How do you create culture? A dash of bravery, a few drops of creativity, dollops of passion and a desire to pass it on to the next generation. The Peak pairs five current and future icons from five different cultural fields and transcribe their riveting conversations.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel


Lightness of Being

Part-time visual artist Zulkhairi Zulkiflee explores the journey of an artist with veteran multidisciplinary creative Rizman Putra.

Z: My start in art was organic. I knew from a young age that I wanted to do something creative and I initially thought about doing fashion, but somehow fell into visual art. How about you? For an artist in your early 40s, you have quite a diverse skill set.

RP: Yes. From a lot of good accidents. I’m quite a restless person, so I naturally involve myself in a lot of things. I majored in painting at LaSalle and then decided to do performance art. After that, I was discovered by a theatre director, so I tried my hand at that. And, while all these things were happening, I also had my band Tiramisu!

Z: If you had to choose just one way of expressing yourself , what would it be?

RP: Through my first love, the visual arts. I still love drawing. Some people find it hard to juggle different mediums. For me, it’s like jumping from one playground to another.

Z: Isn’t it hard since you have many different personas?

RP: It’s funny that you should ask that because I’m honestly quite a shy person. I created this alter ego in the past called Manic Jango and he was my shield when I was on stage. It was only when I got older hat I learnt how to separate the real me from him by becoming more grounded and responsible. Speaking of which, I wanted to ask you about your routine. It’s something I’ve always been curious about.

Z: I have a day job, so that is a routine in itself. But I don’t like routines, which I know is a cliche. However, I’m more productive that way.

RP: I need a routine. For the last decade, I’d wake up at 6.30am to do my morning stretches and work out. During the pandemic, I stopped that and realised I was gaining weight among other things. So I went back to my routine. Having structure helps me to organise myself better.

Z: Which is quite surprising because society always views artists as being all over the place.

RP: It’s all about time management. You only have 24 hours in a day, so you need to plan it carefully. The silver lining of this pandemic is that it has given me time to do things slower. It’s a good thing because, for the past two decades, I’ve been rushing from project to project and from place to place. Now, I have the time to focus on one idea and think about it deeply before moving on to the next. As a younger artist, what do you think of the scene now?

Z: I feel that we have a lot of independence now in terms of putting our work out there. In the past, I suspect that there was an overreliance on the middlemen, like the art galleries, to help push you. I’m sure it was way harder for you when you first began.

RP: Back then, everything was by word of mouth. I don’t want to sound nostalgic, but The Substation was one of the few independent spaces in the ‘90s and I remember the S-11 coffee shop outside of the old National Library where artists would naturally congregate. We could talk for hours over an 80-cent coffee. Now, there’s a lack of that kind of communal space.

Z: I also feel that because communication is so easy today, people tend to be complacent when it comes to interacting in real-time. We get to see artists’ works online, so we don’t bother to physically show up. It’s funny because I first knew about you through your blog. I followed you quite extensively and then I caught your live performance at The Substation. I knew I wanted to be an artist and a creative, so seeing you in person was special.

My Reading Room


My Reading Room


This Life Electric

Award-winning novelist Balli kaur Jaswal shoots the breeze with first-time writer Adam Tie.

A: I confess, I’ve only read two of your four books – Inheritance and Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows - and I loved them. They made me wonder: how much of your writing comes from personal experiences?

BK: I think the idea of writing what you know was present in my earlier novels. Then you get bolder, step out of reality and into your imagination. So, some things are drawn from my life and some are not. It’s honestly hard for me to say how much of myself is in my works. With the first two books, however, the characters were composites of people I know. Can I just say something? I love the idea of The Haven that you wrote about in your book. It just felt so razor-sharp and drawn from real life. (Editor’s note: Adam provided Balli with the unedited manuscript of his upcoming novel before their conversation.)

A: Thank you. I don’t know about you but I write my characters first and base them on people I know. Then, I realised that when you do that, you are hesitant to give them dimensions because they’re people you know, right? So my characters stayed stagnant. It was only when my older sister, who reads all my work, told me that a character’s development was crappy that I realised I needed to step away from people to give my characters dimension. What is your writing process?

BK: I overheard you saying earlier that you need a buzz around you to write. I’m different. I need complete silence. I can’t even have music because I find it distracting.

A: I create writing soundtracks for every chapter and when I’m writing one, the same song will keep looping until I finish it. Anyway, I wanted to ask you this. You’ve been on the scene for such a long time. How do you think it’s changed from when you published your first novel until now?

BK: We definitely didn’t have the infrastructure that we have now. There are social media communities where you can find other writers. I remember being alone when I was writing my first two novels. It was quite alienating but good because there were no distractions. Writing is a very lonely profession, and it was even lonelier back then.

