It is no big secret about the situation for mental health in Singapore. Or rather, it is more appropriate to say that it is no big secret that mental health remains a big secret in Singapore. But it is getting better. For example, more avenues are being opened to allow individuals to seek help, like the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the Ministry of Health Office for Healthcare Transformation setting up a chatbot portal for stressed teachers. Or the recently concluded Beyond the Label Festival 2022, where one could have conversations about mental health conditions in a safe space.
And among the activities and entertainment at the Beyond the Label Festival was a performance by musician Sean Ng, also known as The Colour Fool. Sean is more than just a singer; he also works as a medical doctor. Having had his own battles during his time as a doctor, he strongly advocates for mental health destigmatisation. He has helped provide psychiatric treatment to Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) service members and migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Beyond the Label Festival 2022 saw the debut of his original song, “Cross Your Ts”. Ahead of the song’s official release, I spoke to Sean about his musical endeavours and views on mental health.
You’ve got a unique stage name, but what’s the story behind your choosing to adopt the name in 2020?
“The Colour Fool” is a pun on the word colourful. I’m a fan of multi-coloured things!
Also, I believe that at times we have to be vulnerable, adventurous, or in a sense, “foolish”, to embrace life in all of its colour.
You mentioned that you’ve been influenced by your dad to appreciate a wide range of genres, but is there a particular genre or artist that you strive to emulate as a singer?
I’d like to create my own brand of music- I believe I have a unique sound that my friends describe as “mellow, folk and jazzy”. I was trained primarily as a pianist, so I’m actually still trying to get into the whole singing thing. One artist whom I admire would be Chris Martin from Coldplay, who is also a musician-singer.
You work as a doctor as well! What is it like juggling two worlds?
It is challenging, to say the least. It is not easy trying to balance my career as a doctor with my musical endeavours. The long working hours of doctors leave me with little time to pursue my music- rushing to the studio or for a gig after work has become the norm rather than the exception.
Furthermore, medicine and music demand different skill sets. The former is more logical and analytical in nature, while the latter is more about creative expression. I find it difficult to code-switch between the two, especially in a short period of time given my hectic schedule.
Nevertheless, both music and medicine have the ability to comfort and heal. Music and medicine can touch people in different ways, and they are equally important.
Being a strong advocate for mental health, why did you choose to tackle this particular issue and what is your consensus regarding Singapore’s own landscape on mental health?
I chose to speak out about mental health because of my own lived experiences, and after watching how mental illness has affected my friends, family members and patients.
The incidence of mental illness in Singapore has risen throughout the COVID-19 period, and Singapore is already known to be the “OCD Capital” of the world. Still, I believe that mental illness is under-reported and underdiagnosed in Singapore. This is due to the stigma of mental illness and the sparsity of help-seeking behaviour in our culture.
Hence, I feel that there is a need to raise awareness for mental health, and to acknowledge and destigmatise mental illness in Singapore.
You’ve also shared that you have encountered anxiety and burnout working as a doctor. What prompted you to seek help?
I decided to seek help because I was struggling to function at work. I was mentally overwhelmed from the high workload given to us as junior doctors, and physically exhausted by the long working hours. After work, I found that I was unable to unwind and fall asleep. The poor sleep and lack of appetite also compounded my symptoms.
Medicine is a very meaningful career, but because the nature of it is so human-centric, sometimes in the process of looking after patients, healthcare workers forget to look after themselves. I initially thought I was the only one struggling, but I soon learnt that my peers were struggling as well. This experience opened up conversations with my peers, and together we created the Medical Peer Support Group. My fellow doctors and I have become peer supporters for others in the medical community facing mental health challenges, and we are looking to grow the movement.
“Cross Your Ts” made its premiere early this month. Can you share about the process of writing and producing the music for this song?
The phrase “Cross Your Ts” is taken from the saying “dot your Is and Cross your Ts”. It is a reference to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and the lyrics of the song reference other mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, anxiety, mania and depression. The song aims to destigmatise mental illness and speaks about the importance of community when it comes to mental well-being. I hope that it encourages people in need to seek help, and reminds us to support our loved ones who are struggling.
I wrote the song quite a while back ago, but only found the time to piece it together recently. The entire process of producing the song has been very fulfilling for me. I have gotten to collaborate with various agencies, such as TOUCH Community Services and NCSS, for the common cause of raising mental health awareness. Along the way, I have also met many individuals who are passionate about mental health and/or have lived experiences.
The MV is a collaboration between mental health charities and the BTL ambassadors Amos and Stephanie; what was the experience working with all of them to create the video?
Similarly, working on the music video has been very meaningful. Seeing the struggles of mental illness being highlighted on the screen is something that I hope will further emphasise how crucial it is to prioritise mental health. I thank Binjai Tree and Resilience Collective for supporting the MV, and also the BTL ambassadors Amos and Stephanie for acting in the video.
Finally, what do you think Singapore/Singaporeans can do to overcome the stigma of mental illness?
I think the first thing we can do is to recognise how common it is and that it can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter what your socio-economic status is, what kind of family background you come from, or your age or gender.
The next thing Singaporeans can do is to have more conversations about mental wellness. We don’t need to face our problems alone; our problems are more common than they may seem. As we open up, we can learn from and support one another because we are stronger together.
Finally, we should encourage help-seeking behaviour amongst our loved ones and our community. We can accompany our friends and family members to seek help because the first visit to a therapist, counsellor or psychiatrist can be intimidating.
“Cross Your Ts” will officially release on digital streaming platforms on 28 October 2022. Click here to stream the song! The music video will also debut in mid-November; be sure to follow The Colour Fool’s Instagram or Facebook page for updates.
Visuals courtesy of Sean Ng.