Pictured: local rock band Taledrops
SOURCE: Photo by Shu Ching

By Jocelle Koh, assisted by Sinead O’Connor

In a 2020 article published on Esplanade Offstage titled ‘Women in Singapore Music’, an exploration of the intersections between the topic of sexism, gender equality and female representation in Singapore was introduced, with conclusions reading generally positive. 

Local female acts such as Annette Lee, Joie Tan and RRILEY were interviewed, and mentioned they had not personally experienced direct sexism or gender imbalances within the scene. 

Local acclaimed indie pop singer-songwriter Linying echoes their comments while acknowledging the presence of exceptions.

“I’ve been pretty fortunate to be around people who’ve generally inspired and encouraged me at every point in my career. There are exceptions, of course, and I’ve met people who have treated me dismissively, especially when I was younger and just starting out, but I do think most of them came from a different time in the music industry where women in music had much less agency than they do now, so I have always taken their behaviour with a grain of salt. For the most part, I’ve been surrounded by great people who have never made me feel less than.”

Pictured: Linying

Yet such exceptions to the rule could reveal a very different perspective on the climate for women in music in Singapore. A scratch beneath the surface reveals Singapore’s very own Harvey Weinstein-esque scandal which broke in 2023, with prominent local singer, label head, reality show judge and producer Ken Lim making the news for investigation of six counts of insulting a woman’s modesty and one count of molestation

These claims spanned his 47 year-long career, the earliest starting from 1986 and the most recent allegation in 2021 across five victims, and shows classic abusive, exploitative and manipulative behaviour that is common in the music industry which is often perpetrated by a man in a perceived position of power. 

Given that Singapore is a young country that only claimed its independence officially just shy of 59 years ago, Lim’s example is a clear representation of the presence of sexism and discrimination in the local music scene, but also of the lack of public interest and productive discussion on the topic.

An analysis of content created by local netizens brought up eleven Tiktok videos on the topic with a total of 536 comments and a reddit thread with 67 comments, most of which were more focused on perceptions of Lim as a public figure rather than the wider issue at hand.

While Lim is pleading not guilty and the jury is still out, the local public debate and fallout is a world away from the #metoo movement happening in other parts of the world, such as Australia. Started in 2006 by activist Tarana Bourke, the movement gained momentum in December 2017 with an open letter demanding change from the music industry signed by over 360 women.

Taiwanese-Australian artist Jaguar Jonze who publicly accused two producers of sexual assault after filing a police report in 2019, spiked further media coverage and public interest on the topic and catalysed the uncovering of several other cases, such as the long-term sexual misconduct and abuse in the workplace by former Sony Music Australia CEO Denis Handlin which led to his dismissal in 2021

Pictured: Jaguar Jonze for her latest EP Victim Impact Statement

A working group was created to further investigate this issue, which informed an independent industry report titled ‘Raising Their Voices’ and a revised 2023 national cultural policy which addressed “sexual harm, sexual harassment and systemic discrimination including bullying” in the contemporary music and creative industries.

Yet from the Singapore National Arts Council’s arts plans published for 2018-2022 and 2023-2027, there seems to be no acknowledgement of such occupational hazards which come with the development of the creative industries, only acknowledgement of the arts’ general ability to bring issues relating to topics such as gender to light.

In a white paper on Singapore Women’s Development published in 2022, the Singapore Government set out 25 action plans focusing on the key areas of equal opportunities in the workplace, recognition and support for caregivers, protection against violence and harm, other support measures for women, and mindset shifts.

While certainly many important actions were identified through this document, due to the tendency towards freelance and self-employed work in the creative industries , the question still stands: how applicable and effective are such action plans when directed towards creative industries such as the music industry?

A prime example of this is the lineup of Baybeats, Singapore’s largest free alternative music festival that has been running since 2002. Analysing the percentage of local acts that included female-presenting members across Baybeats’ last five festivals (2023, 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019) showed representation of local female acts consistently in the minority, with the highest percentage in 2023 being 36.8%.

% SG Acts with Female Presenting Members36.80%32%23%11%25%
% Overseas Acts with Female Presenting Members30%50%42.85%NA42.85%

As music festivals and live shows involve dozens of artists, sessionists, and creative professionals’ as contractors, the lack of representation is a clear sign of a grey area in terms of enforcing equal opportunities for women in music in Singapore. 

