Beat Doctor

By Izyan Nadzirah

On 31 July, Hwang Kai Wen (RI’11), known as Kai in the music industry, came to RI to give a talk to current students about his passion in marrying music and technology. Kai is currently a junior doctor at the Singapore General Hospital, and is also a beatboxer, live-looping artist, vocal arranger, and a member of Singaporean a cappella group Vocaluptuous.

Kai began his foray into beatboxing in 2007, and was self-taught, never undergoing formal training. He has since performed both locally and internationally, including at the Y2K14 International Live Looping Festival in California USA as a Featured Artist, and at the Y2K14 Singapore Live Loop Asia Festival as a Headlining Artist. He was invited to judge the National A Cappella Championships Beatbox Battle on a panel of international adjudicators in both 2014 and 2016, and recorded backing choir vocals for Pentatonix’s first full-length original album in Los Angeles, USA.

With his strong interest in education and pedagogy, Kai has taught workshops and masterclasses in local schools and arts venues at all levels, including an undergraduate course in beatboxing as a guest lecturer for the National Institute of Education’s Visual and Performing Arts Department, and as part of the Esplanade’s Voices Festival in 2016.

Kai has done vocal arranging and production work for Mediacorp’s The Final 1 Season 2, and Star Awards 2016, as well as vocal scoring for the 2015 restaging of Michael Chiang and Dick Lee’s theatrical classic Beauty World.

With his a cappella group Vocaluptuous, Kai has toured internationally, performed for numerous prestigious events including the National Day Parade 2013 and the 28th Southeast Asian Games 2015 Opening Ceremony, and raised funds through concerts and album sales for various causes including the Assisi Hospice.

Here's an impromptu recording of Hwang Kai Wen (right) beatboxing to the anthem sung by Issac Teo (RI'13).

Baby Steps on the World Stage

How has the music industry changed since you first started putting yourself out there, and now?

When I first graduated from Raffles Institution 6 years ago, our local music scene was mostly quite underground - either very specific subgenres such as heavy metal or Malay rap. In the 70s and 80s there was also xin yao (mandarin songs which Chinese Singaporeans sang and composed) and Singaporean rock music. Since 2013 I think there has been a rise in ‘Singaporean music’ from youths, and some of their music is now internationally known.

I believe social progression is the reason why we’re at a point where Singaporean music is now mainstream. There is a quote by a former US president which goes something like, ‘the first generation must study war and politics, such that the second generation can study medicine and law, such that the third generation can study the arts.’

We’re essentially a young country full of third and fourth generation people putting ourselves out there and pursuing what we want. The first generation of old guards studied war and politics in order to ensure our survival as a nation in tumultuous times; our second generation then had the freedom to study medicine and law in order to sustain our growth as a nation, and the next generation onward can then afford to focus on the arts – it may not be important to survival but it does improve quality of living.

In the past, if you were someone who dabbled in music, you might not have been seen as productive to your family and country. Now, more Singaporeans are accepting of the arts as a career choice. Yet, as a relatively young country, there are some who have still not shaken off the idea that the arts cannot be an iron rice bowl and still believe the need for a proper job before finally moving into the arts.

Is the music scene in Singapore on a positive trajectory, or are we still progressing very slowly with baby steps?

I think we are going on a positive trajectory – as long as there is progress, it is positive.

However, at the same time, some of the best institutions which support local music are closing down, such as Lush 99.5FM for local indie music, and B28 for jazz music. It’s a shame that we now have artists but a lack of venues; we have artists but a lack of Singaporean material as the vast majority of music performed is cover music. It’s something some people in the music scene, especially the veterans, lament: that the music we produce now is too Westernised and not Singaporean enough.

I do feel that if you’re a young Singaporean exposed to Western cultures and those are your ideals and is what shaped your philosophy, there is no need to pander to the Singaporean theme and culture.

What exactly is Singaporean music and the Singaporean genre anyway? We’ve not come up with a solid definition yet, so it’s great that artists are finding their own sound and styles. It is positive that our musicians are now on the world stage, but there is still much work that needs to be done.

03 - body

Backseat Tunes

So what happens to your music now that you’re a doctor?

