Mourning gaining momentum

Lying In State

Wow the mourning week has been getting more and more interesting by the day!

It’s Friday now and I’ve just gotten out of the hall of Parliament House, still feeling slight regret that I did not have the heart to approach the coffin even though I didn’t have to deal with barriers and ushers being on the other side, but certainly satisfied by the 15 minutes that I got to keep vigil over the man, as the music I wrote was performed for the occasion. All this as the public who waited or 8-10 hours got ushered along without any opportunity to stop.

Also glad that even though no photography and videography was allowed, the recording of the music was not explicitly stopped. So much to process, decide, and then seek permission to release. And that’s not the end – there’ll still be another band dedication tomorrow evening. Probably only skipping the final day and staying with the TV.

The day time weather today was really unforgiving. Exactly 1 year ago, I recalled the weeks as we were preparing for Hwa Chong’s 95th anniversary concert around late March, with only rain upon us around concert dates. This year it felt the same – the showers came just last week, and now, back to the scorching hot sun.

This made the sight of thousands and thousands in the Padang area really unbearable to me, as I drove one huge round to find parking. I didn’t expect anyone to drive – the 8 hour wait would make parking unnecessarily expensive. But I was wrong – and even car parks as far as Central had 4 out of 6 floors full.

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This entire week I made a lot of small talk about the grand old man, and it’s really insightful, especially when talking to Singaporeans above a certain age, to learn about what is on the front of their minds.

For me personally it was less about the man (I hardly knew him), but all about the unbelievable mobilisation of the people which I described in my last post.

For some though, it was the lament about the victors writing history. There was no dedication from Ong Teng Cheong for example. Lim Chin Siong was mentioned and put clearly in the light of evil. And so on. Papers gave selective coverage of who visited, Chiam See Tong’s being the most poignant to me.

For some, it was the realisation and amazement that foreigners joined that queue they wished it was pure blood Singaporean, or, themselves the foreigners (PRs included) who did so. There were some interesting anecdotes. One came because her mother from Malaysia who rarely comes to Singapore _insisted_ that her daughter go queue up and pay respects for her. Another brought friends and family who were visiting Singapore through the ordeal.

Probably the most interesting one was a discussion on whether the grand old man is the leaf or the root. I had this lingering doubt when deciding on the style of music I had to write. To portray him as a big root, without which the tree will have to stand hollow on less reliable roots, would be to adopt absolutes, such as conclusive cadences, lament motives, and deep in minor harmonic choices. On the other hand, portraying him as a leaf would entail lots of fleeting harmonies that moves with the wind, but never actually resolving into a perfect cadence before it lands. I choice the later, (mis)using many modern sevenths progressions to lighten the feel, but still tumbled and roll around step wise bass walking line to add to the gravity of the matter (lest a piece be misinterpreted as impressionism). Add a sprinkle of augmented fifths when reaching out to the stars and hollowing out emotions, and diminished sevenths for the heartache phrase endings, and you get yourself a modern requiem.

But when I discussed this with another person, although he also concluded: leaf, it was said clearly as a sign of disapproval. It took a lot for the person to be honest, in private. The real gravity of the matter to him was precisely too many people will misinterpret this grand lying-in-state as the “root” story, prolonging the ruling power for another 20 years just like that, lest the tree comes crumbling down before you know it.

We sometimes listen to music and just let it wash past our ears. Have we even wonder why certain choices were made?

I do, always, but even more so as I grow older and more sensitive. That’s also because now that I have to pen things down of that have much more gravity, I can’t afford to neglect the tiniest of misinterpretations that might follow.

Another day beckons.

* * *

Another well written piece

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Remembering 23/3/2015

Today’s a really unique day to be remembered. I felt I wouldn’t do the day justice if I don’t take my next hour writing this down for posterity.

Some might remember this day as the Johor Sultan’s Coronation, but for most on the island, whether you’re Singaporean, PR or foreigner, you would have woken up to a sad day. Every radio station became Symphony 924. Every TV channel became a history text book. Huge queues formed at both the condolence books and toto outlets (0318?) as the grand old man, the founding father, the pioneer who promise to turn in the grave if he sensed something wrong in the country he founded and loved, was set to be cremated coming Sunday.

I don’t think I’m qualified to write any dedication of this man whom I have not met and yet whose shadows I live in every day. Suffice to say that even though I share his ambitions of bringing the two countries closer together for a somewhat more “just” ideal, I’m currently in no position to make any of that happen. Nevertheless, the legacy of this man would continue to serve as a guide to many challenges I’ll face ahead.

That said, it’s barely 24 hours since he left us at 3:18am, and I felt like I’m living in the world’s most synchronised wake. Some have compared everything that’s transpired today to the North Koreans, except people weren’t expected to wail loudly in public. I disagree. Speaker’s Corner revocation aside, there was a genuine, and almost scary synchronisation across the (Facebook connected) nation, that led to an outpour of both grief and thankfulness. Each expression built on the next, and before you know it a huge echo chamber formed in the virtual atmosphere.

Even the traffic in the morning was slower, and trains did break down as promised as well.

