If you want to do something, make sure you do it all the way!
How do you start out with a dream to be an MAS pilot, and end up leading the team of musicians at RTM Sabah Kombo? By being Moses De Silva, a young, strong-willed violinist, and double & electric bassist, with a real fighting spirit.
Competition was natural in the De Silva household, in Penampang.
Moses: My dad forced me and my brother to take organ. I was about five. To create a competition between us so we would practise, he put me in Yamaha, and my brother was in Technics! So I would always be like: Hmm, I think Yamaha is better, while my brother would be proving his side, saying No Technics is better!
It started off that way, and we were actually practising a lot. Later we noticed that the organ is not that popular. My dad played the guitar, so we had one guitar. It was really big, for my size at that time. There were three of us boys, and all of us wanted to play that guitar. My brother was a teenager, and wants to get chicks. I had this rivalry with my brothers. So the three of us would fight, you know, for that one bloody guitar! The only time I got to practise was when they went to sleep. It was that bad! But I really wanted to learn!
My dad noticed that I was quite good for a nine year old, so he bought another guitar, and another one, so that there were three guitars in the house now. The three of us played in church, and we continued until I was in Form 2. I slept with my guitar. My mini combo was next to my pillow; I could reach for the buttons and play until I fell asleep.
But, I was hanging around with my guitar so much, and paid no attention to my books. My mum got worried, and banned me from the radio! I was always learning these Top Ten songs. My dad had a lot of theology cassette tapes at home. I didn’t have money to buy empty cassettes, so I would use his to tape the songs off the radio. Then when he wants to listen to theology all this pop music comes out, that’s how I got banned.
I went to LaSalle, and got into some thing new. Singing. The talent show Bakat Interact came up and I was in the same category as Mia Palencia! She got first place and I got second! Damn! I did singing because you get more girls when you sing, lah!
But being a musician had never crossed my mind. Well, I was a bit of a bum when I was in Form 5. I almost screwed up my SPM. But I had my target. I’d always wanted to be a pilot. My senior, Fadzil, who was in my same singing group, he became a pilot. I asked him, what do I need to do to be a pilot?
Firstly, he said, “Moses you can’t be a pilot because you have asthma. You are automatically failed.”
The next best thing to work with aircraft was to become an aircraft engineer. So I asked him what are the programmes available, and he said MAS actually has a programme where they will sponsor you for four years.
I did my research. The minimum requirements were physics, English, BM and maths. So, two weeks before my SPM, I studied ONLY those four subjects, and I got the minimum requirements! I submitted my application to MAS for engineering and didn’t even apply for the local universities, they call it the DPU.
MAS called me to interview. They interview 40 participants from Sabah, and from there they pick two. At the interview, 90 pct of them got ten A1s, all the smart kids! But we had to do IQ tests and English and mechanical tasks. I scored the highest, so I was one of the two to go through.
The next part was a personality test where they actually provoke you. But I didn’t know that. The interviewer said, “These guys – all ten A1s – why should I choose you? Why should MAS take the risk, spend millions on you, and then suddenly halfway you fail again? I see your results, you’re the worst! Judging on your IQ tests you scored the highest. But why should I take you?”
I had my speech prepared. “Excuse me sir, you know it has been my life long dream to actually work for MAS (they must have listened to hundreds of speeches like this) I will not screw this up, this is what I’ve always wanted to do.”
He said, “This is a bunch of nonsense, I think. You have still to convince me, lah. So I think you will not get it. Anything you want to say? Any last words to convince me?”
I said honestly, “I really need this. I have pushed away everything because this is what I really want.” I told him straight, almost tears coming out of my eyes!
The only thing he did was this (SLOWLY CLAPS HANDS). “Well executed speech. But I’m not convinced. You can go now.”
So now I was really angry. I put my bags down, and I said, “Excuse me, sir. You can say whatever you want, but you cannot put my hopes down. You know this is what I really want, and you being so rude to me, you are going to see my face after this. AND the next interview. And if I fail that one you will see me AGAIN. I’m going to keep on doing it until I get it.”
He was like, “Okay, okay. Go now.”
So I really thought I didn’t get it. About a month later, I got a call telling me to come and get my offer letter. Apparently that was the test, if I did not stand up and fight back, they would have not taken me. They wanted to see that you are not the quiet type. So I got in.
All that was left was for Moses to pass the medical.
The doctor said to me, if you have asthma, you cannot work as an engineer. I said, “What’s that got to do with it?” He said, “It’s because we deal with fumes, you know, oil and all this. We had a case where somebody almost died.”
I didn’t know what to do with my life after that. EVERYBODY knew I was going to be an engineer with MAS. So I had to tell the whole world that I am not going to be one because I have asthma.
Moses was lost. He started A levels at Prime College in KL, taking chemistry, maths and physics, with aeronautical engineering in mind. Maths and physics were easy but chemistry was a big problem, and it was all really expensive.
Then an offer letter came to go to UNITAR (Universiti Tun Abdul Razak) in KL to study IT, and Moses took it.
I did NOT like it at all! I found out that computers is just not my thing! Even today, you can ask my colleagues – I can’t even open Facebook properly. The lecturers give out the notes and expects you to be independent. You have to learn by yourself. I got demotivated more. I really wanted to quit. I was thinking that I wanted to be a policeman.
Then, I was on the verge of quitting, when my mum called me up and said, “Boy! I managed to get you a scholarship to pay for your fees.” I skipped so many classes already. I had actually missed my mid-terms! So I’m like, “Huh?” Tarik balik ah! I don’t want all this!
My mum said, “Oh no, they’re going to pay your school fees,” and all this. What if I fail? “You get kicked out of the scholarship,” she said. Okay, I’m REALLY gonna try and study now.