A: Do you sometimes still feel plagued by impostor syndrome?

BK: Absolutely. I feel it every time I start writing a new book. There are a few tricks you pick up along the way. You get better at editing and at killing your darlings, but you always go back to square one at the start.

A: I ask that because I honestly don’t feel like I belong in this scene. Perhaps it was a childhood trauma [laughs] but I think it’s mainly because I am trying to acknowledge my place. I read somewhere that there are three reasons to write: to shock someone, to make someone understand or to make the person feel. I always think that no matter what you write, as long as it’s sincere, it will never be bad.

BK: Writing is so personal and the person you are in the future won’t be in the same person now, so you’re constantly going through phases of renewal and your writing is trying to catch up to that.
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My Reading Room


Top Rock

Ho Say kiat, a young, up-and-coming dancer gleans knowledge fr om Zaihar, one of the OGS of Singapore’s hip-hop dance scene.

SK: Like most people of my generation, I was inspired by Michael Jackson. When I was young, I would try and imitate his moves. Then, in secondary school, it was all K-pop. I only got serious about dance in 2014 because Natasha Studio had this $100 unlimited package and I would take four classes every day [laughs]. Then, in 2017, I injured myself during National Service and had to downgrade my PES status, so I was able to throw myself into dance.

Z: Talking about injuries, I once broke my arm playing football. As a breakdancer, your arms are vital to you, so I was distraught. But, looking back, it helped me because it forced me to work on the other parts of my body. So I worked on dancing with my legs and also using my other hand to do moves.

SK: That’s the thing about hip-hop, right? A lot of B-boys get injured, but they don’t see it as the end. They just try to work around it.

Z: Yeah, it pushes you creatively. It’s a bit like Daredevil, the superhero. He’s blind but his lack of sight heightens his other senses.

SK: What was your defining moment?

Z: It was in 2002, a year after I’d started dancing. This was before YouTube and Instagram, and they played music videos on TV. I remember seeing Justin Timberlake’s ‘Like I Love You’ and was mesmerised by the dancing. So I borrowed my mother’s camcorder and waited for days for the music video to be shown again so I could record it and mimic the choreography. To this day, that video keeps me focused on what I want to achieve: to show people the music through dance.

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SK: For me, my long-term goal is to understand as much as I can about the different genres of dance and their histories. Hip-hop is not our culture. We are borrowing from it, so I want to be able to respect history and still build on it.

Z: Is dance something you want to pursue as a career? You placed in a few online global battles during the lockdown.

SK: Well, I hope to teach and also represent the country in competitions. But, honestly, dance might not be something that I want to pursue 100 per cent, in the sense that teaching could be my main job but I would have other skills to back it up as well. Being a professional dancer is cool, but it’s important to contribute to the scene in other ways, too. For example, in marketing or business. Honestly, the OGs like you and the rest are so willing to share your knowledge when it comes to this.

Z: Yeah. Back when I started, we didn’t have a lot of resources. I had to do a lot through trial and error, and take all the wrong turns. For younger dancers like yourself, you’re already walking on a path we paved. All the paths are laid out and you just have to choose. There are no right or wrong paths. Truthfully speaking, I don’t know how long I can continue doing this, so while I can, I’ll pass the knowledge down. But I won’t just give it to anyone. I am quite selective because there are people who become complacent if things are so easily available. I’ll only pass on my knowledge to those who demonstrate that they are willing to work hard, like you.

SK: Thank you.
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The New Cinema

Singapore’s greatest filmmaker Eric Khoo talks about the future of film with Yeo Siew Hua, the man behind the award-winning A Land Imagined.

SH: When I was a teenager, I would skip school to go to the cinema. I was obsessed with them. But I wasn’t so much into making films as I was into watching them. It was only when I went to film school that I started thinking about creating movies.

E: Speaking about that, my mother had this Super 8 camera that could record only five minutes of footage without sound and it taught me how to make a silent short film. What are you working on now?

SH: My new film, which has to do with surveillance and this idea of being watched. It’s not just about CCTVs but also about voyeurism in Singapore. I live in an HDB flat. When I wake up every day and wait long enough, I can see my neighbours. I know they can watch me and I can watch them as well. I wanted to explore this idea, especially in this social media age where we watch and want to be watched.

E: The good thing is that you can do it with very little money. I’ve always wanted to make a film on a smartphone. These days, the resolution is great and the younger generation care more about content than appearances. Back in the ‘90s, there weren’t a lot of local filmmakers. Now, there’s you, Anthony Chen, Kirsten Tan, etc.