Ok enough of LKY, as there’re plenty of websites and dedications out there on him already. This post is really about counting my blessings working with a resilient team of musicians. Hopefully without naming anyone or implicating anybody in this sensitive period, I would like to express my greatest thanks to all 14 who have performed today.

It’s probably the show with the most “spana” thrown at us. First, the requirements were weird. Our show originally required 7 person to bring music to an assembly of students in a school. But this school wanted 2 copies of it, happening at the same time, in 2 different locations in the school. Fine, we found another 7. But 3 of our regular 7 couldn’t perform. So we found 10 new people. Scheduling rehearsals was hard enough, but we managed to pull it through.

Then came the multiple changes in players after the rehearsals. For some, their priorities were clear, for others, they made a deliberate choice to drop out, and then others were committed but their circumstances forced them out. So fine, we replaced our players. Except we can’t have more rehearsals. One replacement whose father is critically ill in a foreign country had to be home till a certain date. Another had to be deployed overseas for work (that would be me hehe). Most had to juggle teaching and rescheduling of lessons to accommodate such adhoc changes in timing.

Then came the hoax period last week, which we realised we haven’t thought about it being the inevitable as a stream of PMO messages reached the public. One of our musicians was at risk being part of the machinery that _will_ be activated should the inevitable occur. And so when it did happen that the show fell exactly on the same day of the event, we were ready to react to call up backup, only to have the backup leave and go home as the regular player could perform after all. All these within the first 3 hours of the day.

But what took the cake was the engagement with the government. You see, these shows we do in school are primarily for students to learn more about the arts, and therefore paid for by the school, through a particular government programme. The content was up beat and engaging, something we knew worked and clicked with young teenagers. But it also bordered at being disrespectful to some during a 7 day mourning.

And so, we had a total of 2 hours reaction time to redo our programme, changing something we had productised and designed to be repeated in every school who hires us, into something more solemn and reflective. And the request came from both our stakeholders as well as the government.

The rational was that, we had to be sensitive. That I agreed. But to make sure everyone’s needs were taken care of, including our stakeholders, civil servants, the teacher and principal in the school and of course, the students who were the audience, we took it upon ourselves to fix the problem. I found an old chorale score written maybe 8 years ago from (it was still when I uploaded the score) that we downloaded, printed and rehearsed minutes before the show. Emcee scripts were changed and rehearsed also seconds before students streamed in.

If there was one thing I remembered it was the dazed look on the teacher’s face (the why-me? what-happened? did-i-do-anything-wrong? expression) as we explained that we needed the school to communicate with the government machinery responsible for such appropriateness. For us to then act as an advisor and a pace setter to sort things out amicably, was to me, very admirable of the team.

In the end we had a great experience with the relatively small group of students who attended and listened / clapped along suitably. I was positive that in that cozy environment, at least 1 more young soul would be encouraged to pick up an instrument to play music like we do.

Why all these? Because if I were to disclose to you the pittance we earn from doing shows like these, you would have laughed your head off. It was priced competitively assuming that the original team of 7 would perform over and over again with no additional preparations. It assumes every show builds on the previous and there are no further investment on our part to react, what more to react almost instantly like first responders.

In the past, shows were just that: go or no-go. If one key variable changed, we would be rescheduling the show to many months ahead, as students weren’t always available for such non-curriculum type of exposure. The money itself wouldn’t have made a difference when it’s finally divided by 14, even though to the customer (school) it seemed like a large sum of their budget.

What made the show tick is the confluence of a common desire to perform and reach out to new audiences, a fundamental and common grounding in the type of music that’s being played, and an attitude that does not give up no matter how many curved balls we were being thrown.

For example, no amount of rehearsal for this show would be able to bring out the full function of that said last minute chorale, if it wasn’t for the common classical music grounding of phrasing, harmony, balance and ensemble. No amount of money would be able to attract the musician to take up this show instead of the competing gig, if they weren’t happy performing this music over and over again. And no grand person’s birth or death can and shall stand between the innate desires of such an organisation and its purpose. That’s how we musicians deal with the messiness of life.

For that, I drove out the school gate remembering again, why I’m still holding on to this extensible conical tube. As part of the system, I was given, though joining in later than my Singaporean peers, a taste of elite life embraced by the present corridors of power. I walked the halls where people’s lives were shaped by public policy, spun the cogs in the machinery that generates stability, and asked myself ever so often why people decided that the shadow of the old man is the way to go? Have they not seen the daily struggles of man? And some days, like today, the answer is as clear as daylight: I could ask that question in the first place because I chose to struggle like any ordinary folk would, not only in the comforts of this air-conditioned nation, but also under that hot south east asian sun that watched over me as I grew up marching and playing music under.

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Two readings for your consideration:

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Java, first impressions

Java, Indonesia

Every time people ask me if I’ve been to Indonesia the answer has been “Bali” (which feels like a different country), but now I think I can say “Yes” and share an authoritative experience.

Cilegon is one of the most religious corners of Java. In most countries that I’m exposed to thus far, mosques only broadcast call to prayers, but here we get the entire prayer session broadcasted. I was told the locals are generally pious muslims. Churches are banned here apparently (I haven’t check), and the nearest church is in Serang which is an hour away.

