eventually included in the repertoire, as recruits, we weren't commissioned to produce any more... This was a small price to pay for the chance to later on create the showstoppers that were to become the MDC trademark.

In 1974, MDC gave their first public show, Melodies in Green, at the National Theatre, no less. How it was done with just six mood lights, two spotlights and a few mobile speakers was an achievement in itself! This was followed up by Green Melodies in 1977, produced by Radio Television Singapore.

From then on, MDC became recognised in the performing arts community, and was increasingly involved in national events and collaborations with other arts groups, so much so that it was, in 1998, transformed from an SAF unit into an Executive Agency and then an Enhanced Executive Agency in 2004 till 2012. This allowed MDC... to be more cost effective and cost efficient as they had the autonomy to manage its finances and procurements... it continued to perform in military events at home and abroad such as tattoos as far away as Sweden and goodwill performances in Australia. After 2012, MDC became a Mindef department.

The company began its annual participation in NDP in 1984, and I am glad to have worked again with them as NDP creative director several times. MDC also performed in two musicals I wrote: Kampong Amber (1994) and Sing To The Dawn (1996). By then, the company also included a chamber ensemble, Chinese orchestra and choir.

I can say that the two happy years I spent in MDC gave me the foundation for what I do now. It was one among the few full-time professional performing troupes (like the Neptune Dancers!), and I got a taste of what showbiz would be like. I found it fun and addictive - not only for me, but also for the many... talented people who honed their skills while serving NS in MDC.

So, pardon me for name dropping while I name just a few: Bang Wen Fu, Chan Yoong Han, Chiang Kum Mun, Leslie Tan, Gurmit Singh, Darren Lim, Jeffrey Tan, Najip Ali, Chua En Lai, Darren Seah, Jack Neo, Sebastian Tan, Royston Tan, Sheikh Haikel, Jeremy Monterio, Glen Goei, Shigga Shay and JJ Lin.

•The writer is a composer, creative director, singer and playwright. He wrote Home for the 1998 National Day Parade and numerous songs for regional pop singers. He has recorded 24 albums and composed 11 musicals, and was creative director for a number of NDP shows.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2015, with the headline 'Thank you for my musical journey'. Print Edition | Subscribe