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Three Singaporean Men Who Defy Outdated Ideas of Masculinity Through Art

By Lynette Kee, Terence Poh and Bianca Husodo

From left: Musician and entrepreneur Samuel Wong; ballet master Md Noor; poet and writer Cyril Wong.
 
Tung Pham
From left: Musician and entrepreneur Samuel Wong; ballet master Md Noor; poet and writer Cyril Wong.

Art-making is almost always an emotional experience, one that warrants individuals to confront a vulnerable side of themselves. In Singapore, where society remains relatively more conservative as compared to the West, artistic pursuits have thus been dominated by women, while men find themselves leaning towards more technical fields of engineering and the sciences, devoid of emotions. Here, we speak to three male artists — a ballet master, musician, and poet — who are expressing their distinct personal takes on masculinity in Singapore through art.

Md Noor, ballet master

The tale of most artists’ journeys towards their successes more often than not begins from a decisive moment. For Mohamed Noor Sarman, affectionally known as Md Noor, it is in the split second the curtains went up on Singapore Dance Theatre’s (SDT) first ever production in 1988. “All my friends were [performing] and I thought, ‘What am I doing sitting here? I should be up there with them!’,” he says with a laugh. Citing fellow pioneer dancers of SDT who were performing on stage, including Jamaludin Jalil who gave up pursuing a career as a lawyer to be a dancer, Md Noor recounts that night as a pivotal moment for him in his ballet career. “I felt like I had more to give and I was willing to do whatever it takes.”

Fast forward a few decades, Md Noor, one of the longest standing members in the school, is now, in his own right, a ballet master in SDT.

Tung PhamBallet master Md Noor, 56, at one of the Singapore Dance Theatre’s studios. Noor is the longest-standing member of the national dance company.
Ballet master Md Noor, 56, at one of the Singapore Dance Theatre’s studios. Noor is the longest-standing member of the national dance company.

The now 56-year-old ballet master first got introduced to the world of dance when he was 10 years old. He was exposed to the art of Malay cultural dance as a spectator — when he used to accompany his sister for her practices. Navigating through the typical route of a Singaporean male student, awaiting to enlist in the mandated national military service, Md Noor saw dance as the only thing that kept his hands and feet unbound. Originally trained in jazz and traditional Malay dance, he soon found himself knocking on every possible door to get his foot in to learn ballet. At the age of 16, Md Noor bought his first pair of ballet shoes, and he has never given up on them ever since.

When the time came for Md Noor to serve national service, he joined the army’s Music and Dance company specialising in the ballet genre while working full-time at the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation as a dancer. “It was just practising [at first]; It only became more official when I went to the Royal Ballet Academy, [where] I started taking exams,” he says. In ballet, the Royal Academy of Dance examination is considered to be the highest degree of certification. Like the laws of tempo, which underline all studies of dance, it seems Md Noor had paced himself beautifully.

However, the path he had chosen wasn’t without obstacles. Md Noor’s transition from a commercial dancer to a professional performer was pitted with trials: On technicality, his foray into a less familiar dance form was made more physically and mentally demanding due to his physique. For a male ballet practitioner, Md Noor’s petit frame doesn’t quite fit the bill as a stage performer. “My height, [by the standards of] other countries, is the minimum criteria for female ballerinas,” he says matter-of-factly. Instead of seeking validation on his outer stature, the ballet master looked inwards and worked harder than everybody else. Now with a successful reputation embedded to his name, Md Noor stands tall, poised to a T, regardless of the numbers of a stadiometer.

Tung PhamOn the ground, Md Noor places emphasis on perfecting his technique, but on the stage, he transcends to a state of being, harnessed by emotions.
On the ground, Md Noor places emphasis on perfecting his technique, but on the stage, he transcends to a state of being, harnessed by emotions.

On a more personal note, Md Noor talks about an incident, which he only found out about later in life, from his mother. While he was still an emerging artist, his parents were questioned by a relative, alluding his career in dance to “earning sinful money”. Despite being one of the more developed countries in the world, Singapore is still considered relatively conservative, from a cultural standpoint. Growing up in a Singaporean Muslim household in the ’80s, respectable careers span the conventional, such as a profession in business or law, while ballet dancing, an art form requiring physical contact, is much less accepted.

In fact, Md Noor had kept his pursuit in ballet a secret from his parents. It was only after they saw his televised performance when his parents fully grasped that their son was a dancer. Even then, there was no recollection of any conversation about it. A self-indulgence of sorts, he says that “there wasn’t any reason, maybe I wasn’t sure if they will like it.”

