Dick Lee, Kit Chan and Dr. Sydney Tan tell the story of Singapore’s most beloved song ‘Home’

Dick Lee, Kit Chan and Dr. Sydney Tan tell the story of Singapore’s most beloved song ‘Home’

Twenty years ago this National Day, a beautiful, bright-eyed singer named Kit Chan stepped out in front of thousands of people to perform a song that is now universally acknowledged as a Singaporean classic: ‘Home’.

‘Home’, written by Dick Lee and produced by Dr. Sydney Tan, is now one of Singapore’s most beloved national songs – National Day isn’t complete without it. But ‘Home’ wasn’t even written as a National Day song, per se, and its pride of place in Singaporean hearts might make some incredulous to learn that when it was first written, the initial reaction to the song was doubt.

When ‘Home’ was presented to the committee of the Sing Singapore festival, which it was written for in 1997, committee members were skeptical. In light of the upbeat, martial-like qualities of previous national songs like ‘Count On Me, Singapore’ and ‘We Are Singapore’, how could a meditative, melancholic song like ‘Home’ be a national song?

But the song has endured and taken different forms over the years: from a remixed version, performed by JJ Lin, at the 2004 NDP to a 2011 MINDEF remake that involved 39 Singaporean vocalists, including Vernon Cornelius, Ramli Sarip, Stefanie Sun and more. Many local musicians have uploaded YouTube covers with their own spin on it: The Sam Willows’ 2014 rendition with violinist Josh Wei, for instance, was praised by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

To mark the 20th anniversary of ‘Home’’s debut at the National Day Parade in 1998, Hear65 spoke to Dick Lee, Kit Chan and Dr. Sydney Tan about the song’s journey, why it is so loved, and what the song means to them in their own musical careers. The three interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Dick Lee: [The purpose of Sing Singapore] was to sort of build a Singapore song repertoire.

Dr. Sydney Tan: The four national songs [such as ‘Count On Me, Singapore’ and ‘One People, One Nation, One Singapore’] were about nation-building. Then after that there was a focus on getting people to sing together, and trying to bring to the surface or to people’s consciousness popular songs or folk songs. Sing, Singapore. That was the whole point of it. The national songs would be part of it, but others too, like ‘Sing Your Way Home’ and ‘Chan Mali Chan’.

Dick: I was living abroad at the time in Hong Kong and [Sydney] said, “Would you like to take part [in Sing Singapore]?” The theme of that year was the river – the Singapore river, which is why the river features so strongly in the song. I think my being away contributed quite a lot to the way the song feels: a little bit poignant, there’s a bittersweet, homesick quality in it. It sort of reiterated how home becomes more important when you’re away from it.

I remember writing it late at night, that’s for sure. So that it has that late-night feeling and that’s why the opening line, the opening sentiment is moody, a little bit melancholic.

I remember that it all tumbled out. It all came as almost one breath. So I wrote that song really quickly. I usually write a melody first, and sometimes I’ll sleep on the melody for a while before I set the lyric, maybe a few days, and quite often I rewrite, I tweak. But this one, I remember doing all at once also because the deadline was quite short and I was able to. It felt right. I wrote the words and I wrote the tune all within, like, less than an hour. The melody I remember, came at once in a flow.

I sang it in my home, in my study room in Hong Kong overlooking Wan Chai. I’m on the mid-level looking down at the city and feeling like this is lovely, but it’s not my city.

"In this song there was a powerful honesty. I felt that this came from a real place. It was a sentiment that I felt for. 'This is home, truly, where I know I must be.' That says it all," – Sydney

Kit Chan: When I heard this song I was like, "Wow, this is a pop song and it's not like rah-rah. It's emotive.” I liked it, totally. I thought it was really one of Dick Lee's best works. Dick writes beautiful ballads and they are very catchy, but they can still be very moving.

Sydney: In this song there was a powerful honesty. I felt that this came from a real place. It was a sentiment that I felt for. “This is home, truly, where I know I must be.” That says it all lah. Everything else leads you to that point. You take the lyric by itself, you take the music out, and you just look at the lyric – it already says so much. It’s so powerful.

Kit: For the English [version], I think it’s really in the chorus: “This is home, truly, where I know I must be” – like, so sweet! So simple but it’s so much conviction and anyone can say it and mean it.

Dick: The good thing about [Sing Singapore] was that, because ‘national song’ was never mentioned, there was no pressure. It was just like, “write a song from your heart”. That’s why I guess it’s heartfelt and that sentiment has reached out and continues to reach out – not to say that songs that are written for patriotic purposes do not have the same effect… It’s like a ballad whereas the others are anthems, so this showed another face of patriotism.

