On the world stage: 4 Singaporeans playing prominent roles in global music and entertainment

(Clockwise from top left) Lenny Wee (with US singer J. Lo), Ruth Ling, Cher Ng and Kala Charan are global players in the music and entertainment world. PHOTOS: LENNY WEE, RUTH LING, KEVIN LIM, KALA CHARAN

SINGAPORE – They might not be in the spotlight like JJ Lin and Stefanie Sun, but Singaporeans Lenny Wee, Ruth Ling, Kala Charan and Cher Ng are making their mark with significant behind-the-scenes roles in the global music and entertainment industry.

The Straits Times speaks to these four home-grown talents who are global players.

Wee is the music director for American music names such as J.Lo, while Ling is the general manager of RCA Records Greater China, a major record label whose roster includes Hong Kong-raised starlet Jasmine Yen.

Kala is a composer who makes music for the Tamil film and television industry in India, while Mr Ng is chief executive of Amber Lounge, which organises VIP parties featuring celebs such as Australian singer-actress Kylie Minogue. 

Lenny Wee, music director and arranger

Singaporean music director, musician and composer Lenny Wee with American singer-actress J.Lo in 2018. PHOTO: LENNY WEE

For Los Angeles-based Singaporean musician Lenny Wee, working with A-list musicians is just another day on the job.

In the last 14 years, he has been a music director and arranger for artistes such as singer-actress J.Lo, pop singer Adam Lambert and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He has worked on major music shows from the Grammy Awards to American Idol.

Notably, in 2021, he was music director for J.Lo’s performance at United States President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

When he was applying for a green card a decade ago, two celebrities wrote recommendation letters for him – EGOT- (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) winning singer-actress Jennifer Hudson and talk-show host Jay Leno.

Work has been coming in non-stop, Wee, 39, tells The Straits Times in a Zoom interview from Los Angeles.

Recently, he completed a stint as music director on Superfan, a music-based game show that premiered on American network CBS in August. The gig saw him work with stars such as Canadian singer Shania Twain, American singer Gloria Estefan and American rappers LL Cool J and Pitbull.

“Getting Superfan was big for me because you don’t see Asian faces doing those roles on TV. To be an Asian bandleader and to be able to represent Asian people, that was really cool.”

Singaporean bandleader Lenny Wee with American country music singer Kelsea Ballerini on the set of television game show Superfan. PHOTO: LENNY WEE

He also worked on The Kennedy Center Honors in early December.

“That’s just the normal stuff that I do,” he says, discussing his work schedule. “It’s weird because I never know what I’m doing from day to day. I’d get a call asking, ‘Are you free?’, and then I’d fly off to work with an orchestra for a concert.”

In September, he took time off to return to Singapore to receive the Wings of Excellence Award at the Compass (Composers and Authors Society of Singapore) Awards, a prize given to individuals who have achieved outstanding performance internationally.

The former Anglo-Chinese Junior College student started piano lessons at the age of four and was a member of the choir while in secondary school and junior college.

In 2006, after completing his national service, he left Singapore to enrol at Berklee College of Music in Boston in the US. He moved to Los Angeles in 2009 after graduation and majored in music production and engineering, as well as contemporary writing and production.

Through a recommendation by a former professor, he landed a job working with the music director of American Idol, Rickey Minor.

After working as an arranger and orchestrator for several seasons of the reality show, he went on to work on shows such as The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, the Grammy Awards, The Voice and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

“One thing led to another, I kept doing the shows, people started noticing what I was doing. It just kind of snowballed.”

While he describes being part of Mr Biden’s inauguration as being “historic” and “cool”, the highlight of his career so far has been arranging and orchestrating the American national anthem sung by soul veteran Gladys Knight at Super Bowl LIII in 2019.

“That was one off the bucket list. It was huge, probably bigger than the inauguration. It was something that I really, really wanted to do, so when the opportunity came, I was really happy to take it.”

The most memorable musician he worked with was Aretha Franklin, the soul icon who died at the age of 76 in 2018.

“She was a diva, but in the most generous sense of the word. She knew she was great, and she expected people to cater to her and make the music great. It was very surreal, getting to work with her.” 

Singaporean music director Lenny Wee with American rapper Pitbull. PHOTO: LENNY WEE

Even after all these years, Wee, who recently became a single father via surrogacy, still approaches every job with the same enthusiasm and fire that he had when he started in show business.

“I feel like every time I go into something, it’s like, okay, this is the best thing I will ever do. I’m going to work the hardest and make this the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Ruth Ling, general manager of RCA Records Greater China

Singaporean Ruth Ling is the general manager of Shanghai-based record label RCA Records Greater China. PHOTO: RUTH LING

She started her career as a musician for home-grown xinyao acts, but Ruth Ling’s work now encompasses the much larger regional music market.

