“I come from a not-so-rich family and we stayed in rental flats in Bukit Merah. That area was full of colourful creatures of the night. There were molesters and many cases of drug peddling happening in that estate. It really was a gutter.
My mom didn’t let us out of the house because of that, so most of the time, my siblings and I would end up playing at home, imagining things, creating things out of nothing. The bed became a wrestling ring, and whatever we found in the kitchen became props to tell stories.
That particular part of my life became a part of me. That was how I was introduced to the arts, I think. So when I got into primary school, I felt really weird. I struggled a lot with trying to find my identity and I was always trying to fit in.
I joined the dikir barat group just because I was Malay and wanted to be part of a Malay cultural group. Once I was in, I realised the guys there were like thugs. Oh my God, they were super alpha! I had to slowly pull myself out of that situation.
I joined the soccer team too but the same thing happened. I was bad at soccer so they didn’t want me in. And because of these experiences, my relation with Malay cultural groups has always been distant. I try my best to blend in but my childhood memories always creep in.
That’s why I went to art school. I told my parents I wanted to go somewhere I can express myself. They were quite supportive and told me to do whatever I needed to do, so I went to Lasalle and majored in painting.
I finally felt like I found myself and met other weird people whom I was in tune with. That’s where my band Tiramisu was formed. We were just a group of painting majors who hung out at the studio, playing music and dancing around, you know?
Tiramisu was never a band, band. It was more of an art project, and whenever I performed on stage, I’d wear a costume to overcome my shyness. It gave me superpowers when I knew I wasn’t being myself, like I was Superman and I didn’t have to worry about anything.
Back in primary school, I always got strange vibes from people for talking to myself or creating my own language. They’ll tell me I’m crazy and that I wasn’t normal like them. That’s why I’m in the creative industry now. I can do whatever I want to express myself.
When I teach drama to kids now, I tell them to be themselves. Most of them start off pretty square thanks to how they’re brought up in Singapore; they’re just wired that way. I tell them it’s okay to express themselves in whatever way they want to. It’s okay to be crazy. It’s okay!
One of the kids I taught is currently the artistic director of The Other Practice. They’re a really new theatre collective. They’ll be performing at the ‘State of Love and Trust and Stars’, an alternative National Day party I’m curating for The Substation.
I used to hang out at The Substation a lot when I was an art student. They were – and still are – always so experimental, and checking out their weird exhibitions and strange events that I had never even heard of before really changed the way I looked at things in life.
When I was asked to conceptualise this event for them, I wanted a gathering of alternative musicians and art practitioners. These artists are not well-known and completely off-kilter, and showcasing them is what The Substation is all about. I mean, that’s how I started out.
I also thought about what I related National Day to. And for me, it’s always been Swing Singapore. Have you heard of it before? It was Singapore’s first street party in 1988. They closed the roads and had 500,000 people partying all night long to music spun by deejays.
It did become controversial and politicised, but at its heart, it was all about how music brought people from all walks of life together, and that’s what National Day should be about. Loving the country shouldn’t be something you feel forced to do because you’re asked to.
For me, it’s very important to get all kinds of people together, regardless of gender, sexuality, faith or race. When I was eight, I was dancing with all the mats and the bengs and the makkals. We have to embrace our differences.
I’ve been different all my life. As an artist, I’ve had these weird ideas in my head for so long, and when you’re new, people will question why you do things a certain way.
But you have to stay true to your craft and to yourself. Find joy in the struggle, and if you do it long enough, people will eventually believe in you, too.” – Rizman Putra, 41
Interview: Arman Shah
Check out the ‘State of Love and Trust and Stars’, an alternative National Day party by Rizman Putra on 3 August 2019.This is part of The Substation’s 2019/20 programme ‘A Public Square’. More info here.