Sydney: The content of ‘Home’ was not directed by the government in the way, say, ‘Stand Up For Singapore’ was. So the first reaction to ‘Home’ was: can it be a national song? Why does it sound so different from the songs that had come before? Because I produced it, I was asked, “Why doesn’t it have timpanis and the big marching band and the big choirs? First of all, why is it a slow song? It’s nothing like ‘Stand up! For Singapore!’ with the gusto and the choir.”

Prof Bernard Tan, who was heading the Sing Singapore committee, if I’m not mistaken, and Joe Peters, who was on the committee and from the Centre for Musical Activities at the university – they supported it. They said “Yes, this can work.” And as we know, ‘Home’ took off. It took on a life of its own without a push like how ‘Stand Up For Singapore’ and all [the songs before 'Home'] were government-ordained. And it wasn’t written by a hired writer from an ad agency. It was a son of the soil, you know?

Kit: I was twenty-something, like 25. I think life-wise, ‘Home’ was like a perfect song for me because the pursuit of my dreams literally took me away from my home. This line is actually beautifully captured in the Chinese lyrics: “我的梦不论在何方 一生的爱唯有家”. So while my dreams were being fulfilled, the longing for home was very intense.

So when I was given that song to sing, I just felt like "Wow, it's so perfect." Dick Lee at that time too, was working overseas. So I sometimes feel you call it God, call it serendipity – it was two people who felt intensely about home, doing this together and I sometimes think maybe that was how the magic happened.

“Why doesn’t it have timpanis and the big marching band and the big choirs? First of all, why is it a slow song? It’s nothing like ‘Stand up! For Singapore!’ with the gusto and the choir," – Sydney

Dick: I remember Sydney and I chose Kit to sing it because she was at the time a rising star in the Chinese market.

Sydney: We did a bunch of takes, her pitch was good, her feel was good. We tried to get a few more takes to get better performances. Kit was easy to record.

Kit: I just remember my feeling about Sydney – he was formidable. You’re like, “better do properly”!

Sydney: The first version that was done was actually a version that was done on piano, an electric piano kind of thing. I think Dick wasn’t crazy about that – I can’t remember. If anything it was a bit formulaic in my mind. When I re-looked it, I don’t know why I ended up with a guitar. I sat down and played the guitar part, and then it felt right. If I’m not mistaken, Kit sang her vocal to the original version, which was the piano version.

Then after that I took the pianos out, put guitars in and decided to record a small intimate string section. I think it was a six- or eight-piece - a small group. And a few backup singers, not many, three persons maybe – Clement Chow was one of them. I think there was an erhu, a pipa, a tabla – a little bit, but not a lot. So you feel a bit of a sense of place. It didn’t feel forced in my opinion.

Dick: What I understand is that, also on the the [Sing Singapore] committee was the NDP chairman for 1998. So he liked it and he then included it as a last minute, sort of, entree. The song was selected in December and we recorded it.

Sydney: I think that was the first time the song at that time was suddenly taken and used for National Day. It wasn't written as a National Day song but because of its popularity, it was chosen.

Kit: It was the first time a pop singer was going to sing a solo number at the National Day Parade – that was the big deal for us. Because before that there was no such thing. It was all these mass displays.

I’m not easily intimidated by anything, but I think I was aware of the scale of what I was doing – you’re aware that, “Hey, this is not some stupid thing you’re singing at a mall, it’s in front of the whole nation.”

Dick: I remember the image of her walking down and the set was at City Hall, the old National Stadium. I think somehow that image of her coming down was fixed in people's minds. It was quite grand.

She was the biggest star at that point of time. That was her first NDP appearance after being so famous in the region. I think that made a very big impression too: it was like a homecoming for our superstar.

Kit: I didn't rehearse until the morning of NDP. It was really quite scary – I was wearing a gown, I was not used to wearing high heels. I was still young, I didn't need to look like a diva, so a lot of my performance outfits were not so glamorous. But they put me in these 3-inch heels and the long gown and the wired mic and I had to go down these steps. I don't know how I did it.

When I was rehearsing there was no audience. So I was shocked! I mean come on, you're 25 years old and there's 60,000 people in the National Stadium and I always remember seeing this wall of white which I wasn't prepared for. I was trying to figure out "Who are these people?" and then I realized "Oh my god, it's the PAP!"

Dick: I had no idea of the reaction. Frankly speaking, the significance, importance and success of the song, I only sort of realised about five years later, when I came back to Singapore. It's not like after NDP, everyone was singing it everyday. It was a slow, long process and it made a reappearance in 2004 as a theme song… That was my first sense of "Okay, they like this song".

Kit: I sang it again in 2010 at the Padang – I think that was really the year when I really felt, “My god, people really love this song.” ... I felt really connected with the people because they were just singing so loud. I could hear them even through my two in-ear monitors – I could hear them. I was like “Woah, that’s really loud!”

