A funny thing happened when I checked the ringing in my ears and discovered I could have been the greatest singer the world had ever known

So these are things that happen to you when you’re in your 60s. Sometimes the ringing in your ears gets really loud, especially in the middle of the night, in the early morning and when you have the flu.

I mentioned it in passing to the GP as he was writing a prescription for the cold. “You better get that checked,” he said. “Tinnitus can be a symptom of all sorts of things. At your age you could have a tumour behind your ear and not know it, and then it could be something serious.”

At your age. Because I think this is already extra time, hearing things like that does not alarm me. But I go obediently to see the Ear, Nose and Throat specialist in a large hospital. He’s very friendly and hears me out, then says, “Let’s just do a scope through your nose and down your throat and check, because all these parts are connected.”

We do the scope, and when the gizmo is down my throat he says: “Say ‘Eeee’.” And I do. Then he says, with just a hint of urgency: “Say ‘Eeee’ again?” And a few minutes later he stops. Then he says: “Will you look at this!” And he shows me moving pictures of my vocal cords. Funny looking bits, behaving like when you press your thumb and forefinger together.

“Look what happens when you say ‘Eeee’,” he says.

My vocal cords don’t behave. The two halves (thumb and forefinger) are supposed to move apart and open when you speak, but only one half of my pair opens out. The other half just stays still, not moving.

In that doctorly way of staying calm in the face of catastrophe and doom, the man does not say: “Oh my God! Half your vocal cords are paralysed! This could be cancer or  worse!” Instead he says very calmly that this is very unusual. It’s called Vocal Cord Paresis and should not be happening. And although that’s not the reason why I came to see him, he says I now need a CT scan of my neck and chest to rule out some malignancy causing my vocal cords to misbehave.

But what about the ringing in my ears? “That could just be wear and tear from age,” he says. “This needs checking first.”

And so I had the CT scan. And waited two weeks for the result. And guess what? All clear. No tumours, or crazy stuff happening back there. I’m good to go.

So, why are my vocal cords misbehaving? I ask. “Can’t say,” he says. “Maybe they’ve been like that all your life but nobody ever looked at them before.”

You mean, I say, I could have been living all this time with only one half of my vocal cords opening up each time I spoke? “Yup.”

You mean, I say, I could have been the world’s greatest singer if my vocal cords worked properly because I’m not too bad in the bathroom with only half the set?

“Yup, you sure could have been the best singer. You sound pretty good right now,” he says. I wasn’t even singing at the time.

I could have won the Bintang RTM 1971 if only my vocal cords worked. Just think about that. My whole life might have turned out differently.

I re-read what I wrote in 2004, about my one failed try at the talentime.

I was a Fallen Idol, August 22 2004

I know I will be hooked on Singapore Idol soon, and I will get as frenzied as my kids when it comes to choosing the winner.

I dread to think what our mobile phone bills will be like after all the voting.

When it was down to Fantasia Barrino and Diana DeGarmo in the last American Idol race, I was in a state of high anxiety until the votes were tallied and the right finalist came out on top.

And I am not even someone who watches a lot of television.

What can I say, it all goes back to my childhood.

That was when Talentime was on the radio, you never got to see what the contestants looked like and yet it was mesmerising.

You guessed who was pretty and who was cute from the sound of their voice, hooted cruelly at the ones who wrecked their songs or mangled the lyrics and kept your fingers crossed that the contestants you liked best would make it to the next round.

The good thing about the bad ones was that they encouraged you to sing, too.

You know, if they could be on the radio, I could sing in the bathroom.

So I could be Elvis, Cliff or the Everly Brothers. I was never Tom Jones, but for a long while I fancied myself an Engelbert Humperdinck soundalike.

There were maybe only three people I knew who dared confess to liking Engelbert, but when I was 15 I won a pair of binoculars for singing There Goes My Everything in an impromptu class contest.

The unexpected prize spurred me on amazingly. I believed I could sing. I dared to dream of bigger things.

By this time, television had arrived and Talentime had become a TV programme. It was called Bintang RTM (Radio and Television Malaysia Star) and the big thrill was that we could finally see the contestants.

I was 18 and still in school when I gathered the nerve to step out of the bathroom and onto the stage.

And that was how I became Contestant No. 312, at the Bintang RTM selection rounds of 1971.

There was no crush of hopefuls like for the Idol contests but we had to wait a long time and when they called your number, you went on stage and did your thing.

The judges were in a room somewhere. I imagine they could see us but we could not see them or hear anything they had to say.

Everyone had to sing two songs, one in Malay and one in any other language.

I was maybe four lines into my Engelbert number when a loud buzzer went off. That meant Cukup! (“Enough! Change song.”).

So I switched to my second song. I hadn’t got to the fourth word of the traditional Malay ballad I had practised to death for days, when the buzzer went off again.

 

I was out the door. My Bintang RTM quest was over in under 60 seconds.

It did not matter too much because I had not told anyone and there was not a soul in the TV studio that day who knew me. It was my secret.

But a month later my photograph appeared in the TV station’s magazine, though thankfully the caption identified me as “One Of The Contestants”.

Sharp-eyed Sharifah from the sixth-form class next to mine cornered me, waved the magazine at me and said: “Eh, this fella really looks like you, lah.”

“Never,” I swore. “It’s just my common face.”

She dropped it, and I realised immediately that my doing a daft thing like entering the Bintang RTM contest was simply too way out of character for anyone to believe, and it suited me fine.

So that was where my singing career ended, before it ever began.

For years afterwards I would watch homegrown singers on TV and wonder fleetingly, what might have happened if they had let me get past the audition that afternoon.

Might I have become famous like DJ Dave, the no-turban Sikh with the lacquered hair, bedroom eyes and syrupy voice that could melt any girl’s heart, whose face appeared on many a pirated music cassette?

Sadly, I would never know.

Instead I finished school, went to university, majored in Geography of all things, and got a job.

Nobody ever found out about my afternoon at the RTM studio, and I never sang in public again, not even after karaoke made it all right to croak in crowded places.

I even stopped listening to Engelbert Humperdinck, and eventually would groan when one of his songs was played on some oldies radio station because it brought back all the wrong memories.

You might wonder why any sane person would confess to these events from his past after so many years.

All of it has come flooding back in the wake of the new talentime fever and besides, ever since the astonishing Idol hopeful William Hung set us free by being so bad everybody started watching him, the world has not been the same.

It’s now more than okay to own up to being a dreadful singer, to admit that I too am a talentime never-ran.

Singapore Idol is fashioned after the American version, complete with mean-mouthed judges who cut failures down to size and revel in making miserable no-hopers look terrible and feel like hell.

Watching the show, we can be equally unkind when we laugh at the worst of them.

But these days, even losers end up looking like winners. They are celebrated in the newspapers and on television, get to talk about their unappreciated prowess, and don’t mind suggesting that they deserve their own TV show.

Fallen Idols is what The Sunday Times called the failures featured last weekend in a big feature spread.

 

I was at the East Coast Park last Sunday and was amazed to find that so many beach-goers had brought their paper and were poring over the stories about Singapore Idol’s castouts.

Failure never looked sweeter.

Truly.

“I was a fallen idol” was first published in The Sunday Times, 2004, and it’s included in Good Grief! Everything I know about love, life & loss I wish somebody had told me sooner.

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