Life

Once DJs, They’re Now Driving Dogs and Selling Food Until Nightlife Comes Back

Since clubs and bars in Singapore shuttered at the start of the pandemic, silence has taken over a once-vibrant subculture.
Matty - Kyo Singapore 2015
Partygoers, DJs, and musicians are hoping to resurrect Singapore's nightlife. Photo: Courtesy of Matty Wainwright

A typical night out for Nadia Kishlan looked like this: food, pre-drinks, followed by a party she had planned for. Then, she would go wherever the night took her—with friends or strangers she met in spontaneous adventures.

“There really is nothing like being in the presence of other like-minded human beings, gathering in a space to move freely and just live,” Nadia, a producer, host, and model, told VICE. “It was a much-needed outlet to break the monotony of everyday life.”

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“For a country that seemed very stuffy with all its rules and regulations, we had a pretty bustling music scene,” she added. 

“For a country that seemed very stuffy with all its rules and regulations, we had a pretty bustling music scene.”

Just two years ago, Singapore had quite the reputation for its vibrant nightlife. From illustrious clubs to cult bars with live bands and secret pop-up parties, there was something for everyone—that is, until COVID-19 put a hard stop to social activities.

Seemingly overnight, the nightlife ground to a halt, reverberating in an eerie silence reserved for unprecedented times. Now, even as the city trots cautiously into a somewhat normal state, the once-flourishing music scene has continued to stew in silence.

At first, even the most hardcore party animals were happy to practice social responsibility, staying at home in the name of fighting COVID-19. Ryan Netto, a seasoned partygoer, initially thrived on the novel quarantine lifestyle (you know, that nostalgic-in-hindsight phase when everyone was making sourdough bread and getting in touch with nature). But that spike of motivation whittled down soon enough.

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“I appreciate that nightlife isn’t everything but, geez, how many hikes can one go for?” he told VICE. 

Clubbing at a Singapore nightlife party, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ryan Netto vibing out at a party, pre-pandemic. Photo: Courtesy of Ryan Netto

As Singapore decides to “live with COVID,” prominent parts of social life have started to resurrect. Gyms now host safely distanced gymgoers, cinemas allow food inside, and restaurants seat up to five people in a group. Some live performances and music events have also been allowed, albeit at limited capacity.

But nightlife activities have yet to be included in these loosened regulations. “Live performances are currently not allowed to resume in food and beverage establishments regardless of venue, as there is a higher likelihood of mingling, talking, where food is being consumed with patrons who are unmasked,” reads official guidelines.

Today, Singapore’s party scene is nowhere near how it was, pre-pandemic. Some of its most beloved spots have permanently shuttered, while others are managing to stay afloat by pivoting to other business ventures like spin studios and food—some with the help of government grants. But even after spending money and time to repurpose, these venues still aren’t safe from regulatory changes that could put them out of business

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Amid all this uncertainty, Singaporeans haven’t partied (at least not legally) for two years. 

“In the beginning, it made absolute sense to hunker down and impose restrictions at the height of the pandemic,” said Nadia. “Now it just feels like the scene is being unfairly penalized because of blanket misconceptions about this scene being unruly.”

In Singapore, nightspots have long been generalized into a sleazy stereotype and often associated with vices. As a result, many DJs have found their work pigeonholed with these labels.

“I think part of it may be down to a misunderstanding, possibly on what live entertainment is about,” said Matty Wainwright, a DJ and music director.

But Wainwright, who has been DJing since 1998, said nightclubs are just a subset of what DJs like him do day-to-day. His gigs range from kid-friendly parties to chill beach clubs—all of which are no longer viable under existing COVID regulations.

While music venues in Singapore remain inexplicably shut, their counterparts in many parts of the world are already getting back into the groove. In the Maldives, where Wainwright got a DJ residency at the end of last year, it’s business as usual.

“I was playing music every day,” Wainwright said of his first time getting back into his music career in almost two years. That experience in the Maldives made his return to Singapore—where the live music is still kept hush-hush—all the more depressing and confounding.

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“It just felt like we were getting it so massively wrong here,” he said, adding that there hasn’t been any real explanation given to music professionals who have been forced to put their livelihoods on hold indefinitely for the pandemic.