But before that, I had started to sense it already because in 2007, I did the first Singapore Day in New York and I remember singing the song and seeing the reaction of the New York Singaporeans. Then you start to go like, “Maybe the song has something, it has legs and I didn’t realise it because I moved on with my life.” I didn’t realise that this song kept going by itself.

Sydney: Ten years later, 20 years later, when I ask young kids what their favourite national song is, they go “This is home!” and they sing lustily, and they feel something. Part of that is the magic of what Dick wrote. He touched a chord. I think the treatment of the way it was done, the way Kit sang it also – it was intimate.

Dick: The most important thing about ‘Home’ is that – you see, in my career, I’ve always been looking and searching for identity, for Singapore identity to infuse into my music. I just wanted to make music, I didn’t want to make national music. But then the outside world saw me as a Singaporean musician. But then I had nothing much to say about that, about being Singaporean in my music.

We had no folk songs, because our folk songs came from China, Malaysia, and so on and so forth. This I felt was why we had no national identity at that time. We had no culture, and I realised it had to come from popular culture. Because traditional culture is too steeped in tradition that we don’t all relate to.

I decided to use my genre, my medium of pop music to find it. Now, I’m happy to say, or proud to say that ‘Home’ is still sung, 20 years later. I didn’t expect it, but could this be a folk song, you know? Folk songs are called folk songs because folks sing them. Our folks seem to like it, and it seems now to have transcended already one generation.

Sydney: While the first [songs] touched on nation-building, this one touched on something else: belonging. “This is home, truly.” And perhaps that was something that was beginning to happen in the 90s: people began to think about 'quitters' and 'stayers', and 'Home' helped people express that this is the place where I belong. A place of belonging. Nation-building in a sense is [about] society building something together, whereas ‘Home’ is addressing the individual.

Kit: I really feel so, so, so honoured and privileged to have been given this song because it could have been given to anybody, but I was there at the right time. We have our hit songs, but pop songs are pop songs – they come and go and maybe like 20 years later they say, “Oh that song was very famous in the 90’s”, but this song is different. This song is a true classic and it’s always relevant.

Dick: It’s the one song I’m proudest of. Because it represents me, it represents my country and when I attend an NDP and I hear 30,000 people singing it, I feel so proud. Like “Hey, I wrote that!” [laughs] It sounds almost boastful. I can’t describe that feeling. Do you know I’ve spent my whole life looking for this? It’s not by chance, you know. If I hadn’t done that search, I may not have been able to write ‘Home’.

Sydney: Across generations and across all kinds of demographics, it struck a chord with people. There's no argument when we talk about ‘Home’. It's just great. There's something about it. People aren't forced to sing it, they want to sing it. They feel for it.

Dick: Singaporeans made it their song. I didn’t. I certainly didn’t set out to do that. And so it’s something that I learned, which is that this sense of who we are needs to come without you trying. So I realise that I don’t have to try to be Singaporean, I just have to be me, and I think that will come about.

Kit: I don’t get sick of it, which is very weird. I do get sick of singing my own hit songs, to be honest. My own songs, right, they’re so small. It’s just me... But ‘Home’, because it always involves everybody, every time I sing it, as long as it’s a Singapore crowd, they are going to sing it. Cannot stop them... They’ll always give me something. So I’m never bored.

Dick: I’m proud of it because of how people like it, you know. And year after year, it maintains its popularity. It’s established itself already and how I feel about it is: “Move on!” [laughs] It’s there, I’m very proud of it, I can die peacefully. I think I’ve done what I set out to do when I was a kid writing ‘Fried Rice Paradise’, which by the way got banned when it came out. They banned the song because they didn’t understand their own culture. They didn’t understand that Singlish could be a good thing. And to have come to a point where that same composer – me – can write the song that then everybody [loves]… It’s been a great, long journey.

Kit: I see ‘Home’ as my musical legacy. And more than musical legacy, it is also my gift to my country, and I love, love, love Singapore. So it’s so many things. And I think that it’s also personal – it changed my life. That year? It’s strange how everything comes together. Because after living four years in Taiwan, even before I got this song, I was already thinking of moving home already. At the beginning, I had a deal with my record company. It was almost like they said “You have to live in Taiwan”. And I was more than happy to, because at that age, you just want to leave home, right? But even if I didn’t want to go, I had to. They were saying “If you don’t go, then we are not going to sign a contract.” Obviously, they want you to succeed, so you have to be prepared to relocate. But after four years, I really wanted to come home, and I started talking to them about the idea. They were open to it, but they were not sure, because things were going very well. But after I sang ‘Home’, I felt as if it was a sign.

Dick: We have a folk song now, that's being handed down. Hopefully, in another 40 years, it's still being sung. I hope more songs can be added to that canon. This is just the beginning.