But he was one of the lucky ones. “I’ve never felt — not even from my family — that it was a taboo to be a ballet dancer as a man, they supported me quietly,” he says. “My dad actually explained to them that I work hard for it, and that it was [far] from sinful money. That was nice.”

Md Noor has without a doubt come a long way since the first time he put on his first pair of ballet flats 40 years ago. Since his appointment as ballet master, the veteran dancer has since hung up his shoes, only to take them down every now and then to perform in full-length character roles. Md Noor says that his current “more responsible” role is a natural progression. But when speaking about his stage experiences, it is clear that he will always be a performer at heart. “On the stage, it’s everything about how you sit, how you move. The character you’ve been rehearsing comes out fluidly and you feed on that energy,” he says. “Suddenly, it’s not you anymore, it’s something [from the] inside.” — Lynette Kee

Samuel Wong, musician

“Once, I took my pipa (a four-string Chinese musical instrument) and threw it in the snow. Because I wanted it to break, so I didn’t have to play it anymore,” Samuel Wong confesses, as he recalls frustrations from his musical journey of over 20 years. The 36-year-old Singaporean musician, educator, and entrepreneur picked up the pipa when he was 12 and forged a profound relationship with the instrument, which he likens to human relationships. “There are these tensions, but you see, these arguments are actually very normal. And once you’re able to get through that, you actually build tenacity, awareness, and self-awareness.”

Tung PhamHaving trained as a professional pipa player for over 20 years, Samuel Wong has a deep, emotional connection with the instrument that he likens to human relationships.
Having trained as a professional pipa player for over 20 years, Samuel Wong has a deep, emotional connection with the instrument that he likens to human relationships.

The music industry veteran never imagined himself as a professional musician, let alone a founder of an arts company and social enterprise, The TENG Company (TENG), dedicated to cultivating the performing arts sector in Singapore. The creation of TENG was a response to the nation’s ailing Chinese music scene, fraught with cultural stereotypes. Wong recalls, “People thought that it was very old and antiquated, [that] it couldn’t possibly play anything else.” This drove Wong to prove his past critics wrong by pushing the boundaries of traditional Chinese music. Along with a hybrid ensemble of Chinese and Western instruments, TENG’s most prominent group of musicians, the TENG Ensemble, released a Disney medley that has since raked in over 87,000 views on YouTube.

Although known primarily for his work in the music industry, Wong identifies, first and foremost, as an educator. “When I was young, I was very inspired by my schoolteachers, and I’ve always thought that teaching was such a noble and beautiful profession,” recalls Wong. Following in the footsteps of his mother and grandmother, who were both educators, Wong would go on to realise his childhood ambitions. Apart from his work and research at TENG, Wong teaches at the Adjunct Faculty at University at Buffalo-Singapore Institute of Management (UB-SIM) and serves as a dissertation supervisor at Lasalle College of the Arts, two positions he has held for over a decade.

Serving as a board member and creative director, Wong’s motivations come from a desire to give back to society. His chief approach to TENG involves finding innovative ways to fill gaps in Singapore society through Chinese music, most notably by providing scholarships to budding musicians from underprivileged families. At the moment, the youngest scholarship recipient is only 8 years old; Wong’s team mentors a total of eight scholars, with another five slated for this year.

Tung PhamThe music industry veteran strums the pipa with skillful dexterity.
The music industry veteran strums the pipa with skillful dexterity.

Wong possesses his own set of philosophy when it comes to music. While many artists and musicians wax lyrical about the emotional experience in performing their craft, Wong takes a far more structured approach to music — he credits his accomplishments in music to the tutelage of his childhood music teachers and years of hard work and training in perfecting his technical music skills, which serve as a robust foundation that empowers him to delve deep into his feelings and emotions without fear. “When you know all the rules, now, you can break all the rules and create a version that’s your own.”

After achieving technical perfection and developing years of experience in music, the picture of the tortured artist, although epitomised as the ultimate human experience by some, seems unattractive to Wong. “I’d rather be something that burns slowly and steadily, than something that explodes and goes very quickly,” he says.