It’s a coincident that the western tip of Sumatra – Aceh – is also a deeply religious community, except people are better employed here than Aceh. For being away from Indonesia’s center of gravity, Cilegon feels like Kedah in many ways, huge padi fields, township with beautiful mosques, and heavy industries. Air is certainly poluted by excessive burning in certain factories, but the food and people are still a pleasant embodiment of Indonesian mannerisms.

Jakarta on the other hand feels no different from KL, but 10 times larger. Beyond the comforts of any big cities, the one big thing it should really solve for itself, is traffic. Like omg please solve the traffic please. There’s like 10 times less major artery roads than KL. Sorry to say, but some houses just have to give way as long as the relocation is beneficial to everyone affected.

Notable to this first experience was Es Teler! It’s the local version of shaved ice dessert. It usually consist of avocado, jackfruit and coconut meat, and in one instance with soursop, served in coconut milk base shaved ice not very different from Ais Kacang. M felt that the vegetables here were laced with insecticide but I thought they were fine, just a different way of cooking perhaps. However, some vegetables are still an acquired taste, like the tapioca leafs (which I felt bleh).

Perhaps I had wrong stereotypes earlier, but I’m very happy with the comforts of life here, at least between the 2 cities thus far. 3G is better than landline (obvious to me, surprising to some), malay keywords overlap is high (feels like jap kanji and chinese), but the day to day words are still different and will require some thorough immerssion to get right. It’s also quite odd to get comfortable being addressed as Pak Jiin Joo after a few days. It’s a Pak Pak world :)

Selamat Datang monument

Padi fields along the road

Work Travel

2015 is also turning out to be work travel year for me. 5 days / 4 nights is probably the limit for me mentally. I don’t even know how long I will need to recover, but it seems like I don’t have more than a few hours of extra sleep anyway. Good thing I didn’t fall sick (yet).

Nevertheless, this was one of the hardest work trips away from home. As we travel from Cilegon to Jakarta, my heart was racing through the various scenarios that could have happened at home. How is YC coping? How is baby copy? How are the various groups I’m involved with coping?

They say business travel is hard, and people are better renumerated for it. But just based on my small sample of friends and work contacts, it seems like the norm in Singapore is to travel, and that usually means having to leave your family for a short period of time, with no extra perks.

I made a friend here who told me about his previous job at remote site in Indonesia. 4 months at work, 3 days at home. Repeat. That was the deal. Money was good, but not the communications in the middle of a jungle. He paid Rp. 5000 every time he needs to get into the bowl of the excavator and be elevated into midair, in order to call his wife and daughters.

If there was no travel, Singapore can hardly be a base for any meaningful international business. Certainly not the kinds of technology business that we are building now. When one specialises into a very high value niche, the corresponding customer is usually far and few as well, and mostly spread where the resources of the world are.

This time, I sought out how families cope with short term separation, but gained little new insights. Poeple who said they cope well does not always have the same testimonial from the wife and family (or husband too, just that for this trip it has been consistently male). I’m only glad that YC is willing to learn this together with me, because, she will eventually have to work travel professionally too.

How do you cope with work travel?

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Drone state of the world (start of 2015)

First I want to thank everyone who has been supporting me in my startup life thus far. Although I’m unable to share more publicly for now, I thought it’s important for you to have a feel on the things we are potentially working on, and following “other people’s notes” about the drone industry. Enjoy!

‘Twas the year of the Drones. Did you get to fly one? by Bilal Zuberi

Unfortunately the way the media works is that people will get to hear more about Drone attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, Drone mishaps by foolish people, Drone “delivery” by Taobao and Amazon, and even Drone kickstarters that promise to be available in the market but have not.

Drone regulation is not the problem, says 3D Robotics’ Chris Anderson (Q&A)

It’s also humbling for me to discover the high levels of cross disciplinary capabilities to grow and sustain a robotics business – one that put robots in the sky no less. In the past year, I’ve had to put together more knowledge from more fields than I’ve ever had to in the first 10 years of my career, and travel to far corners of South East Asia to find all the edge cases to strengthen our capabilities.

Delivering pizza, making films … now safety fears grow over use of drones

Finally, realise that the biggest threat at this stage is battling ignorance – both from the perspective of hobbyist who don’t put other people’s safety first, as well as consumers who falls into either end of the privacy spectrum – from those who vote to clamp down all flying machines to those who take this opportunity to look at what they aren’t supposed to.

This is also the first time I will be learning to communicate to the public carrying a C-level responsibility. In between self-censorship and being honest and transparent (which is the purpose of this blog originally), I’m confident that I will find the right balance. But when I fail, I hope you, my readers, will let me know in all honesty as well.

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Directions 2015


NY Resolutions time!

First, let’s look at 2014. In 2014 I gave myself 1 year to figure out if I can live a musician’s life, specifically majoring in running a music tailoring business and minoring in trombone gigs. What happened? After closing my books for the year, my arrangement business’s net profit was about 1/4 of my full time salary in SingTel in the previous year (no accruals, i.e. not counting some money that people typically owe me more than a year or multi year). If you add to that performance taken home after cost (parking itself set me back a couple of hundreds of dollars), I made roughly 1/3 of what I used to make in SingTel, which to begin with isn’t a lot.

