Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tribute to Dr. Toh Chin Chye

Dr. Toh Chin Chye, as we have discovered recently, in many unusually long and sustained news reports of his life and times, is a man of the people. These copious reports are a direct contrast to the deafening silence about him since the 1980s. What nobody spoke or wrote about was his cultural hopes for the nation, and this was manifested at the University of Singapore where he was Vice-Chancellor (1968-1975). In 1968 he launched the University of Singapore Military Band (USMB). It led to the birth of an extensive extra-curricular music and dance programme in the 1970s and beyond. But lurking behind his mind was the need for a cultural renaissance from the ground.

I first met Dr. Toh in person in 1967 when he came to St. Joseph’s Institution to preside over the Founders Day celebrations. He presented to me the highest award in the school that year for my activities in music. Upon entering the University of Singapore in 1968, I discovered that he had remembered meeting me, and he wanted me to work with Mr. Gerry Soliano, the legendary bandleader at Raffles Hotel, whom he employed to set-up the first formal music activity at SU.

In the process of working on the band, I discovered he had other plans, foremost of which was to set up a Music Department under the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Two legendary musicians, Dr. Lucrecia Kasilag from the Philippines and Professor Frank Callaway from the University of Western Australia, were invited to advise and write a report for this. Both these persons became my mentors.

It was an exciting time personally for me as a student leader in musical activities on campus. I took Dr. Toh’s offer of a job and stayed on at SU after graduation to further assist with the development the extra-curricular programme, and also to help with the administration of the pending Music Department. It was established in 1972. Very sadly things did not develop according to plan. Dr. Toh left SU in 1975. The Music Department was closed by 1978. I left in the same year for higher musical study at the College of Music at the University of the Philippines. It was my choice to go there and not to USA or UK. I was in pursuit of knowledge that Euro-American did not have. How could they when a place like the Philippines was struggling to create this knowledge.

Dr. Toh had a profound effect on me because he taught me, through his deep nationalism, that the route to becoming a multicultural nation is not easy. If it was difficult for other disciplines then it must be doubly hard for music. I majored in Political Science, which ironically again, was closed down in my final year. Culture was an important component of nation building. It was Dr. Toh’s legacy in initiating the Music Department, so that music and musicians could have a professional platform to study musical phenomenon and respond to nation building.

His choice of Kasilag and Callaway from this side of the world, and not the default tendency to reach out to Euro-America, was innate wisdom as a statesman of a multicultural state like Singapore. Dr. Toh’s vision for music was to first understand the local needs and then work out to the peripheries of the abstract. Not to start with the abstract and always stay irrelevant. The report recommended balance between East and West - but there was no blue print to achieve it. This is where the fault lines were. This was the confluence where knowledge had to be created.

Professional musical experience of Singapore at that time was narrow. The method and accreditation of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music was the only formula that people could and would understand. The aggrandizement of music as a profession was neither the policy nor the principle. Singapore did not have an abundant manpower base then, so it was not something that was up front in discussions. It was meant to be small but focused.

The lecturers employed for the Music Department were all Asian but trained in Britain and USA. It was a middle point to start and which Dr. Toh agreed. But, it turned out to be a shadow dance of mismatched ideas and personalities. Many times I was caught in the middle of diplomatic discords between the music staff and him. It was unfortunate that all sides saw this not as a set of developmental problems that needed deep methods and a time frame to solve, but as a zero-sum football game, where the musical football had no design, no designer, and the referee and the lines-persons had no reference point to make crucial decisions. No effort was put into this. The department had 12 students and they did music as a minor subject – and that was all that was produced.

Running parallel to the department was an ever growing and popular extra-curricular progamme that worked entirely on enthusiasm, and fully funded by the university. Thus, the closing of the Music Department did not generally make any impact. But it did to me.

The Kasiliag-Callaway Report was and still is one of the finest that was done, but incomprehensible as a document if it had produce results immediately. Copy and follow was (and still is) the only method we know for music. To maintain the balance between East and West, there was no place we could go to copy and follow. So, the report lay there as a document that was gradually forgotten. I decided that I would follow a private path to try and understand the dynamics of the East-West divide in music. It seemed to be the sacred spot where things could fall out of balance. Someone has to work on this patch.

I continued with the extracurricular music and dance programme, but launched a parallel (silent) track for my professional music research and training. I planned to follow the precepts of that Kasilag-Callaway Report. I read for a Masters in Music at the famed College of Music at the University of the Philippines, and wrote a PhD thesis at the University of Western Australia where Callaway played a central role in developing the curricula. I consciously decided to stay away from Euro-American music colleges. The total span of time it took me to do this by myself was 21 years.