During medical school, I was still doing many performances and recordings, and production work for different projects. After graduating though, now that I’m responsible for my patients, I’ve scaled down a lot more.

What are you doing to try and continue your love for your music?

On a whole, I’ve scaled back quite a bit. During my undergraduate days, I would take on large and official projects, but now such projects have to take a back seat. During my first year as a junior doctor, which is meant to be a training period, I feel that I should focus most on medicine because I owe it to my patients and those who have supported me to be a doctor. Every so often I do try to record small personal projects – mostly multi-tracks.

Do your colleagues know about your music? Do you sing to make your patients happy?

I try not to let them know. I’m particular about keeping work and outside hobbies separate. I feel strongly about professionalism – if you’re a doctor, then you should focus on being a doctor; if you’re a singer, then you should focus on being a singer. There is a line in professionalism when dealing with patients and colleagues, and I feel it’s a lot less messy when both worlds don’t collide.

Does not being able to work on your music much anymore affect you emotionally?

It does affect me emotionally at times. I often think to myself, where is this music journey going? It used to be on a pretty good tangent but now everything has stopped so that I can focus on my medical work. I’m not entirely sure what the point of doing one-off projects is if they don’t lead to bigger or better things. Yet I’m grateful to be able to share my musical experiences with others, and hopefully encourage them to pursue their interests to their fullest potential.

04 - body

On Empathy and Skills

What made you decide to pursue medicine?

I didn’t really set out aiming to pursue medicine - while in school, people tend to advise you to study hard in order to be able to do whatever you want in future; subsequently you just study hard without knowing what you’re studying toward, and if you do well those same people tell you, “now you’ve got these results, here’s what you can apply for,” and you just go with the flow and end up wherever seems best because you’ve never actually had time to think about what you really want, or what you’re really good at.

If you could choose your career path once again, what would you have chosen?

I think I would still choose medicine as I find it a very meaningful career where I can make a difference to people’s lives. It’s a rare field where you don’t just deal in science, such as managing patients’ blood glucose or blood pressure – there’s an art to being a doctor. In dealing with people’s health, a doctor necessarily has to be an effective communicator and learn to manage patients’ expectations. I enjoy interacting with people too, so being a doctor is a pretty good fit for me. It is a difficult career though, and I would advise juniors to really think about what it entails before diving in.

Is it important to know many different languages in order to be a better doctor?

It’s not a must, but it’s a great tool to have. In view of our aging population, many of the patients we see speak dialects or other languages. Sometimes I might find myself speaking Malay to an elderly Chinese patient because I can’t speak their dialect and Malay is better understood. When you want to empathise with them at a human level, especially when you’re alone on call late at night, having a basic vocabulary in multiple different languages helps you communicate with them easily.

How do you balance taking up new skills to enhance your career as a doctor and managing your shifts?

Most of these skills had to be picked up while I was still a student in medical school, although every day is still a learning experience as I learn from my patients, my peers, my seniors, and my juniors.

What’s one challenge as a young doctor you’re constantly having to deal with? As a young doctor and with the rise of geriatric patients, do you find you have an additional barrier to overcome?

A lot of my patients and their family members often point out that I look extremely young, and question if I do have the necessary experience. It’s a fair comment, but when you are able to communicate well and you show your empathy and portray that you’re trustworthy enough to help them solve their ailments, they tend to be more accepting. Of course, being able to speak in their language helps too.

In the department where I currently work, sometimes we have to run clinics too, and we rely on each other for help. Our nurses and allied health colleagues tend to have better language skills and more experience than us. I think it’s important to recognize where you need help as a doctor, and when your colleagues render much-needed assistance, it’s important to accept that help and be grateful for it.

01 - body

Music to Our Ears

How can we marry music to aid social causes, in particular for the elder generation?

Music can be really uplifting and can change people’s perspectives. Possibly younger musicians can teach the elderly their craft such that they are able to interact and bring about a positive impact. We can also tap on the elderly, especially those who are masters of a certain musical instrument or musical tradition, to teach younger people who might not otherwise interact with these older people. Such interactions can produce positive results. While music has a structured framework, it is also a great outlet to be creative; music is a great direction to move towards to address social causes.

Tagged Topics

#Alumni #Arts #Stories

Related Articles