Well it’s true that I didn’t “pia” 拚 all the way as I was also trying my hand on other things and trying to keep everything balanced, including daddy duties. However, I also learned how slow things can move in this industry, with lots of expectations of pro-bono work and industry camaraderie, but little industry development and creating global exports.

That’s ok. Moving forward, I’ve repurposed my time to handle this part time again, except this time, it’s not going to be a by the way thing. There will be focused energy to get the really important stuff done first.

Also in 2014, the unexpected opportunities became relentless. More and more head hunters, friends and ex-colleagues looking to hire me to do more of what I used to do. After rejecting those, there came a smaller but very potent set of people looking for their elusive “partner”, “co-founder”, and generally people to commit to building something together. I followed my heart to try some.

Philbrass was first. Growing from strength to strength since 2010, the team decided that it’s time to do what everyone else does – go commercial – instead of always putting recitals and concerts first. After many AGMs and team members coming and going, the team got really serious in 2014, drawing experience on successful engagements in 2013, to quickly scale in all directions (quintet to decet, 1 christmas show to multiple shows daily in december, AEP and other education programme, and more), and is likely to sustain this level of activity in 2015.

Then came the super intense Garuda Robotics. I’ll save the main gist of this for another post (perhaps even company blog if we want one) but suffice to say a VC backed startup is nothing like I’ve ever worked on – in Mark’s words I’m too “sole-proprietor”/”hunter” in my thinking sometimes which I think is true (in Malay, we say kais pagi makan pagi, kais petang makan petang), vs building long term things backed by other people’s money and resource.

Hwa Chong

In 2015, my aim is to have my annual plan clearer and bigger, while I still can manage with a decade of savings (and before huge penalties like LUP and COE charges come).

The priorities are still the same: personal then family then work.

In the personal category, matters with the heart will require attention first, followed by a strict “upgrading” programme to get back in touch with the fast moving world of technology, then followed by the continuation of a stricter exercise regimen that started in 2014 to deal to the ever deteriorating body.

The biggest win for running my own show is a much greater control of my time to focus on personal development. Some days, I literally spend all morning on myself, before even looking at emails. One big win last year that will be fine tuned this year is my Ideal Week, which has so far helped me balance this need for self development against the entire world shouting for my attention.

The real roller coaster, emotionally at least, has been self-setup stress that comes with being a first time dad. Once I figured out that kids really needed to grow and play on their own, and there are many things that a dad can’t provide to a breast-fed infant, I relaxed a lot more. This year though, we are also bracing for the extra care that comes with a teething baby, a weaned baby, a walking baby, and the increasing development that will require our attention.

Increasingly my larger family will also be going through changes. Brother’s getting married, we might move to the new condo and thus setting up new place and lifestyle, possibly more parents visit, more family holidays (Australia already in the plans), etc. Rate limiting will be key to ensure that details are taken care of but not over indulge in, say, furniture selection.

This is by far the hardest. Despite planning to spend more than 50% of my waking hours on the Work category, it’s the never ending piece that expands faster than the universe. Right now there’re at least 4 major competing interest for my time (GR, UM, PB(PW), RMP) and this does not count the serendipitous opportunities that will need sudden and extra attention.

Sometimes people ask me why don’t I focus on just one thing – that sounds like a plan when you have an iron rice bowl knowing that your paycheck will come in and grow steadily. In all my endeavours now, I actually have to make sure _others_ get this pay growth in addition to mine, and for certain setup I’m actually going to have to sacrifice mine for others when the bread and butter isn’t doing well. Thus such a derisking strategy.

While that sounds like a plausible excuse, the real reason internally to me is that each of these are dear to me, and I am not going to have the chance to do them sequentially, as they each need certain amount of skills, connection to the industry, and longevity to it.

The easiest to explain is my continuing to be a performing artist on my trombone. Regardless of how little I earn performing with a hungry and well qualified younger generation of trombonists in the market, if I stop playing (like I did 1st 2 years of CMU), I will have a hard time restarting the muscles, as well as getting back into paying gigs. In fact the competition is so stiff that I will really need to drive myself into a niche (current bet is brass quintet, maybe even more niche?) and be #1 or #2 in that niche. This will unfold with the various experiments that PhilBrass has generally agreed to do together as a team.

Next easiest would be the music arrangement bit. If you search the archives of this blog you’ll find passionate pleas from my past to continue doing this for the rest of my life. It’s been a 20 year journey thus far, from pencil and paper to Encore to Sibelius (even Finale, MuseScore, Lilypond!) and like I used to say, it has paid for the gas and tolls. In fact I have also found myself in a mentoring position recently, which I find odd for I did not get a lot of mentorship personally except from the silent cupboard of photocopied scores in CHS band room. Unlike performing, I found myself growing in depth and adventure in my writing. If time allows, I want to attempt some composition this year.