Based in Shanghai, she is the general manager at RCA Records Greater China, a record label launched by global music giant Sony Music Entertainment in 2022 that focuses on artistes in the Greater China region. Artistes under the label include Netherlands-born R&B singer Diana Wang and Chinese-Ecuadorian singer Ren Kai.

Ling is not the only Singaporean in her team – others include managing director Kevin Foo and Mr Tat Tong, the head of artists and repertoire.

Her roles include setting up the team, managing finances and building key partner relationships. But Ling, who is also a composer and songwriter, is especially passionate about discovering and developing new talents.

She is particularly proud of her work with rising singer-songwriter Jasmine Yen, who launched her debut single idk in a media event in Singapore in August.

Yen, who is based in Hong Kong and is the daughter of Hong Kong martial arts practitioner Donnie Yen, represents the Asia-facing, modern Gen Z artiste.

“I got to know her two years ago, and she was just 17 at that time. I immediately saw so much potential in this young woman, not just in her singing and dancing, but also in her hit songwriting ability.

“At 17, she had already written 10 to 20 songs, which made me think, ‘well, this girl is going to go far’”, says Ling in a Zoom interview from Shanghai.

Ms Ruth Ling (fourth from left) at the launch of the debut single by Hong Kong based-singer Jasmine Yen (in pink) in Singapore in August. PHOTO: RUTH LING

Ling, too, had an early start in music. She learnt the piano at age four and won several songwriting competitions while studying at Raffles Girls’ School and Raffles Junior College. She later graduated summa cum laude, the highest honour achievable, at Berklee College of Music in Boston, the United States. 

In 2004, she started playing the piano at Singaporean xinyao concerts, eventually moving on to become music director, working with pioneers such as Liang Wern Fook and Chen Jiaming.

In 2010, she was the assistant music director on Dick Lee’s musical, Fried Rice Paradise, and composed and arranged the music for a segment in the 2010 National Day Parade. As a musician, she also toured with Mandopop stars such as A-mei from Taiwan and Singapore’s Stefanie Sun.

Ling started her own record label Red Roof Records in 2012, with a roster that included Joanna Dong, the home-grown jazz-pop singer who found regional fame when she ended up third on popular reality-television singing show Sing! China.

In 2018, Ling moved from Singapore to China to head Universal Music Group’s artists and repertoire team. She returned to Singapore in early 2022 and took an eight-month sabbatical before heading back to China to take on her current role at RCA Records.

Ling, who was awarded the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award in 2013, believes that Singaporeans are in demand in the music industry globally, especially in management roles at music labels. They are also sought after as musicians, she notes.

She still keeps up with the Singapore music industry and is always on the lookout for artistes who can bring something new to the regional audience.

“Singapore is home for me. I’m very proud of how far we’ve come, whether it’s as a business hub or music hub now, and I do see myself always contributing to Singapore,” she says.

“I see myself as a sort of conduit, a bridge for Singaporean musicians wanting to develop a presence in China, and for artistes that we signed who are making their way out of China into South-east Asia.” 

Cher Ng, chief executive of Amber Lounge

Singaporean Cher Ng took over as chief executive of global VIP party organiser Amber Lounge in 2021. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Since he took over as chief executive of international VIP party experience Amber Lounge in 2021, Singaporean Cher Ng has overseen its expansion into new ventures.

Started two decades ago as a destination for exclusive, celebrity-studded afterparties for Grand Prix races in Monaco, and later, Singapore and Abu Dhabi, the company branched out and held its first World Cup party in Qatar in 2022.

Like at all Amber Lounge events, attendees included personalities ranging from American music star Post Malone to Irish football veteran Robbie Keane.

Under Mr Ng’s watch, Amber Lounge made its debut in Las Vegas, the United States, in November. Held at The Venetian Resort Las Vegas, the party featured Australian pop music icon Kylie Minogue as headlining performer.

“For me, personally, it’s a milestone for the brand. You couldn’t get much bigger and better than having Kylie Minogue in Las Vegas; it’s the perfect combination,” Mr Ng says in an interview at The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore.

The 51-year-old is eyeing more of the US market, and sees Vegas as a launch pad into the massive sports industry there, which includes major leagues such as the National Football League and National Basketball Association.

The veteran in the nightlife and food and beverage industries in Singapore and Malaysia also has big plans back home.

Amber Lounge recently formed a subsidiary, Amber Concepts, that will invest in F&B concepts and permanent venues around the world. The first project will be a major club, projected to open in the third quarter of 2024, that will take up 18,000 sq ft in Singapore’s Central Business District.

“It’s a multi-concept space, and it has a VIP club, restaurant and day pool club,” he says.

Another major project will be Amber Lounge’s 20th anniversary celebration, which will take place in Monaco in 2024.

“We’re trying to make it big, as big as possible, because that’s where Amber Lounge was conceived.”

Mr Ng is a man who built his career from the ground up.

At the age of 15, he started working for a mobile disco outfit, helping to load and unload equipment. At the same time, he took deejaying lessons.

