The article is an excerpt from SAF50, a book published by the Ministry of Defence, tracing the Singapore Armed Forces' involvement in humanitarian and disaster relief operations in the region. A downloadable PDF version of the book is available from the website www.saf50years.sg
Dick Lee overcame a desultory start in NS to become a creative wizard with the MDC's aid.
I know what you're thinking. Posted to Music and Drama Company (MDC) in NS. So lucky.
I'll have you know it was very hard work... we rehearsed endlessly, and during show season, we visited every single camp, ate the terrible food like everyone else did and performed our hearts out for a jeering audience who would rather have had booked out than be confined in camp to watch some show.
And for each performance, we had to load up and transport every piece of sound system, costumes, props, lights and musical instruments to the camp... and reverse the process when the show ended. We finished late and the memory of the silent journeys back to camp in the dark three-tonners still stays with me. As MDC pioneer Rashidah Arshad once said: "It was the camaraderie that kept us going."
I was not initially posted to MDC on enlistment. How I got there was completely by chance. So, come to think of it, I was so lucky after all.
On enlistment morning, because of my extremely bad eyesight, I [was] lumped with all manner of physically challenged people: one walked with a limp, another had a club foot... Only another boy seemed quite robust and he appeared to be smiling at me... [He was] Lim Siauw Chong (who later was to found TheatreWorks). I asked him what he was doing there and he said he had some blood disorder or something.
We, this crew of motley unfit, were relegated to filling out SAF 11As, as military IDs were called.
That was the age of the pen and not the PC. Every ID card had to be written in exactly the same handwriting. So, we first spent interminable days writing, writing, writing. We filled exercise books of squares - pages of As, Bs and so on till it was time to go home. Then we graduated to filling in little slips of paper, sticking on pictures of bald-headed boys and laminating the whole lot - day after day. I thought I'd go mad.
To save myself from turning into a zombie, I took long walks around the camp at lunch time. During one of these walks, I made a resolution that would change my life. I called it Facing Facts. If I had two years of tedium ahead of me, I could spend it in misery or make the most of it.
Then one day, on one of these contemplative walks, I heard music coming from what looked like a church at the edge of CMPB. After a few days of observing the same, I thought, if nothing else, singing along in a church service would definitely break the monotony.
So, that fateful day, I poked my head through the large double doors of that edifice. To my utter surprise, I saw uniformed men and women dancing and singing a Broadway number! What was this place and why wasn't I in it?... I found my way to the main entrance and read the sign: Singapore Armed Forces Music and Drama Company.
The MDC was formed in 1973 by the very enlightened then-Minister for Defence, Dr Goh Keng Swee. It was a vehicle to boost the morale of soldiers and spread the national education message through song and dance. "Vehicle" is the right word. For in those early days, four three- tonners were parked next to one another to form a makeshift stage.
Whatever its history, I knew this was where I belonged! It was home, surely! While I was standing there wrapped in my hopes, a young female sergeant appeared. "Hello," she said. "Can I help you?"
And so it came to pass that two days later, Recruit Lee Peng Boon, Richard, presented himself at the SAF Music and Drama Company to audition. I was led into a room by the aforementioned female sergeant now known to me as Sergeant Shida Rashid. There, uniformed personnel lolled about, on tea break apparently, in various forms of repose: some were reading, some were chatting and all the women were knitting.
"Audition," Sergeant Shida announced. "Quiet!"
I stood nervously by the piano as the sergeant went to get the auditioning officers. The entire room stared at me. I could feel their pity.
The doors opened and three officers marched in, aligned themselves at a long table and asked me about myself. I mentioned my album, Life Story, and said I choreographed (but I didn't specify fashion shows).
I was asked to sing, and launched into my jazziest rendition of Alfie by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. When I finished, there was silence. The Commanding Officer nodded. Was that how soldiers clapped?
He said: "We will provide you with five dancers. Come every day at lunch time for a week to choreograph and practise, and you must be in the dance."