What has been less rewarding is learning more about the music publishing industry and the individuals that has made it somewhat odd compared to mainstream book publishing. While I continue to harbour dreams of just writing and dumping music online, disregarding rights owners, I also felt a sense of pity for the great number of guardians of melodies. For now, this will take the lowest priority for 2015, while keeping in mind how it goes hand in hand with the pipeline of creation.

The hardest, and yet the most exciting thing that has happened in 2014, and will occupy most of 2015, is robotics. Although I just dived back in last year to get my feet wet, this year is going to be different because for me to sustain the next 12 months on this will require the right kind of internal motivation.

I look back at my “robotics” experience some times and giggle at how bad some of the bots I made were, for example Micromouse in Hwa Chong or Mobot in CMU. At the same time, I’ve learnt such a great deal about helping enterprises move forward to adopt new technology in my IT career that, without somewhat of a leapt of faith like connecting drones in the cloud, there’s no big reason for doing this in a startup with uncertain revenues at the point of writing.

The scary part isn’t even in the building, partnering, operating a drone business. The scary part is working with an old friend from school, and some new awesome people, who themselves have put everything into this single basket, and having our families and friends support this endeavour. In the worst case scenario, where all cash flow is directed towards customer needs instead of salaries, managing the strained relationships is going to be a new and potentially harrowing experience for 2015.

To make things simple, I have to plan all the music work into 30% of work time and spend 70% on GR at this stage, and will see how the balance tilt.

And at this time, everything seems like it’s going to be long term. Besides culling the iron rice bowl in 2014, I’ve also been sidelined in various musical groups and social activities, which I guess is for the better as I rescue every remaining minute for things that matters. Even this blog suffered much.

2015 is going to be such a workaholic year, that I wish 2016 can be a family year again. One should plan resolution with goals right? So hopefully by 1 Jan 2016, I want to achieve income recovery and many long term bets. If I were to put a number it will still be my fresh grad pay in US 10 years ago (really a stretch goal, but it’s good to aim high right?) and at least 2 big bets launched in the year (big bet = if lose/fail, then catastrophic consequences).

Wish me luck :)

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Traveling Solo


As a kid I chanced upon (or, depending on perspectives, my mum forced upon me) an interesting book that I deemed too “adult” to my liking – I had and still have a liking of simpler things in live, including comics and children stories. Roald Dahl’s Going Solo left in impression that the world was a strange place, and people like us Malaysians don’t exist in that strange world.

So even as life brought me to many parts of the developed west through university and holidays, all I’ve actually seen of places like Africa etc. was either in the news, on social media (and that’s usually someone’s holiday photos), and occasional narratives of a small handful of friends, who, like Roald, works for oil companies and thus find themselves in exotic but still first world lifestyles.

Then I met Jia Hong.

And I found out that not only he went to put himself in exactly these places, he wrote a 400 page book on it.

A quick intro can be found on the book’s website: You can get a flavour of the types of content from the book by reading his blog prior to working on the book itself, which took a year:

The book is written in simple first person narration voice, full of honesty and candid thoughts (“one would expect …”), nuggets of craziness, romance, and even intellectualism (or possible in my readings, people who travel so much usually don’t think so much, JH applies economics everywhere!) and most importantly for me, it was a simple shortcut to entertain myself silly on a road trip that I didn’t have – well I had mine, it’s sporadically found in this blog.

Which ties me back to Roald Dahl. Some people’s autobiography and memoirs are more famous than others. But some memoirs are always going to be more special, especially if it’s easier to put yourself in the person’s shoes.

By the way, if you’re in Singapore and you’re interested, you can get a copy of the book from me. I have a few copies left at the time of writing this. The SG version is priced at $25 (slightly more than the RM50 price point in KL), but all proceeds go to charity, mainly education.

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Reflections from Shanghai Trip Part 3

(Read Part 1, Part 2)


Time always passes by quickly when we’re travelling to a new place. I spent 9 days in Shanghai like I spent 9 hours on a busy day in Singapore. There were lots of dead time in between things due to the lack of a concept called a “schedule” in both my entourage as well as the reciprocal locals who can promise to take you to dinner one day and decide to go cycling when the time comes. Oh well :)

I also had pretty elaborate dreams sleeping for an hour longer than my usual. The body needed the rest but the mind just won’t shut up when it got its fair share of rest. The dreams though, felt different. It wasn’t my usual adventure dreams where I’m either searching for new things or running away. It was something a lot more coherent, something about people and taking huge bets. I don’t recall the dream, but I remembered the adrenaline rush.

Also critical in this trip was for me to gather enough data to project into the coming year – this was supposed to be done next CNY but with Garuda Robotics running at high gear now I have to make certain hard decisions of what to drop on the floor, what to run at a slower pace, and what to charge on.

Although that’s a personal decision, some items on my plate are not heroic battles that I can fight alone. Thus the need to share and hopefully get some feedback from you.


I have described the situation in China in the 1st 2 parts of this series. I have a plan, and now I need to rally a team of varying capabilities to get this done. If you’re remotely interested in wind band music, or music education, or south east asian culture, please read on.