SH: You were probably the first Singaporean filmmaker going to all these big film festivals.

E: Funny story about my first feature film Mee Pok Man. The inspiration came from a Damien Sin short story about a mortuary attendant who falls in love with a cadaver that I helped to illustrate. Then, when we were at Newton Circus having supper one night, I was eating mee pok and drinking Anchor beer and belched. The smell of the mee pok with the beer gave me an epiphany and I told Damien I wanted the character to be a noodle seller who falls in love with a prostitute. Two weeks later, he came back with the finished script. The film is 25 years old now and I’m happy to say that I’m still working with some of the same people from back then.

SH: Do you want to do more directing or producing now?

E: Producing. There are so many talented filmmakers not only in Singapore but in the region right now. And I think OTT (over the top) platforms are the future of film now. For more mature markets, Covid-19 has ended the cinema as we know it. OTT platforms level the playing ground a bit in terms of distribution but we still need content at the end of the day. The way I look at it, it’s going to be hard to sell films to theatres, so you have to strike deals with OTT platforms. Ultimately, the fate of a film is not just how good it is but how well it is distributed. I want to play a part in that.

SH: I've always wanted to ask you this. Does a local film have to go international to be successful?

E: Not at all. Over the top platforms play a role in that. But everything is relative to the budget, right? Maybe you can’t do that period piece you’re dreaming of but if you want to do a film you can shoot with an iPhone, you can probably do it for $250,000 or less. It’s doable and there are so many film grants out there now, too. I always believe that if you keep things small and within budget, you'll break even.
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The Virtuosos

World-class violinist min lee is grooming the next batch of local violinists, including the prodigious Samuel tan.

When Lee Huei Min left Singapore at the age of nine to pursue her dream of being a violinist, she thought she would never return. She had been playing the instrument for seven years and had made rapid progress, but only realised the extent of that improvement when she attended a summer music camp in the US and was told by a renowned music professor, Dr Josef Gingold that she was “very, very talented”. And that it was imperative that she leave Singapore to receive further training “or she would become average by 14”. Her mother immediately packed their bags and, before the month was out, Lee had moved to the US.

“Before we left Singapore, a lot of my mother’s friends were asking her if she was sure that she wanted to do this and telling her that a career in music was financially unstable,” Lee reflects. “Things have definitely changed since then. The parents I meet now have open attitudes. They are a lot more supportive of their children and see a career in music as something that’s possible, happy and fulfilling.”

Lee founded Wolfgang Violin Studio Singapore in 2009. It was the culmination of a promise she had made to the late Erick Friedman, an internationally renowned concert violinist and her professor at Yale School of Music, who had asked her to continue the musical legacy and pass on her knowledge to the younger generation.

The school was more spontaneous than planned though. Lee returned to Singapore in 2007 to study at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy because she wanted to take a break from performing and then planned to head back to London after graduation to continue playing the violin on stage. “I thought I would only teach when I was in my mid-40s.”

But life had other plans for her. She met husband Loh Lik Peng, married him in 2010 and decided to stay permanently.

Now, Lee is passionate about teaching and takes pride in the progress of all her students under her watch. One of them is 15-year-old Samuel Tan Yek Hee, a prodigious violinist who made waves when he received a standing ovation and was awarded the Postacchini Prize at the 2014 Andrea Postacchini International Violin Competition in Italy for being the best overall violinist. He was competing against musicians up to the age of 35. He also won first prize in the 8- to 11-year-old category and received a Francesco Piasentini violin, a Walter Barbiero bow and a cash prize. He was only nine then.

“I went away feeling a deep sense of pride, yet humbled to be selected from among so many talented violinists. I am proud to have contributed in my small way to put my country on the map,” shares Tan.

Unlike Lee, however, Tan is staying in Singapore to continue his musical journey. This might have been detrimental for Lee in her growing years but she says that has changed. “In terms of early development, we are a lot stronger now. Asia has changed a lot, too. When I was in the US, I remember that a large majority of the students at The Juilliard School were Koreans. They all then went back to teach. Now, there are many young and wonderful talents from Korea who stay in Korea,” Lee says.

Tan hopes to one day walk the same path Lee trotted. He is considering a career in music but professes that balancing schoolwork with music practice has been very tricky. The nature of the violin is such that it requires hours of dedicated daily sessions to perfect, time that Tan admits has been difficult to find due to Singapore’s academic rigour.

However, even if Tan doesn’t reach the same heady musical peaks that Lee once scaled, she is still proud of her student. “We need lots of passionate people to support the arts and I hope and know that Samuel, along with the rest, will pass it on to the next generation.”

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