From left to right: Benny’s, deførmed, and LINGBRANDON
By Shannon Ling
“They’re almost as good as those from overseas!”
“This is legit, doesn’t feel local.”
While comments like these may be intended as praise towards local artists, concealed within them is the notion that anything produced locally is inherently substandard. This is a phenomenon particularly noticeable in our country, where we are quick to feel embarrassed (or make self-deprecating jokes) about almost anything made in Singapore.
The phenomenon of embarrassment is called ‘cultural cringe’, and the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the view that one’s own national culture is inferior to the cultures of other countries”. Though the term is chiefly used in Australia and New Zealand, this collective inferiority complex applies across many nations.
Some critics claim that underscoring this complex is the post-colonial experience. In fact, poet and cultural critic Kirpal Singh ascribes this to the dependency syndrome from our colonised history. That is to say, our transition from our old to new national identity may be playing a big role in Singapore’s experience with cultural cringe. But beyond this, we happily carol the lyrics to K-pop songs and passionately sing our hearts out to Mandarin songs by Jay Chou. So it seems to be mainly Singaporean music that we have a problem with.
In order to better understand the effects of cultural cringe on our music scene, I interviewed three rising local artistes: Benny’s (also a member of local band m1sty as1oth), deførmed, and LINGBRANDON.
First up, Bernice Lee, who goes by the stage name Benny’s, is a fairly “lyrically-based” singer-songwriter. The 20-year-old graduate of Singapore Polytechnic’s Music and Audio Technology course “take[s] plenty of sonic inspiration from shoegaze, folk and ambient”.
Next, Abdul Hakiim, also known as deførmed, is a 23-year-old undergraduate at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in the National University of Singapore. He makes hardcore electronic and experimental music and, from time to time, also makes covers of video game and anime soundtracks.
Lastly, Brandon Ling, better known as LINGBRANDON, is a 23-year-old graduate of Singapore Polytechnic’s Music and Audio Technology course. He shares that his primary influences for writing and production are usually “revolved around R&B, pop or alternative” music. He “believe[s] in breaking the boundaries of only making music or art within one particular language,” hence writing songs in both English and Mandarin. He has also recently released a new single called “Lies” on Aug 19.
A first-hand experience with cultural cringe
In asking about their experience making music in Singapore, the artistes all drew a conclusive picture — they agree that cultural cringe exists here, even if it is not the case for everyone.
“Cultural cringe is definitely a thing in Singapore because I’ve been there once,” admitted Benny’s. She recalls she “used to think that local music is distasteful.” However, she “realised that there has been a whole underground culture that [she has] missed out on all this while,” upon entering the scene.
She adds that “majority of our local music that you see on bigger platforms are associated with major labels and they’re mostly narrowed down to a few specific genres,” such as electronic dance music, rock, hip hop, and pop.
“As much as we want our arts scene to prosper, bands that don’t fall under those categories rarely get enough exposure to the mainstream media,” Benny’s says, explaining how lack of exposure may contribute to cultural cringe.
However, all three musicians do not let the phenomenon hinder them and their artistry. In particular, deførmed says that he is “not too bothered by cultural cringe,” while LINGBRANDON explains that “hindrance can come across differently to different artistes, and sometimes the feelings we experience may vary. For myself, I’ve never really felt that way about comments.”
Similarly, Benny’s answered that though it took her a while “to get to this mindset,” she has “no complaints… as long as [she is] able to put [her] work out there.” Underscoring this mentality is her belief that art is subjective, that she is “not here to please everyone,” and is just “grateful to those who enjoy [her] tunes.”
Why do people feel this way?
Yet, this begs the question — why do people feel this way? A study conducted by pedagogist Dr. Yasser Mattar attributes this cultural cringe to certain factors: authenticity, accent, ‘inferior skills’, and supposed nationalism.
Authenticity. Especially in a small country like ours, it is easy to assume local music as inauthentic and as only a copy. Unsurprisingly, the question of authenticity is not unique to Singapore: Japanese jazz musicians were thought of inauthentic due to their only being replicas of African-American musicians. Drawing parallels to Singapore, most local artistes are viewed as unoriginal derivatives because they are frequently compared to ‘better’ foreign pioneers.
Accent. Of course, many also lament that Singaporeans have problems with pronunciation. Especially with the shameful sentiment towards Singlish, which we position as an inherently worse learner variety, listeners find it hard to enjoy a song sung in the inflections we speak in.
This factor, too, is prominent in other countries: In the 1960s and 1970s, British pop bands were using American features in their singing accents. The linguistic modification, in trying to sound ‘less local’, hints at Giles’s accommodation theory which explains it as social identification, and as attempts to be more widely accepted. It appears then cultural cringe tends to arise from ‘sounding too local’, causing most musicians to alter their pronunciations in order to appeal and relate to a more global audience.
‘Inferior skills’. Some blatantly posit that local artistes are simply not as skillful or talented. While a subjective factor such as talent is difficult for the everyman to classify, it comes as no surprise when listeners are less impressed by a local band, as compared to world-famous groups such as K-pop girl group Blackpink. On top of that, with the pool of artistes in Singapore so small, maybe some feel that there are much fewer ‘good ones’ to choose from. But perhaps we should also think about why the pool is so small to begin with.
Supposed Nationalism. Some are also under the impression that local music is limited to nationalistic songs. This possibly links to initiatives such as Sing Singapore, which was established by the Singapore Government in 1988 to inculcate national values through music. While the initiative was well-received, many today believe local music is then confined to songs like “Home”, composed by Dick Lee, or “Singapore Town” by The Sidaislers. Since we are not used to this confluence of our traditions and our entertainment outlets, a nationalistic song about Singapore may seem ‘cringey’ to us, and extremely far from popular music we put in our playlists.