We asked about the man behind those accomplishments and what masculinity means to him, but Wong was more inclined to let his work speak for itself. “I always put the work before the person,” he says. “I create something and I let it speak for me.” Indeed, the groundwork that Wong has laid over the years has paid off. To Wong, masculinity is a confidence, to be in contact with one’s emotions. He adds, “I think that’s the way to be human.” — Terence Poh

Cyril Wong, poet

To one degree or another, almost all poetry is a confession. But it’s in this respect that Cyril Wong’s poetry starkly differs from that of earlier Singaporean poets. While others muse about the Merlion and their cultural provenance, Wong looks in the mirror and confronts himself. “The general public has a fear of talking about the self. Nobody wants to reveal the cracks within themselves. Everyone wants to appear successful, polite and happy,” says Wong of Singapore’s lingering conservatism, pegging this stoicism as the reason why people in the city-state find it difficult to relate to each other “in a really human way.”

The 42-year-old is the country’s first, and only, established confessional queer poet. Through recounting specific moments in his life, Wong’s oft-anecdotal poems are passageways into his head. His brutally candid self-querying probes his innermost thoughts on themes of love, anxiety, family dysfunction, and human relationships of all kinds — but most controversially, the intricacies of his sexuality as a gay man.

Therein lies the irony that Wong relishes in: Singapore, whose laws criminalise homosexuality, has an openly gay man as its spearheading contemporary poet.

Tung Pham

Wong reads one of his own poems about a lover.

 

Wong first burst onto the literary scene in the early noughts, writing his nascent poetry during his two and a half years of mandatory national military service as a frustrated clerk in the barracks. At the time, Wong was depressed. Things weren’t going well: He was fresh off coming out of the closet, only to have his sexuality refused by his father, who has since stopped talking to him; and the testosterone-charged nature of Singapore’s army camps proved to be hostile grounds to a queer teenager. Poetry easily became a form of a coping mechanism for Wong, a means of combing through the tangled frustrations that would often lead him to a suicidal state of mind.

What began as a documentation of quiet self-defiance ballooned into something bigger than himself. Perhaps out of the sheer naivety of assumption that the arts scene would be an open and safe space for the marginalised, the then- undergraduate pushed forward, publishing his debut anthology, “Squatting Quietly”, in 2000, followed by “The End of His Orbit” a year later. In them, Wong lays bare his sub-adolescent angst: He laments over a deficient father with “his vow of indifference to my life’s stubborn course” and reveals glimpses of his same-sex sensibility, wondering “what my lover is doing/ without me. Wonder about his boyfriend too.”

“This was before Facebook and Instagram. Publishing my poetry was my way to throw grenades at those who repressed and oppressed me, in a way that was constructive,” recalls Wong. “But I was rejected by practically everyone. They said I shouldn’t air my dirty laundry in public.”

While it’s true that Wong’s work dives headfirst into the intimate depths of the self, it’s never solipsistically detached. “I only want people, or readers, to not feel alone. I want them to feel that they’re not the only ones in this world feeling these things. Because when you are in a society that encourages silence, you can feel very isolated,” says Wong.

Wong’s journey was, and still is, uphill. The two-time Singapore Literature Prize winner now has 18 books under his belt — most of them anthologies of poems with several fiction works in between — but they came with their own set of setbacks. “Singapore is like a nightmarish tango. It goes two steps forward, two steps back, three steps forward, two steps back. We don’t know where it’s going. When there’s a window open, another door closes,” says Wong. “The moment you think that Singapore is opening up politically, ideologically, suddenly they’re banning books in the library.”

Tung PhamHaving put his innermost thoughts into lyrical poetry for almost two decades, Cyril Wong, 42, is Singapore’s pioneering confessional poet.
Having put his innermost thoughts into lyrical poetry for almost two decades, Cyril Wong, 42, is Singapore’s pioneering confessional poet.

In 2014, when Singapore’s National Library Board pulped three children’s book deemed as “not pro-family”, Wong spoke out, commenting on a Facebook post that as a queer writer, “I think I have reached a limit of some sort, in the light or dark of recent events... By sometime next year, I’m just going to stop; yes, stop publishing, stop working with governmental organisations, even stop writing.” But about a year later, “The Lover’s Inventory” (2015) — Wong’s most explicit work, which chronicles past flings and lovers — was independently published. Surprisingly, it won him his second Singapore Literature Prize. Yet in the national public library, there’s only a single copy of the book in the reference section — an unusual practice for an award-winning work of a local author. “So I’m still cynical. Does this really mean Singapore is becoming less conservative?”

Either way, Wong’s readership is a testament that his voice resonates with some. “You rarely have a male voice that will really interrogate themselves, much less a queer man,” says Wong. “I talk about my own personal experiences with all these things that are the purview of us. And it’s so rare that someone — male, female or non-binary — is talking about their feelings in their writing in Singapore, and as long as I speak up, someone else will surely relate to it.” — Bianca Husodo