Let me give you more background. Why China? It’s one of the unchartered territories that we have an upper hand in terms of language and cultural similarities. It’s also because we are here in south east asia, at the crossroads or many global cultures in both the past and present, and thus far been (in the band scene again) a net importer of western ideals.

The creed here is not just an artistic one. At some level of artistry and command of musical instruments, relevant and exciting works are being performed and circulated globally. The challenge is one that takes these relevant pieces of art and make them available to the students who are learning, who are exploring, who are, unavoidably, being impressed on.

Why do we all know Beethoven’s 5th or Ode to Joy? At some point in our lives we were all introduced these great compositions, but certainly not in its full glory. It might have been just a melody in your beginner piano book. We checked and it was in Hal Leonard’s widely popular method book Essential Elements too.

Why do they get chosen? Because the creators are dead. Long dead. The problem with most recognisable tunes that define our asian culture presently are from living people or people who are dead less than 70 years ago.

The same goes with folk tunes. But not all folk tunes are equal. Anyone learning classical music is more likely to know about Londonderry Air than 茉莉花 (Jasmin Flower, despite its feature in Turandot). However due to the depth of culture compared to older civilisations, it would be a really far stretch to say anyone outside our region bothers with Wau Bulan, despite it being one of the perfect tunes for beginner too.

There are some new ideas and thinking as of late on how to take advantage of the world’s current attitudes towards each other, to address this cultural imbalance. Here are some that I am at liberty to share:

1. Create companion products that are localised. Pick your favourite method book. By a certain lesson, the student should be expected to learn, say, 5 notes (Bb, C, D, Eb, F) and 2 duration (crotchet and quavers). That’s when the instructor can put the method book down and pick up the companion product of, say, Wau Bulan, and actually perform a Dikir Barat flavoured Grade 1 type piece with only those knowledge. Or Taylor Swift’s Love Story if that’s your preference.

2. Sample or reinterpret great works of art. Pick your favourite composition (or pop music if that’s your thing), write a simple version that attempts to retain as much beauty without technical difficulties. Write it in a way that an instructor can relate concepts used in the original work through your interpretation.

Are you already doing these kinds of work anyway? i.e. are you an arranger writing music like this, or are you a publisher publishing such music, or are you a band instructor looking for such works / know of such works? If so, I want to talk to you to understand how we can work together.

Yes there’s a lot going on in the legal side of things once we touch recent music, but with sufficient volume and lineup, I’m confident we can have a better bargaining power. It gets easier if you know the composer that you’re adapting from as well.


I said a lot about the business and industry transformation, now back to myself. As briefly mentioned earlier, I now understand that regardless of how niche this market is, one cannot create reach with technology alone. People of all kinds of motives will need to be in the picture for now, and hopefully by giving ample time, it will evolve to be more central and people more specialised like the American market.

That’s a big damper for the original business plans of Useful Music (beyond music tailoring), and pivot it will have to be. The challenge is to resist pivoting back to the old way people do things. The best possibility now is to pretend to be a technology company that support publishers, but there won’t be enough trust amongst them to share a platform. And the next best is to simply go consumer model and fight head to head with various websites.

And based on that I had to again postpone or elongate the implementation of the next phase and keep up with arrangements for now. I kinda miss the kids in Hwa Chong just a few months back, and might hunt for such projects in the near term, just to keep their youthfulness in my mind.

I did not buy back anything substantial from Shanghai (I have so much left over RMB), but now I see, tenacity, determination, repeat engagement, always showing up, consistent quality, and taking long term but high risk projects, is the only way forward, before the next stage opens up.


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Reflections from Shanghai Trip Part 2

(Read Part 1)

This is a prototype Bb/F plastic trombone, not for sale yet…

The conference got more exciting the following day and next, as more people started coming in. The second day was supposedly a trade visitor day, but quite a number of individuals signed up and came in anyway.

After a leg breaking record of walking all 10 remaining halls (did W1 and W2 1st day, but W3-W5, E1-E7 on 2nd day) I finally got a full picture of every possible niche one can play in this wild music industry. Even though not all brands came here to be represented, there’s at least some brands for each type of instrument, scores, electronics, etc. for everyone. People said it’s larger than the Frankfurt one, I thought it must be.

Some halls were more ridiculous than others. E4 had at any one time 50 drummers letting their hearts out, E7 had so many people looking for traditional Chinese instruments it could be mistaken as a local market. W5 was completely filled with smoke coming from smoke machines and you cannot look anywhere without staring directly at powerful stage lights. It was not that big that you’d get lost in such a show, but big enough that it was impossible to spend time with even just one company per segment.

Theft happens every year apparently. Some just outright steal, others daylight-rob you by engaging you to buy and then walk away without paying. We had one company who wanted every single item on our catalogue, claiming to be buying for the country’s libraries. Yeah right. Did not come back the next day, refused to pay cash, so good riddance. Not so good news for these guys though:


It was also very tiring because engaging with Chinese people require a heightened sense of self, an extraordinary amount of brain CPU for language, while also keeping sufficient power left for surveillance to prevent theft. On top of that, I was an extremely lousy shopkeeper – couldn’t rattle prices and discounts off my tongue or convert fluently between RMB and SGD – not to mention most people who walked into the booth weren’t really serious buyers; many did not know symphonic band.

