In June, our cover star Alfred Sng was halfway through his 6 month-long journey on Chinese idol reality competition programme – We Are Young.
Undeterred by a global pandemic, Alfred had traveled to Changsha, Hunan, for what he considers the biggest opportunity in his musical career to date – the chance to debut in a 7-member boyband. The bootcamp pitted him against 83 other young performers, most of whom were already represented by artiste management companies in China, in weekly evaluations – all while undergoing a strict daily regimen of dieting and training.
Meanwhile, back home in Singapore – a community of artists and creatives were scandalised by an infographic published in The Straits Times. A survey conducted amongst 1,000 Singaporeans declared that 71% of them find artists to be the top non-essential occupation. The data comes as no surprise to those who pursue, or intend to pursue, any career in the arts – they are frequently met with skepticism and discouragement from the pragmatists of society. Artists, in all of their various forms, are typically seen as self-serving, unimportant, and frivolous.
“Even my closest friends have told me, ‘You’re almost 30, why don’t you get a proper job?’” He says this smiling, without the slightest hint of bitterness, as if recounting what he ate for lunch. “I’ve always been told I am stubborn and childish.” At 29 years-old, he is 10 years older than the average contestant in the competition, but his persistence led him to continue chasing his idol dream. As an independent performer, he took it upon himself to constantly be on the look out for opportunities and search for idol competitions online, and sure enough, it landed him in China.
“One question I got the most was, are there talented singers in Singapore?” According to Alfred, most people he encountered during the competition had no idea of the Singaporean music scene. While he believes we have no lack of talent in the country, he chalks it up to a cultural and economic dissonance. “The people there take their talent and passion very seriously. Parents are supportive of their child’s dreams,” he explains. To them, a career and success can come in many forms – artists are respected as skilled practitioners in their own right, even if they aren’t the one in a million who ‘make it’ as famous celebrities. “As a Singaporean, you grow up in a different environment where there are hardly such examples to look up to.”
There’s also a stark difference in fan culture between the two countries. Alfred has amassed over 100,000 followers on his Weibo account since the show aired. “I would get messages from them saying that I inspire them to work harder on their goals. It gave me the strength to push through with the competition, even if it’s just for that one person who’s looking up to me.” It’s easy to see why reality shows are so compelling to viewers all over the world – seeing growth engages people more than a polished final result, when the performer’s story means more to their audience than just entertainment value and technical skill. He recalls how friends and family cried watching the broadcasts of his performances on the show: “They were just so proud – I didn’t even recognise myself, because you don’t realise how much progress you make, and then finally seeing what you look like after all that hard work.”
When asked about his training experience, Alfred is unreserved about the stress and scrutiny of the competition. “It was physically and mentally draining on a whole new level.” Filming in a foreign country, where his biggest support system were his competitors, he struggled with the language barrier and being isolated from the real world. “I only interacted with 3 other trainees for the first two months there, because we practised together day and night. But in the first stage, they all got eliminated.” The trainees only eat what is given to them, and are weighed on the scales every week, adding to the pressure of having to look good on cameras that are rolling 24/7. “You have little to no control over your angles, how you are filmed and edited. You have to only show your best side all the time. It made me self-conscious about everything.” Just within the first month, he had lost 7 kilograms. He recounts, “The longest I went without eating was 4 days before a performance. You don’t even realise it’s not normal, because everyone is doing it.”
This level of sacrifice and extreme competitiveness is commonplace in the idol world. Borrowing from the system of idol manufacturing in K-pop, the formula that made South Korea’s cultural exports one of its largest economic successes, every move made by the idols is part of a well-oiled machine – one that sells nothing less than absolute perfection. “The toughest thing is you don’t get a say in anything – your daily activities, the songs you perform, the clothes you wear, what you want to portray of yourself – it’s all decided for you,” Alfred shares.
In spite of the pitfalls, Alfred has emerged a winner in our books. Rather than a means to a material end, he treats the process as a journey of reinvention and self-discovery. “The whole experience is actually very precious to me, because of the values I took away from it, not so much the technical skills. Knowing what I can endure and achieve has given me so much self-love and confidence.” From watching his performances, it’s no wonder they are called idols – to the fans, it’s a war-cry, a call for them to chase their dreams instead of going with the grain. Beyond a perfect product lies a dogged strength and self-determination that we can all aspire to. “Now, when people say I’m stubborn and childish, I see it as my greatest strength and something that sets me apart.” His advice for fellow dreamers? “Whether you can do it or not, it is something only you can tell yourself.”