I did this because I knew that Dr Toh had something in his mind but could not paint the full picture then – I know now how much time and effort is needed to be able to even express in words the true nature of the East-West problem in music, before working on the issues and solutions of sustainability, relevance, and comprehension of the fundamentally different musical systems in Singapore. Musical culture must define national territories. If people ask me why I did this at the expense of a career somewhere else, I say it was due to the after effects of a scolding I got from Dr. Toh.

Dr. Toh saw music as something that came from within a society. Music cannot be done in void. It had to have a following. There is a systemic principle in music like in all other aspects of life and work, and it was his hope that the professionals would find that equilibrium. He scolded me, in front of my administrative colleagues at a staff function, when I tried to get him to see the Music Department’s point of view. What he said in that scolding actually marked a turning point in my thoughts about music and its future: “Joe, don’t let these foreigners come and stuff things down your throat”.

He was a politician by instinct and nature. No musician would have seen the study of music, in that day and time, as something other than what Euro-America was doing. I pondered long and deeply on why he would say such a thing when he employed these foreigners. When I went to the Philippines for studies, instead of USA or UK, where I discovered that this struggle for relevance and independence, within a rapidly globalizing and homogenizing sonic environment, was a colossal problem. There were serious efforts by students, staff and the followers of music battling this East-West issue. I saw shades and layers of many other problems in the search of the East-West equilibrium in musical culture and expression. I realized that the effort to prevent erosion and extinction of musical systems had to be scientific, collegiate and generational.

I explored the Philippines for what it was worth, their traditional and tribal musical cultures, and their high capability in the expression of Western music. Most of all I had the honor and luck to meet and work with the legendary ethnomusicologist, the late Emeritus Professor Jose Maceda.

I returned to Singapore in 1981. SU became NUS and the music extra-curricular programme was institutionalized as the only sanctioned musical activity on campus - but still without credit. At the same time, I saw other local tertiary institutions going ahead with professional music programmes, albeit on the lines of the old “tried and tested” formula. It was disheartening, but my job became a platform to perform a new juggling routine as I marched privately towards a PhD – in further pursuit of the issues raised in the Kassilag-Callaway Report calling for balance in local and foreign course elements.

I found comrades in the growing ASEAN network where quite fortunately I became a regular representative for Singapore. One of the projects that made me see the “wedge in the door” for a PhD topic was the ASEAN Composers Forum on Traditional Music. It was the brainchild of Dr. Ramon Santos, the Dean of the College of Music, a student of Professor Maceda, and my teacher in the “Music of the Philippines”. In 1993 that project came to Singapore and for the first time I was able to bring together the major traditional music groups representing the fundamentally different musical systems in Singapore for ethnomusicology scrutiny.

By 1993 I had a topic based on a new concept “sonic orders” - which I invented to solve a minor musical diplomatic tussle between the Philippines and Malaysia on some overlap in objectives in two ASEAN composers projects. In 1998 I got a bonus when the ASEAN Sonic Orders was approved and funded. This project went parallel with my my PhD in 1999, where "sonic orders" became the test bed for my ideas on how to prevent “things being stuffed down my throat”. I said a silent "Eureka" when I received the PhD. The Vice Chancellor of UWA came hunting for me during the garden party, quite incredulous how I could have written a thesis on a subject like that. I reminded him that Prof. Frank Callaway was there at UWA.

Then, by a sheer coincidence, SMU invited me to teach a course called “Music East and West”. For eight years (2000-2007) that course provided me a way to test my timeline music education principles based on "sonic orders", some allied laboratory applications and procedures, and the sonic environment measuring and analysis techniques and software. The fundamental thesis in my PhD was that we could develop the right pedagogies to sustain and make relevant our musical culture through a process of understanding music, by a measuring principle and tool, music is emitted from radio, television, recordings and performances. Until we have a systemic mentality in music education and a systematic approach to research and training, I think we will be caught in a “hentak kaki” syndrome - changing and adapting, but staying rooted to one spot with only the background moving and changing.

This long and winding career I had, is my response to Dr. Toh’s scolding. No “foreigner” could or can stuff anything down my throat now. As he is laid to rest, I am at a point where I am going to apply these ideas within some Asian countries. I will always be grateful to Dr. Toh Chin Chye.


Joe Peters

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