So when we actually found real potential customers, the conversation carried on and on, sometimes for an hour, as we talked about everything from music education in China to the various stories of how each piece of work came about. And it might still end with, “thanks I’ll take a look at your catalogue when I’m home”. Recording is critical (now the highest on my todo list for coming year) as many teachers don’t read scores (they teach the band to match the recording) and so is localising the language.

Although the conference was supposed to end on Saturday 3pm, exhibitors starting tearing down from around noon. I was quite disappointed that I didn’t manage to get the bass trumpet I liked (someone beat me to it); now I’m hoping it’s a blessing in disguise.

Kimberly, me, Lester, Joseph Cheung, Jack Law, and Fang Kai.

The evening was a surprising treat (or torture?) as Joseph 张老师, boss of JC Link whom we exhibited with, invited us to a concert he was guest conducting. It was a programme consisting of only Chinese works, played by a Shanghai concert band. After the presentation at the newly opened SSO (Shanghai Symphony Orchestra) Hall, we adjourned to supper where we were joined by our friend and luminary Chinese composer Chen Qian and some local band directors and leaders around the greater Shanghai area.

Hearing the struggles of their local band scene again confirmed some of the stories that were told to me in Singapore, but I also picked up a lot of new ideas and anecdotes.

Now, I can’t even start to imagine how large this industry can potentially be, and how under developed it is due to the language barrier and artificial walls being erected around them. Simple example: all these great YouTube clips had to be downloaded and uploaded to YouKu before locals have access to them. It’s no wonder many bands still sounded like local folk musical groups, lacking western concepts of ensemble: rhythm, harmony, balance etc.

On the surface, all is well. Every band do the same activities: concert and competition, like everyone else I know in Singapore and Malaysia. Every band has similar scores, crawl taobao or whatever they can get to find and copy scores. Every band has sufficient instrument, supplied by their excellent local manufacturers who copied effectively and priced competitively.

Unfortunately at this stage of the development of the industry, individual characters who operate the industry often feel insecure about their position, their network, their relevance. Thus the ritualistic patronising of important people that’s commonplace in thousands of years of Chinese culture permeate the band scene as well.

The characters at the supper were telling of their background and ambition, and pointed clearly where their bands will head to. Education, luckily, was still central to everything, and that gave an excellent angle for external players like us to provide relevant content. However, their struggles were more related to financial support, teaching resources and seeing a “path” to progress in music. Some also lack an entrepreneurial mindset to survive.

Ultimately, those with the best attitudes and constantly improving both their level of musicality as well as the operations of an arts group are the best type of partners we should look for to move the industry forward.

The other SSO
上海申城爱乐交响管乐团 before concert begin.

I feel that we underestimate how far we have come. Take “Those Years” 那些年, just an innocent piece of arrangement of the hundreds of pop music I arranged. I now walk into China meeting completely random band instructors claiming to know the piece very well. Many could rattle 新加坡爱乐管乐团 (Philwinds) off their tongue. But these could not be possible without a good recording of a good musical group playing a maybe passable arrangement of an impeccable melody written by a Japanese for a Taiwanese movie.

And we didn’t do this because that was the end goal. It was the attitude put in by everyone, starting from the commissioner and concert conceptualiser, to each performer, to each note being written and played, to the pickup of the mic of a live concert, even to the meticulous plagiarising of the video into the Chinese Internet without losing too much quality, and so on. Everyone was trying to solve a different problem, but all taking up their part, do their best, had a good time, but inadvertently created a mini-storm we did not even see.

However these pockets of energies are spread all over right now. Many individuals who rally their own “gang”, whether it’s in Singapore or other south east asian nations with advanced band scene, failed to see how working together and specialising in their delivery could have an impact to the world.

To build trust and specialisation, one first need a great platform: good governance, written agreements, business level relationships, and not verbal soap boxing, infinite credit terms, and most worrying of all, passion that can overwrite common sense. The entire industry, including all performers and audiences, needs to have a way of recognising quality, not just popularity. And finally, the market makers, the change agents, need to look bigger and wider and stop indulging with domestic politics.

Once we have that, toss in ample amounts of technology, social media, and channel partners who can make things happen in their respective markets (not just distribution), that’s when we will be poised to be a net cultural curator and exporter. America doesn’t care but Europe is watching closely, Latin America is realising, Japan is already reaching out.

A part 3 will follow on how I intend to achieve this and how I want you to help. Now to catch up on sleep thanks to red eye flights Zzz..

(Part 3)

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Reflections from Shanghai Trip part 1

I took a week off to travel to Shanghai to attend music CHINA, an expo under the same umbrella as Messe Frankfurt, one of the world’s largest music trade shows. The show has two sections, one is music the other is PROlight+sound, which is more a sound engineer heaven.

The music side is predominantly western although there are halls with Chinese instruments as well. Pianos, strings, winds brass all take up their own hall, while us publishers are primarily tucked in a nice corner with all the guitars and ukeleles.

