While the pioneer leaders were the original architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build local society. This is another story about such people in the series The Lives They Live.
These days, pirated copies of music albums are called illegal downloads and they can be squeezed into a mobile phone.
Mr Ronnie Loh, 71, remembers a different time. In 1978, he was a sales manager with record label Warner Music and often accompanied police officers on raids that targeted the illicit business of producing and distributing pirated music cassettes. Vinyl was on the decline and the compact disc was still a few years away.
Mr Loh recalls one particular incident when he was 39. He had entered a shipping container parked outside a secluded bungalow in Sembawang together with a group of police officers. When he got inside, he could not believe his eyes.
"I saw endless rows of cassettes, from Rod Stewart to the Eagles. There were thousands of them about to be shipped overseas," he says. He estimates the cassettes were worth at least $100,000.
"We would get a court order, and head to bungalows and places all over Singapore. Some of the houses belonged to people in the industry," he says. "We would see rows and rows of recording machines on one side and thousands of album covers around the premises."
Music has always been Mr Loh's thing. When he left school in 1964, at the age of 16, he played with several bands as a drummer.
In 1966, he joined the Borneo Company, a distributor for EMI Records. As a salesman, his job was to anticipate hits. He also pre-ordered vinyl records to distribute to retail shops.
"During the 1960s, whenever there were music releases, there was great excitement, especially for big-name acts like The Beatles," he says.
Picking out the hits from the flops was not always easy, says Mr Loh, who adds that the company received dozens of samples to sieve through each week.
"Much later, I predicted that Madonna would fail," he laughs.
Four years later, Mr Loh moved to EMI Records for a year before setting up his own shop selling records, posters and T-shirts at Peninsula Shopping Centre in 1971.
"I married music with fashion at the shop," he says. "We had everything for a music lover, including patches, chains and posters.
"Back then, Peninsula Shopping Centre was a hot hangout for young Singaporeans and Malaysians to buy music and jeans."
But by 1976, he was with Cosdel, an independent music distributor of labels such as RCA Records.
In 1978, he joined Warner Music as a sales manager, spending considerable time fighting piracy. "At times, when we arrived at some locations for the raids, there would be no one around because someone had tipped them off. It was an uphill task." He was with Warner Music till 1981.
Mr Loh went back to being his own boss with Ideas Music in 1983, a company he set up to distribute records and cassettes to shops. "After three years, my company crashed because of piracy," he says.
"Even when you sell 2,000 cassettes, the pirates would have sold maybe 50,000 pieces. Original cassettes cost about $12 and the pirated versions were $2.50," he says.
"After my company folded, I was in a dark place, trying to stay afloat. I sold insurance, books, even sold plastic bags from production centres to hawker centres."
But as luck would have it, he eventually landed a salesman job in the music industry in 1987.
Mr Loh finally left the industry 11 years ago, after the last company he was with - yet another independent music business - went bust.
He set up a shop in Bukit Merah Central selling eldercare products such as wheelchairs and diapers. "I repurposed my skills since I was too old to rock and roll," he says with a laugh. "In 2007, I entered this business by chance when I was looking for a job." Mr Loh is still running the business.
These days, he names his products after musical inspirations. His in-house wheelchair brand is marketed as "Le Beetles", with the models named after The Beatles members John, Paul, Ringo and George.
"I have the best of both worlds now," he laughs. "I get to pursue my passion for healthcare and rehabilitation, and I still get to enjoy the oldies music in my shop every day."
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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