This spurred Wainwright to kickstart SaveMusicSG, a campaign calling for awareness about Singapore’s forgotten music scene. Along with his team of volunteers, Wainwright organizes livestream events featuring local acts, raises awareness about the plight of music professionals who have been struggling during the pandemic, and pays tribute to the city’s once-vibrant music scene.

Screenshot of a livestream music event organised by SaveMusicSG, at Singapore's Rumours Beach Club. Image: Elgin Quek, Courtesy of Matty Wainwright

Screenshot of a livestream music event organised by SaveMusicSG, at Singapore's Rumours Beach Club. Image: Elgin Quek, Courtesy of Matty Wainwright

In November 2021, it was announced that food and beverages establishments could start playing “soft recorded music,” though live music and entertainment would remain banned from these venues. This meant a new—albeit small—income stream for Wainwright as restaurant and bar managers hit up DJs like him for curated, hours-long playlists. According to Wainwright, venues are generally keen to have live music back since it would draw more revenue.

Last week, authorities told reporters at a press conference that it’s still too early to relax COVID-19 restrictions around live music and alcohol consumption—a precaution that many DJs and musicians still can’t wrap their heads around.

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“For me personally, I just don't see the danger between having a playlist on and having me stand there doing it,” Wainwright said.

Since his music career has been suspended, Wainwright said he has had to downgrade to a more affordable home and take up odd jobs like delivering goods and driving dogs to daycare—while still only earning a fraction of what he used to. But he considers himself lucky compared to others in the industry.

“It's quite demoralizing, really. And that's where you end up spending your life savings just to survive,” said Wainwright.

Zach Kim, better known by his stage name Zig Zach, was a professional DJ and owner of an events company until COVID shut his livelihood down. Since then, he has started a vegetarian Middle Eastern food delivery business. “I’m not making anywhere close to what I used to, but it's paying off our living costs and, at this stage, that's already a win,” he said.

Escape 56, a series of secret pop-up parties in Singapore.

One night of “Escape 56,” a series of secret location pop-up parties organized by Zig Zach's events company, pre-pandemic. Photo: Colossal Photos, courtesy of Zach Kim

But finances aren’t all Zig Zach is concerned about. For the past two years, he has been grieving the dying music scene. Like many musicians, Zig Zach is troubled by the erosion of the subculture in Singapore, as well as the wellbeing of those who are deeply connected to the industry.

“We are performers, we live off music. It's our livelihood and it's also what feeds our soul,” said Zig Zach. “When they cut music in bars and restaurants, that was truly a depressing and painful time for a lot of us.”

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“We are performers, we live off music. It's our livelihood and it's also what feeds our soul.”

“They need to stop thinking that all nightlife revolves around the underbelly, and see the positive things we have on people and also the economy.”

For young adults who turned of legal age during the pandemic, the nightlife is a mythical creature that they’ve probably only heard stories about but never had the chance to witness in its full glory. 

These days, the scene is kept on a tight leash: Alcohol can only be consumed in restaurants until 10:30 p.m. (many places usually stop serving alcohol before then), and group gatherings are strictly capped at five people. As recently as February, authorities revoked the operating licenses of nightlife and F&B establishments for violating safe distancing measures.

But despite the gloom of the past two years, many are hopeful that Singapore's nightlife will light up at full force once restrictions are lifted.

Tracy Joy Phillips, an avid nightclub goer, remembers the feeling of being on a crowded dance floor, and the unique sense of community that comes with bodies moving in sync with one another. Now, she mourns for the booming subculture that has vanished in the blink of an eye.

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“It’s been culturally desolate and completely insane to me, to kill a thriving industry that took three decades to build organically without trying to find some compromise,” said Phillips. 

Tracy Joy Phillips at a party in Singapore, before COVID killed nightlife.

A pre-pandemic photo of Tracy Joy Phillips in her element. Photo: Courtesy of Tracy Joy Phillips

Some DJs and musicians have packed up and left for good, but others are still holding out hope that once they get the green light, the city will spring back into action with pent-up gusto to rebuild its nightlife landscape.

Many are optimistic that the scene will regain its former glory in straight-laced Singapore. After all, it offers an irreplaceable opportunity for human connection.

“Nightlife is built on shared interests, shared spaces, and shared experiences,” said EJ Missy, a DJ who has been shuttling between Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Singapore for work. “I do believe that it will return. The question is, ‘When?’”

“I keep asking myself this though: What if by the time it does, I have no more spark left in me?”

Follow Koh Ewe on Twitter and Instagram.