We spoke with Taledrops, an all-female local band who performed at Baybeats in 2023 to get their insights on the importance of on-stage representation at such events.

Pictured: Taledrops at Baybeats SOURCE: Photo by Shu Ching_3

“Female representation contributes to the diversity and inclusivity of the lineup for live music events, mirroring the broad spectrum of audience and society as a whole…Just to share our own experience, we always look out for female musicians during live events to gain inspiration in terms of visuals, stage movements, and a ton of other aspects. And we really treasure such opportunities because it’s not always that common to see female musicians on stage.”

Claire Chew, another local-bred producer, sessionist and band member of local all-female band Neko Highway noted that lack of representation could have a direct impact on the decreased interest in women pursuing careers in music and the ongoing gender imparity, while producer and sessionist Prue Chew felt that the stigma around earning capacity of musicians and skill barriers could be other reasons.

Pictured: Neko Highway SOURCE: Neko Highway FB Page

“Reasons could be due to a lack of representation of females and that society norms create a conception that these roles are not as achievable/suited for women, thus discouraging them.”

-Claire Chew

“(It) could be the stigma of musicians not earning, no future etc so lesser people are interested. A lot of people also think they have to start music young which is so not true. As with everything, as long as you put your heart and mind to it, you can do it.”

-Prue Chew

A similar trend of reduced representation of fem-presenting award winners was noticed in the COMPASS Awards, held by Singapore’s Composers and Authors Society of Singapore which protects and promotes the copyright interests of local composers, authors and publishers. 

In the last 5 ceremonies spanning 2017 to 2023, the average percentage of awards won by or including fem-presenting recipients (not including organisational awards) was at 29.8%.

Pictured: COMPASS Awards Ceremony SOURCE: Composers and authors Society of Singapore (COMPASS) FB page

While the majority of awards are objectively presented, solely based on royalty earnings in various categories such as ‘Top Local Chinese/Malay/English Pop Song’, ‘Top Local Young Songwriter of the Year’, ‘Top Local Artist of the Year’, the awards outcomes provide a snapshot of the highly possible disparity in earnings for female-presenting authors and composers in the music industry.

In short, there seems to be much room for improvement when it comes to discussions around the topic of women in music and diverse representations in Singapore. Pew, a local singer-songwriter in the Mandarin indie scene who identifies as queer mentioned difficulties with being awarded opportunities due to conservatism with local platforms.

Pictured: Pew SOURCE: Bandwagon

“I still face difficulties with platforms that aren’t willing to push queer related music…When you portray yourself to be more masculine than most females. It is usually less accepting as compared to femmes who portray themselves to be more feminine.”

In a landmark movement in 2022, the Singapore Government decriminalised sex between men, repealing archaic law 377a which rendered it a punishable offense previously. They simultaneously amended the Constitution to protect the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, re-emphasising the importance of the ‘nuclear family’ concept. 

Feminism and gender issues have long gone hand-in-hand, and in the case of Singapore’s music industry, it continues to be the case. While some actions have been taken to accelerate the growth of the arts and cultural industries locally, the importance of safe workplaces especially in an industry which inherently requires encouragement of diversity to flourish, and has a known prevalence of discrimination and sexual misconduct cannot be ignored.

A song by Pew about closeted love in Singapore

As one of the most economically progressive and robustly thriving countries in Asia, the lion city is slowly but surely building its reputation as a regional live hub with a unique ability to bridge gaps and produce quality artistry. However we wonder if the positive progress local musicians and affiliated institutions are aligned in working towards could somehow be accelerated by an enhanced inclusiveness towards female creatives in music and their audiences alike. It seems that some fellow women in music such as Taledrops feel the same way.

“Female representation doesn’t only benefit women because in the bigger scheme of things, it opens the doors for other kinds of representation as a step in the same direction for all under-represented groups. Ultimately, representation changes perceptions and promotes equality and diversity, benefiting the entire scene by creating a more expressive and dynamic environment.”

It is clear that such change requires collective effort – not only from policymakers and institutions, but also from local musicians, artists, and industry movers. As one of the most mature markets in Asia, Singapore is in prime position to lead the pack and make such shifts matter – for its music community and hopefully the wider community too.

Taledrops’ latest single ‘Surrender’

Listen to Krysta Joy’s Ladies of Singapore Playlist