Learning > Inspiration

Merdeka Generation: Drum major's big part in helping shape Singapore's arts and education movement

While the pioneer leaders were the architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. This is another story of our Merdeka Generation, those born in the 1950s who lived and persevered through a tumultuous period.

Rahimah Rashith on 06 Mar 2019

The Straits Times


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As a child, Syed Ibrahim Haja Mohideen had a habit of hitting pots, pans and tables at home, to the thumping tunes of Tamil songs playing on the radio in the background.


His enthusiasm, however, did not mean that he never missed a beat. But for young Syed, it sowed the seeds of a lifelong career in the arts and music.


He went on to play a big part in helping shape Singapore's arts and education movement.


The youngest of seven children to hawker parents, he lived with his family in a modest three-room flat in Queenstown.


There, the musical ambitions of the veteran percussionist, now 64, took root.


"I grew up watching my brothers perform in a band," he said. "For them, it was a hobby. But for me, it was an inspiration."


In 1965, the 10-year-old joined the newly formed band club at Hua Yi Primary School.


He recounted how a band movement began here in 1965 when then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew wanted schools to form bands.


In his memoirs, The Singapore Story, Mr Lee wrote of how when the Kuala Lumpur federal government in 1964 did not allow Singapore to use its police band for the Singapore State Day parade, he decided to get the Education Ministry and People's Association to introduce bands in schools.


In Singapore's first National Day Parade in August 1966, a marching band leading a 500-strong student contingent performed.


Mr Syed said: "Those early years were when my musical education really started.


"After I got through my school auditions, I was given a pair of drumsticks. It was the most valuable thing to me."


"When I walked home, I would hold the drumsticks in my hand to show off," he said with a laugh. "It was such a privilege to be part of the band."


Even after he went to secondary school, Mr Syed volunteered to train the band as a member of the alumni.


Over the next decade, Hua Yi's reputation as having one of the best primary school bands grew.


"I still remember Mr Leong Chee Cheong, the band instructor who encouraged me to experiment with my musical potential and to use percussion," he said.


In 1971, after leaving Bukit Ho Swee Secondary School, he worked as a technician for Telecoms, the precursor to Singtel.


In his spare time, he kept his passion alive by becoming a part-time percussion instructor at various primary, secondary and private music schools. "In the 1970s, my classroom for music learning was the nightclubs," Mr Syed, who is single, said. "When I was not performing, I would sneak in the back door to watch how the drummers play at clubs or theatres like the National Theatre or Victoria Theatre.


"I could not afford the money to go through the front door."


By the 1980s, he was in great demand as a percussion instructor, with schools such as Raffles Girls' School and Victoria Junior College calling on his expertise.


"Then I took the plunge to become a percussion instructor full-time to follow my passion. You cannot spend time in a place where you don't love your work," he said about quitting his technician job. "Back then, my family considered me a hippie for joining the arts full time.


"A lot of people back then thought that you cannot succeed in the arts, but being an artist is just like any other profession. If you do not work hard, you cannot survive. You need to plan a career path," he said.


In the 1990s, as the percussion instructor at St Anthony's Canossian Secondary School, he helped set up, and led its performing arts department.


"At that time, such a department did not exist in any school in Singapore. With the support of the principal, Sister Cecily Pavri, I created programmes for all the performing arts co-curricular activities and for the school."


After eight years as the head of department, Mr Syed left in 2001 to set up OneHeartBeat Percussions, to provide a structured percussion music programme to mainstream schools.


The programme has since been extended to special needs schools, marginalised youth, senior citizen homes and companies.


It has also been used to engage Rohingya refugees in Malaysia and the victims of disaster-struck areas .


Mr Syed said: "I came to a point in my career where I realised I wanted to do more for the community using the arts.


"When you are close to reaching your career ceiling, you either crash into it or you raise your own ceiling."


A typical session sees him gathering the group in a circle, where each person sits with a handheld percussion instrument like a djembe, a goblet-shaped drum from West Africa, or a tambourine.


A facilitator guides the group to create music together.


"These sessions are meant for anyone and everyone regardless of their musical background," he said.


Last December, he travelled to a village in Indonesia to conduct a session with victims of the Lombok earthquake.


Today, he continues to hone his craft. In August, he will graduate with a master's degree in arts pedagogy and practice from Goldsmiths, University of London in Britain.


"For as long as I can, I want to bring joy to others through the arts, just like how it has brought me joy," he said.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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