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Ace of bass

Ace of bass

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A rugged full-time National Serviceman displays a softer side.

By Sujith Kumar

AS I briskly walk along the corridors at Battalion Headquarters of the 40th Singapore Armoured Regiment, a foreign sound strains the air – do I hear violins, horns and pianos?

Intrigued, I enter the room from which it seems to originate, and find a rugged, broad-shouldered soldier with rolled-up fatigues swaying to symphonic music, his fingers in the air as if conducting an orchestra, oblivious to his colleague’s bewildered stares.

This is a guy I’d like to get to know, and so I say hello.

Benjamin Goh, 19, a full-time National Serviceman (NSF), is quite the character. “Call me Ben”, he insists with a firm handshake, and you dare not refuse.

Ben attributes who he is today to three things: his family, life experiences and music. As he talks about his past, it is hard to believe that the ruggedly built, self-assured man seated before me once had painfully low self-esteem and was bullied over his weight.

But he has his weight problem to thank for introducing him to the instrument that has defined him for nearly a decade.

Ben’s journey with the double bass began when he was ten. His school had just bought a double bass for its Chinese orchestra and concluded that it needed someone ‘big’ to play it.

“My teacher urged me to try out for the part. It didn’t feel good to be recognised for being fat,” he says. But he tried out anyway.

After two tries, he eventually got into the Singapore National Youth Orchestra (SNYO), a National Project of Excellence led by the Ministry of Education.

Today, while he is no longer a student, he still plays an active part with the SNYO and is serving his second term as principal bassist. His work with the SNYO was further validated when he was picked to join the prestigious Asian Youth Orchestra earlier this year – an achievement only one percent of applicants get to realise.

“I appealed to the authorities many times but kept getting rejected, though I had the support of my superiors and several ministers.” – Benjamin Goh

Unfortunately, he was unable to participate due to military commitments.

“I appealed to the authorities many times but kept getting rejected, though I had the support of my superiors and several ministers. I don’t understand – it would have been such an honour for me and Singapore to represent the country”, he says, betraying just a sliver of regret.

The consummate musician with two music performance diplomas under his belt is so passionate about the orchestra and of classical music that his friends fondly remember him.

Fellow bassist Sandra Lim, 19, says, “Ben’s a charismatic leader. He’s patient and doesn’t hesitate to take the back seat to let others shine. Most of all, he commands respect.”

She continues, “That being said, he does embarrassing things like dancing with his bass while the conductor is conducting, or singing out loud and ignoring everyone else’s stares!”

The topic changes to his family, and Ben gets visibly emotional.

“There was once, when I was in kindergarten, my father came back for work and took the effort to ask how my day went. I was touched that he bothered to take the time to listen to me. He treated me like I was important, and still does.”

His eyes well up but he makes no effort to regain his composure.

“My parents have always been so encouraging. When relatives come together, they smile and talk about me proudly. Mom just wants me to enjoy life. In fact, she said that just passing my A Levels would be enough.”

He ended up doing so well that he received a government scholarship that would fully subsidise his studies overseas.

“Their voices are the most magical things in the world,” he says in a strained voice that becomes nearly inaudible towards the end.

He finally acknowledges his display of emotion with a wry smile, “I never cried until I was three months old, and now I tear more often than other guys! What I hope people would understand is that crying doesn’t show that you’re weak, it just shows that you care.”

Besides family and music, Ben has kept himself busy with a host of activities. He was a member of his high school’s basketball team and student council.

At that time, the basketball team had a reputation for poor discipline, so Ben, as captain, decided to be firm. “I began cracking down on this, so you can imagine I wasn’t liked. The guys used to hang out all the time after practice, but I couldn’t join them because I had to rush for SNYO practice right after training, so I was really quite a loner,” he says.

Ben is certainly known for many things. But how would he like to be remembered?

“If I died now, I’d want people to remember me as a guy who fought against many odds, who worked hard to make his house a home, a guy who was not afraid to express his own opinions while listening to those around him.”

The interview ends. He puts on his boots halfway, not caring to put them on fully, and waddles along the corridor in a most unsoldierlike way, once again showing that he doesn’t care if people think of him as peculiar and bizarre, once again proving that he doesn’t live by the validations of others.