Today is only the 1st day (3 more days to go), and after going through all the setup and networking with the other exhibitors, I felt that I need to take notes. This is also specially for you, if you’re trying to do something similar to me, about expanding our culture back into China.

The purpose of my trip is super multifold. First there is the “business” part where I play editor to Retsel Mil Publications to gain access to conversations with other publishers, which I think is progressing nicely as each conversation reveals a little more about this intricate web that we music publishers weave. This effort continues.

Then there is the self-promoting part which was a complete flop because finally I have come face to face with the typical Chinese customer whose last thing in mind is to come to a trade show to talk about commissioning new works or discuss cross border / cross cultural exchanges. They are looking for method books mostly. It is a good learning.

Third would be the bigger promotion of local works, not just works that are already published, but potential other new works that we manage to download its premier from YouTube in time for the show, to be pitched to other publishers and other market makers. Customers generally ignore south east asian works here – speaks volume about how important we are to the general Chinese mindset, but arrangements that touches their culture does create conversations – who know maybe they will actually come back to grab it towards the last day.

The same can’t be said for the publishers. Some of them (especially the owners of boutiques) relish new compositions as works of pure beauty and curate them constantly. Larger monopolies who completes the lowest common denominators only send their sales staff, who are usually friendly but useless to engage in meaningful conversations about advancing the music publishing industry.

Thus in the end, most of my time these 2 days were spent talking to other composers and arrangers who double hat in helping to run a publishing business. This is probably the most rewarding part, realising that composers who survive in this brutal industry is solving the exact same difficult problems as lonely me in lonely Ang Mo Kio, whether it’s a non-existent Viola section resulting in a Violin III for beginners, doing up all sorts of flex-band type music to cater for incomplete instrumentations, key choice, breaking away from western formula writing, taking day jobs and writing at night, doing up powerpoints to describe the madness they go through to make ensembles work for education, decisions on whether to invest in Note Performer for Sibelius and so on, and so on.

Last but not least I need to make new resolutions and redistribute my time once I get off the plane in Changi. This is a short but not relaxing reprieve, but it is already doing a lot of good, especially by artificially blocking my access to Google, Facebook and these American services that runs my daily life. I’ll save this for part 2.

My biggest reflection today is summarised in this picture on the wall.


Meeting these publishers face to face has been a great revelation, precisely because they are so predictable. All of them face photocopying issues in China and the rest of the world. All of them still want to play legal, pay up licensing fees for print rights, invest deeply into good sample recordings, do a decent job marketing online and offline, but most spend little time with the end user as only a few could wear all hats from being a band instructor to a publisher and still be able to travel and develop connections.

In other words, no one is innovating the model.

Maybe they don’t need to maybe they don’t know how. Most have taken some advantage of technology, giving away more online (you can find many publishers freely distribute their conductor scores on their e-commerce store for example), but no one has been able to change how new works are sold and performed.

Especially when it come to method books – it’s being treated like a commodity, with everyone reselling for everyone to capture as much dollars as possible. Here we translate a bit, there we change the packaging a bit and voila another similar product emerges.

Next up is the soaking up of popular culture of their own people / audience. It doesn’t matter if the arrangement is half past six as long as the conductors who are walk the show recognises them. Surely there can’t be any hint of “art” in pop music transcriptions?

Sitting next to those are the nationalistic but mostly irrelevant folk or national songs. Just like people throw me a big Question Mark when I tell them about Rasa Sayang, I wouldn’t care as much for a collection of Dutch folk tunes arranged for flute, cello and harp.

Finally you have the cream of the crop, the reason we all went into publishing, the recognising of original works that defies gravity and fly off the shelves, being programmed by all these university and professional bands, and giving the publishing house some dignity for curating the master work.

Many grumbled how they can’t be effective agents of these arts because customers go direct to composer these days (again blame the Internet), their capital is stretched really thin for licensing with no guaranteed sales, some holding rights to music passed down from their great great great grandfathers that they can’t monetise, etc. All reasonable, but cannot elicit pity.

For the world has moved on. Plagiarism is the primary engine in promoting art. Piracy is the de facto mode of operation for the vast majority of the individuals and some organisations, regardless of what the law says. And there’s no bridge between these two world – you either play nice, which we’re quite fortunate in Singapore to have watchful eyes to ensure this happens, or you play foul.

We’ve been talking about the Microsoft strategy of simply letting China copy Windows for some time. Well it worked pretty well – so well that we couldn’t buy a printer here that supports Mac, and we had to install bootcamp and a chinese copy of windows (why of course it’s free) to be able to print.

The same might have to pan out here. In the face of customers who cannot differentiate good music from bad, we almost have to force feed them with the product that we want them to consume, before a generation of musicians grow up to prefer these product. No amount of reasoning and evangelism is going to change that.

And that’s counter intuitive to how we see art – we want to price the good stuff up, and dump the bad stuff. But for this strategy you have to actually give out the absolute best, and use that as a platform to get people to start following you. Many indie singers has done that before, why are band or orchestra scores so different?

Peter Thiel talks about creative monopoly. If there’s a new kind of monopoly that can capture value in selection, curation or distribution, what would it be?

(Part 2)

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