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Dick Lee Reflects On Retirement, Legacy, The National Day Parade And Home

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Dick Lee Reflects On Retirement, Legacy, The National Day Parade And Home
One thing that you might surprise you about veteran singer-songwriter Dick Lee – the 67-year-old can’t take chilli, nor can he stand Singapore’s favourite pongy fruit.
Dick Lee Reflects On Retirement, Legacy, The National Day Parade And Home - Portrait
Caption: Dick Lee
“I hate durian,” he confesses with a laugh.
“The smell of it makes me nauseous.”
Both are unexpected and ironic admissions, given how much Singaporean flavour can be found peppered throughout the Cultural Medallion winner’s half-century career.
It got his breakout single Fried Rice Paradise (1973) banned by then-local radio service RTS due to “liberal use of Singlish”.
It oozes from the tracks of his iconic 1989 album The Mad Chinaman, which achieved platinum status just four months after release.
It features time and again in the playwright’s musicals, including Beauty World (1988), Fried Rice Paradise (1991) and LKY: The Musical (2015).
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It is also the subject of Home, a ballad first performed by Kit Chan during the 1998 National Day Parade (NDP) that remains a fan favourite to this day.
Dick, born Lee Peng Boon, reflects on his island home and muse on the cusp of its 58th birthday, talking SilverStreak through the creation of what he hopes will be known as a true-blue Singapore folk song, the evolution of NDPs, semi-retirement, and the legacy he hopes to leave behind.
Hitting a Home run
Dick Lee Reflects On Retirement, Legacy, The National Day Parade And Home - Performing
Caption: Dick Lee
National Day songs range from the upbeat and catchy – think old favourites like Stand Up For Singapore (1984) and Count On Me Singapore (1986) – to the somewhat forgettable, which we won’t name.
But none have quite captured the collective attention of Singapore like Home.
The ballad has made numerous appearances in NDPs over the years, including a re-feature as the National Day song for 2004.
Home was not written specifically for National Day.
Dick recounts, “The song was actually written for Sing Singapore (a government-sponsored songwriting competition). When I wrote Home, it was a song about the Singapore River – the word river appears a lot in the lyrics, because that was the theme given to us.

"We can capture tragedy, we can capture joy, but bittersweetness is very delicate,” Dick adds. “Some people say the song is sad because it makes people cry – from sadness? From longing? It’s hard to describe, but I think it’s there. Maybe that’s why the song’s endured. It makes people feel for their country – not proud, but love, maybe."

The song was recently remade by Kit Chan, who told the national newspaper that she wanted to make her rendition more intimate.
Earlier this year, a rendition by The Voices of Singapore Children’s Choir received a standing ovation in New York’s Carnegie Hall. It was also used in 2020 to commemorate the efforts of pandemic front-liners.
“It’s gone beyond an ‘August song’ (laughs). I sing it and people sing it abroad,” says Dick. “This year is its 25th anniversary, and that is so significant for me because – and this struck me when I was doing The Mad Chinamen long ago – all the folk songs we knew are from other countries. Chinese folk songs are from China, and Malay folk songs are from Malaysia.

"I told myself then, ‘We don’t have a language, we don’t even have a national costume, so how could we have our own folk song? It’ll take time. And I think, maybe, now we have a folk song."

Balancing spectacle and story for the NDP
Dick Lee Reflects On Retirement, Legacy, The National Day Parade And Home - Performing NDP 2015
Caption: Dick Lee
Dick’s flair for putting Singapore front and centre in his art earned him the role of creative director for five NDPs – 2002, just after he returned from a decade-long stint in Japan; 2010; 2014; 2015, celebrating Singapore’s 50th birthday; and 2019, which marked Singapore’s bicentennial.
He describes landing the role for the first time in 2002 as “an incredible thing”, especially as someone so intent on “finding Singapore’s identity through [his] work”.
It was, after all, an integral part of his childhood.
Dick has seen the parade progress from mass marches and displays to concerts, dance performances and air shows (fireworks, of course, have remained a fixture).

"The strength of any NDP is how the creative director creates something that can entertain all ages. I would not be too concerned about making it hip. It’s not 'hip' to watch NDP (laughs). It’s more families, those who would bring their parents or their kids – the free-to-air TV demographic."

"The theme is always about the same – progress, moving forward, majulah (onward in Malay). For me, the challenge is how to make it visually arresting and getting the story across. Now, the NDP committee always wants to have a moment of heart-warming tenderness – to me it happens anyway, once the anthem comes on and we say the pledge together. You really feel it."

Dick Lee reflects on retirement, choices and legacy
Dick Lee Reflects On Retirement, Legacy, The National Day Parade And Home - Golf Course
Dick on post-retirement travel: “Travel is one thing I really wanted to do and it’s the one thing I’ve been doing a little too much. I overdid it a bit – I’m going to take a rest for the next few months (laughs).”
On the personal front, Dick says that the pandemic-driven shutdown of the events industry gave him the impetus he needed to step back from Dick Lee Asia, his namesake events firm.

"It takes a little bit getting used to, because my whole life, I’ve been programmed to be aware of what events at coming up. I find myself heading to GeBIZ (the government’s procurement portal) or thinking, ‘Oh, it’s almost time for the Christmas light-up on Orchard Road’ and I have to catch myself. It was almost in my blood. But I don’t need to do it anymore – now I’m only doing what I want to do."

And what he wants to do, even in his golden years, is refocusing on what he loves – “theatre and music”.
Dick Lee Reflects On Retirement, Legacy, The National Day Parade And Home - Mad Chinaman Performance
Caption: Dick Lee
Dick plans to release these newly written singles (stay tuned here) in the lead-up to his 50th anniversary concert next August.
It is the culmination of the singer-songwriter’s artistic journey and a lifetime of decisions. Decisions that, given a time machine, he’d still make again.

"Everything I am, is because of what I went through. I could’ve become a band boy, because that was the only option for me when I was a kid, to be a musician playing in a lounge or a bar. But I decided I will only do music if it’s my music. That led me to write and continue writing, and to stick to my guns, and now I will only perform my own songs."

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