However, it goes without saying that local music extends beyond nationalistic songs attempting to ‘teach’ the culture and lifestyle of our people. Songs ‘made in Singapore’ simply mean those created by our people — or do people have a problem with that in itself?
A more accurate answer
The fact that Singaporeans are so firm with their opinion that we are, by nature, less capable of producing works of good quality points to an inherent, deep-rooted prejudice against ourselves.
Tying the aforementioned four factors together, cultural cringe occurs even when singers do not naturally have a Singaporean accent, or strip their unwelcomed intonations in the recording studio. It occurs when songs are not (awkwardly) pushing our Singaporean spirit or culture down our throats, when lyrics are not about nasi lemak, or ‘lah’s and ‘lor’s. It occurs even when we do find Singaporeans talented; they are just termed “as good as what is produced overseas”.
So, the question we’re asking can be answered here: Work produced by one’s own society is deemed deficient solely due to the fact that it is local. In other words, the term ‘made in Singapore’ has been discriminated against by us; As LINGBRANDON comments, it is “entirely dependent on the individual’s mindset.”
The unending cycle
There then incites the unending cycle created by cultural cringe and its effects. When we decide that there is no merit in supporting anything local, the scene itself stays spiritless, and potential opportunities or funds are reduced. As a result, productions are restricted by more means (such as censorship, on top of factors such as a disadvantaged geographical spot), and the general public stays abstracted.
Still, why should we care? For a first world country like Singapore, there are hopes for our society to match up in its culture. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the opening of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre in 2017, “A civilisation is defined as much by its arts and culture as it is by its technology, its power or its prosperity. . . Human beings need the arts and culture to nourish our souls.”
It is through building a distinct Singaporean identity with (and supporting) our arts sectors that we can grow culturally as intended.
When talking about this distinct identity, deførmed associates the phenomenon with our country’s being “relatively young.” This status implies that we have “not developed a strong culture yet,” and as such inevitably feel inauthentic and unestablished. However, the artiste frames it in an exciting manner, stating that any contribution to the scene, “no matter how small,” develops this local identity naturally.
“I don’t feel much pressure to have my music be a certain way. I feel like I can do whatever I want in my music,” deførmed adds.
Towards a better future
When asked about what they hope for the future of local music, deførmed responds that “listeners and musicians are open to new sounds”, drawing parallels to the way we are (harmoniously) multicultural. By staying open-minded to differences (whether between people or within music genres), the scene will have a stronger, more distinct uniqueness that we can all enjoy and be proud of.
Meanwhile, Benny’s states that she hopes Singaporeans will “show more support to homegrown artists through platforms such as Esplanade, Hear65 and Big Duck Music,” to allow them to “be acquainted with our local scene and hopefully grow a liking to it”. Likewise, LINGBRANDON anticipates more locals “coming together [to] ensure a stronger connection — both within the circle of creators and with the audience.”
An example of this connection is the heartwarming positivity towards this year’s National Day Song — where composer Linying told The Straits Times that she was “prepared for the hate,” and thankful for the conversely overwhelming support. Additionally, some steps have been taken to shift us towards our goal, with hashtags such as #supportlocal on Instagram and localised playlists on Spotify and Youtube Music (which make room for smaller local artistes on a global platform).
Other than that, sites such as music-centred Hear65 place the spotlight on Singaporean music. Home to solely local songs, which span across different languages, genres and decades, Hear65 promotes these songs through updated articles, videos, and reviews. Benny’s adds that “there are (also) various initiatives to boost awareness of the local scene such as Ignite, Baybeats and Vans Musicianship.”
To sidetrack slightly, the better future we speak of could entail many different scenes, such as supporting and encouraging Singaporean sports teams, or small home-based businesses that sell food, paintings or earrings — there is something for everyone. We could afford to invest the time spent saying that Singapore has no distinct culture, is simply boring, or is too robotically academic, into appreciating the growing sectors that are ‘made in Singapore’.
This is not to say that we blindly support local music (which is unrealistic), but we should at least give it an equal chance instead of pushing it away immediately. Nobody has to give up their favourite K-pop band or overseas indie singer for Singaporean musicians; if we truly do not find any local music that resonates with us, the least we could do is not discriminate against them. Maybe with greater support, the pool of artistes will grow, and more who suit our different preferences will emerge.
- Giles, H., & Ogay, T. (2007). Communication Accommodation Theory. Explaining communication: Contemporary theories and exemplars. 293-310. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
- Kong, L. (1995). Music and Cultural Politics: Ideology and Resistance in Singapore. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 20(4), 447-459. doi: 10.2307/622975
- Mattar, Y. (2009). Popular cultural cringe: Language as signifier of authenticity and quality in the Singaporean popular music market. Popular music, 28(2), 179-195. doi: 10.1017/S0261143009001779
- Tan, P. S. (2018). Producing pop in Singapore: Caught between the local and the global [Undergraduate honors thesis]. National University of Singapore.
- Tan, S. E. (2009). Singapore takes a ‘bad’ rap: A state-produced music video goes ‘viral’. Ethnomusicology Forum, 18(1), 107-130. doi: 10.1080/17411910902793915
- Trudgill, P. (1997). Acts of conflicting identity: The sociolinguistics of British pop-song pronunciation. doi: 10.1007/978-1-349-25582-5_21