He enrolled at Singapore Polytechnic to study electrical and electronic engineering but dropped out after six months, choosing to deejay at various clubs instead.

In the early 1990s, after completing his national service, he took on a gig at the hottest club in town – the newly opened Zouk. He was with the club for eight years as the brand became known globally as Singapore’s premier clubbing destination.

He also started making his own remixes, releasing an album of dance music, and did sets in English cities such as Leeds and London.

After leaving Zouk, he set up a booking agency that arranged gigs for popular international DJs such as Paul van Dyk and Armand van Helden in regional clubs.

He helped to organise the first edition of outdoor dance party ZoukOut in 2000, as well as clubbing events in Kuala Lumpur and other Asian cities that attracted up to 10,000 dance music fans.

In 2000, he moved to Malaysia and became co-founder of Zouk Kuala Lumpur, and later, the food, beverage and entertainment enclave Trec Kuala Lumpur.

In 2020, Singaporean-Australian tech entrepreneur Patrick Grove acquired Amber Lounge from founder Sonia Irvine, sister of Irish F1 star driver Eddie Irvine. When Mr Grove, an old friend, asked Mr Ng to lead the team, he did not take long to say yes.

Mr Ng says he never had any grand strategies on where he would end up in his career.

“Everything just fell into place. Sometimes it’s all about meeting the right connections, the right leads, and then you just follow through and work hard on the direction. Obviously, you’ve to have a hunger to pursue those goals.”

Kala Charan, music composer in the Indian film industry

Singaporean music director, musician and composer Kala Charan has been based in Chennai, India, since 2008. PHOTO: KALA CHARAN

Fifteen years ago, Kala Charan left Singapore for Chennai. He did not know anyone there and had no jobs secured, but he had a dream – to further his career in music.

Today, he makes a comfortable living in the Indian city indulging in his passion. He runs his own music company that makes music for film and television shows, not just for India but also worldwide.

Together with his Singaporean wife and their three children, who are aged six months to 12 years, he lives in a semi-detached house with three helpers, two drivers and a home studio where he composes. He also owns a studio in another area nearby, one big enough to fit a music orchestra.

The 43-year-old recently took on his most prominent role yet, composing music for Tamil-language mystery-thriller film Enaku Endey Kidaiyaathu (I Don’t Have An End), written and directed by and starring Indian actor Vikram Ramesh.

The film is a hit with the local audiences, and is still screening in cinemas almost two months after it was released in early October. This is quite a feat when compared with regular films, which are usually screened between five days and a week.

Kala never had any formal music education. In primary school, he picked up the drums and percussion instruments when he joined the school band. He later studied electronic engineering in Temasek Polytechnic and was active in the school’s music club.

He taught himself to play other instruments, including the keyboard, and would regularly perform at school events. He loved all sorts of music and played various genres, from rock to Indian classical.

After graduating from polytechnic and completing national service, he became a full-time musician for all sorts of bands in the club circuit, including those that played Top 40s and Chinese pop music.

He also performed at cultural events such as Chinese arts festival Huayi and Indian arts festival Kalaa Utsavam, both organised by the Esplanade.

Singaporean musician Kala Charan composed the soundtrack on Tamil-language mystery-thriller film Enaku Endey Kidaiyaathu (I Don’t Have An End, 2023). PHOTO: KALA CHARAN

In 2008, he made the decision to move to Chennai to be a session musician in an entertainment industry far bigger than the Singapore scene.

“I felt my music career was getting stagnant in Singapore,” he says.

He chose Chennai not just because he was fluent in Tamil, but also because he was enamoured with the city’s rich music heritage.

“Chennai is home to all sorts of genres, which gives me the opportunity to experiment with my music,” he says in a Zoom interview from the city.

To build his contacts, he would hang out at the tea shops where technicians from the film industry congregated, and make friends with them. The strategy worked, and he was soon getting jobs to write short jingles.

He did not have any experience in composing music, so he quickly learnt how to do so using audio software on the laptop that he brought from Singapore.

He later took on a job at a music studio – by day, he was teaching others how to use the audio software that he had mastered, and by night, he would compose jingles.

From jingles, he progressed to composing songs and soundtracks for television shows and films. Besides projects for the entertainment industry in India, he also composed music for Singapore TV shows such as Tamil soap opera Athiyaayam (2017) and English paranormal thriller Avenue 14 (2018).

His journey was not easy, he says.

“There was a lot of pressure and negativity that I had to deal with. But I managed to persevere because I was not just blindly following my passion. I was also quite strategic in the way I took on the challenges.”

The future looks bright for Kala. His next big projects are an English drama series for Netflix and a major Tamil film, but he is unable to divulge details for now because of confidentiality clauses.

His next goal, he says, is to help build up a community of South-east Asian musicians and composers.

“When I was younger, I thought Hollywood was the ultimate destination. But I now realise that there are a lot of opportunities for music-makers in the region where I grew up, and I want to connect with other South-east Asian creatives.”

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