Interview with Cher, DIY punk activist from Singapore

published in the TRUST fanzine in October 2009

I would probably never have traveled to Singapore if it wasn`t for the job. The country is mainly known for its harsh laws and huge shopping centres. You might expect a lot of police in the streets of a country where chewing gums are forbidden and you might get imprisoned for years if caught shoplifting. You´re wrong. There are far more cops in the streets in Germany than in Singapore. In Singapore, there does not seem to be a need for physical presence of the authorities: People obey anyway. I had the feeling that conformity was the highest value in the society there and that people are starring at you if you only dare to run to catch the metro. Everybody seems to aspire not to stand out of the crowd in any way.
This is why was extremely happy to meet people like Cher, Jamez and others who are trying to make a difference establishing a non-commercial punk counterculture. I made this interview in summer 2008, but think that most of the
stuff that Cher is explaing is still valid and of interest. Where necessary, I included some updates and further information or links.

I am not really prepared that well, so maybe let´s start with the probably most stupid question: Could you please introduce yourself and tell us about the projects you are involved in?

I am Cher from Singapore, I run a zine distro called Polarity Press and I am also the webmistress of www.lioncitydiy.com (moved to www.lioncitydiy.proboards.com) a web portal for the Singapore underground music scene. It is still just a messageboard, but will be a comprehensive website very soon. I am also part of 7x0x7, a DIY booking collective. We collaborate and work with collectives and individuals in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines to organize anti-commercial D.I.Y. tours for bands who want to come over. At the same time, I am in the Coathangers Revolt collective with some other feminists from Kuala Lumpur. We organized a feminist festival called DIY Femme Fest at the beginning of this year which comprised of a gig, workshops, and an art exhibition, and we intend to do this yearly.

How many DIY places are there in the region? How long can a tour usually last?

The main countries to play at the moment are Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia but there have been quite a lot of bands going to the Philippines as well, where the scene is older and sometimes overlooked. In Thailand on the other hand, the scene is really young and dominated by metal and street punk, but it is growing and looking quite promising. Borneo is another area where the scene is growing as well. Cambodia and Vietnam are out of the question though; there are no scenes anybody has yet to hear of.
Tours can last between 2 weeks and a month -- this mainly depends on how much time and money you have.

… because usually touring in Southeast Asia means losing money for overseas bands.

Yes, it is different from touring in Europe, the US or Japan where people can expect to recover their expenses, due to a variety of factors, some of which include availability of autonomous spaces, economic situation, and the exchange rate.

What kind of impact has this increasing interchange and the personal relationship with the European/ US scene on the DIY scene here in Singapore?

I would definitely say that this interchange has exposed the people who are in the scene here to many different ideas and also new bands and music. But at the same time those western-centric ideas which cannot be applied in Singapore can be a problem. For example, dumpster diving is something that you cannot really do in Singapore because of the tropical climate and because a lot of dumpster areas are observed by surveillance cameras.

How big is the scene in Singapore and how many of them are actively involved in any way?

On DIY concerts usually 30-100 people show up, but not too many kids are really contributing something, many of them are just consuming. But if “active involvement” also includes playing in a band, I would roughly estimate that 50% of the people are somehow active.

75% of the population in Singapore has a Chinese background while only 13% has Malay roots. At the same time, the scene is significantly dominated by Malay kids: On the concert I went to, 90% of the people were Malay. Do you have any explanation for this gap?

I am actually a Chinese myself and this topic is something I have been wondering and discussing about for quite a while. I am not sure what might be the reason(s), but I assume that one factor is the predominance: The majority of people here are Chinese and Singapore is run by the Chinese and you find a subtle kind of racism among the society on behalf of this majority. And perhaps this majority which is living under good conditions do not tend to develop the need of rebellion and these feelings of anger and oppression. So maybe our alternative counterculture is more appealing to racial minorities here.

That is an interesting point, because in Europe it is totally different: The scene is dominated by male white middle class kids, you will hardly find people from minorities. Since you have been to Europe several times already as well: What are the most important differences between the scene there and in South East Asia from your perspective?

Oh wow... that´s hard to say. I definitely have this feeling of more freedom when I am in Europe, but I don´t know if it is just psychological. Since I have lived in this oppressive stifling society for so long, I always have this liberated feeling when I leave the country. But this does not only happen when I am in Europe, it also happens when I am travelling in South East Asia. I somehow feel as if I am no longer watched.
Regarding the differences between the scenes I cannot really say to what degree, as there are cultural differences which will also have to be taken into consideration. For example, the people here tend to be more reserved, but I would say that this applies to the majority of the people in Asia comparing them to Europeans. So I do not think that the differences can be isolated to questions of the “scene”.

Which bands would you consider as influential for the local scene here?

There are some which are no longer around like Secret Seven, Recover, The Jhai Alai, 5ocial Integration and Kindread. I think Stomping Ground is one of the older groups that is still playing. My Precious and Bloody Rejects are also bands that have been around since that time. In the late 1990s-early 2000s the so-called Lion City hardcore scene was very active, but I wasn´t involved yet by that time so I do not really know that much about it. But what I hear that period has been pretty influential and has made the scene what it is today.

And are the people from that time still around?

Most of them are not. Actually the turnover rate here is pretty high, the scene is pretty much dominated by kids who are in their twenties, you will hardly meet older people here. They tend to drop out, get married and lose interest. The European scene seems different to me in this aspect, you still meet older people there.

When I visited you earlier this year, a D.I.Y. gig was organized in a backroom of a book- and record store. Does that place still exist and which other places do you have or did you have? How are the conditions in general to organize non-commercial concerts in Singapore?

The situation here is that the rent is very high, so it is hard to own, run or rent a place, especially if you want to do it as autonomously and uncommercial as possible. What happens quite often is that once a place is established, it closes down shortly after. This means we have quite an unstable infrastructure here. But the place you went to, the so-called “Crawlspace” does still exist, yes.

People told me that the concert was illegaly organized, like most of the D.I.Y concerts in Singapore. Have there been any conflicts with the state authorities until now?

Until now there have not been any serious problems with the authorities, they just leave us alone. I guess they just do not see us a threat at all.

I went back to Singapore one year later and it was great to see that the people were still around and the scene seemed to even have grown. One of the main reasons for this probably was a new space they opened up, the so-called Blackhole. Unfortunately the high rents made it impossible to maintain the space, today the kids are doing shows mainly at a venue called Substation. The place where you usually meet nice people during daytime is a record store in Little India called Straits Records (49 Haji Lane, open 10am-10pm everyday). For any other info about what´s going on in the underground punk scene, check out the forum/ message board on www.lioncitydiy.proboards.com- is still not the comprehensive website which was planned by Cher and her friends, but definitely the best source for updated info.

The interview was done by Peter

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