My first semester, my grade point average was 1.1. Passing GPA is 2.0. So, you can imagine. There are stages in programming which you have to learn, the most simple programming course is called Visual Basic 6. Everybody is getting As for that, but I flunked it three times! I managed to stay for six semesters before they flunked me out. Two years I wasted – my life in KL.
I came back and thought I better become a policeman. My parents were disappointed. My mum talked to my sister, who is a lecturer in UMS. “Can you help him? Get him to take a degree in anything!”
My sister said, “Why don’t you get Moses to take music? Since he’s really into music. Then we’ll pay for his school fees; let him do his diploma in SIA.”
“Do music lah, boy! What do you think?” she asked me.
Being the typical me, last time, I wanted to be an engineer. Now you’re telling me to be a musician? I had the same mentality as my dad. My dad was like, “Music?” Typical Indian guy. “Why don’t you be a doctor or a lawyer?” So I was thinking the same, how can I survive being a musician?
So, I myself was not convinced. But I felt so bad. I had kind of given a bad name to my family, because they are really that type where education matters.
My sister said, “Me and your brother and Mum will share to pay for your school fees.” And the school fees was RM1000 a month.
So I said, “Okay, I’ll make sure I REALLY study. I’ll take guitar then, and whatever you guys want.”
My sister said, “Actually, I want you to take violin. So next time you finish, you can teach me how to play.”
So I’m like, violin? But violin is so sissy! Okay lah, I’ll take violin. Violin AND guitar.
Then my brother said, “I want you to take piano, NOT guitar. Guitar you can play already, mah! You take piano, and then when you finish, you teach me.”
I’m like: Why can’t I choose my own things!
They said, “Because we are paying for your school fees!”
So I said, Okay lah. Violin and piano. I’ll give it a shot. HOW HARD CAN MUSIC BE FOR ME? Those were my exact words I said to her.
So I went for the UMS audition with this really cheap guitar. And I see a bunch of students there, all with their effects, electric guitars, violins, and I was really zero in music. When I was a child, the teacher played the organ and I just copied, so I didn’t learn to read music.
I was interviewed by Ian Baxter, the lecturer. I played a few chords on the guitar.
He asked me, “You read notes?”
I said, “No.”
“What instruments you want to take at UMS?”
I want to take the violin and piano.
“So why you coming here with the guitar?”
That’s the only instrument I know how to play, sir.
“Why do you want to take music at UMS?”
Actually, I don’t know, sir. I really don’t know why I am here. I’m just following orders.
He was like, “Okay.” After that I found out I got in.
When I went to SIA, I was quite anti-social. I didn’t want to be a musician. In my mind, I would get this diploma for my family, and then go to the police academy.
Then Moses met Mat Rock.
I was outside the building. I heard somebody playing drums. I heard four persons playing, and thought they are having a drum ensemble. Suddenly Mat Rock came out, alone, to have a smoke. So I said: Sir, satu orang sahaja di sini? Are you alone here? He said “Yes.” I think I was listening to him for about 2 hours, and it was non-stop.
In my mind was: How can just one person play like four people? There is a lot of things about music here I really, really don’t know. So I sat down and actually watched him play. That was the first time I actually saw a drummer play, and to this day I’ve never seen a drummer play like Mat Rock, in Malaysia.
My interest in music began to form, because of Mat Rock. Being the only guy playing violin at SIA, (including UMS there was one other guy playing violin) I felt kind of special, in a way. Learning music was NOT easy to pick up. I was one of the slowest in the class in terms of reading. There were students who were able to read already, they were already performing together. I was changing my opinion of musicians now, and interested in finding out what you can do with music, later on.
I’ve always liked being challenged. When people heard I took up music, my aunts, even my dad, they kept telling me, “You into music, lah? Boleh cari makan kah?” Like, can you find money to eat later? I had this a lot. So, I had decided to prove to them, you just wait and see later. When I finish, I will prove to all of you that even a musician can earn! Can survive, lah! Their opinion of musicians was being a wedding singer, that kind of thing.
In music also you have your rivalry. So we have this violin ensemble class. Mat Rock was our teacher, so he wrote an arrangement. All the violins parts were all semibreves you know, all long notes. Even that I had problems playing. You know I actually had to count the notes on the staff, thinking: Ah this is D, okay. Mat Rock came in to check on us. “So strings parts, everything okay?”
Before I could say Okay, this girl came up in front of us and said, “Sir, WE are okay. But THIS guy – he is only basic.” Her group was a few girls. I think their level was about Grade 2.
Once she said that, I was like: Right! Rivalry! You’re the one! So from there on, I practised. I didn’t care whether I liked the instrument or not. I was playing the violin about 8 to 12 hours a day. We start classes usually 4-6pm. I would go to UMS by 8am, have breakfast, and then start practising violin. Practise, practise, practise, lah. I got my Grade 5 in my first year. Three months after playing violin they asked me to play in the orchestra. I was automatically second violin.
Then in the orchestra there was some jealousy. They said they were better than me, and don’t even want to share scores with me. So, being me, I was like: Okay. Rivalry! You’re next! So, after a while, I was REALLY into violin.
In my mind, my target was now to play in the MPO (Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra). One day one of the students said to me, “Moses, you know you are too old to play violin. You can never be a soloist. You can never be as good as the ones in the TV and all that, because that one requires you playing from young. They have special training. Maybe you can play for NSO and all this, lah. But you can never play for MPO.”
So I went to ask my lecturer, “Sir, is this true?”
He said, “In a way actually, yah.”
I asked, “How old should you be if you want to start playing in an orchestra that’s as big as MPO?”
He said, “Three? Four?”
I said, “Okay. I’m seventeen years late, lah!”
One day, I was watching Alvy (Durin), who is a producer here now. He was same batch as Jessel. He did something with the bass. I was wondering what is he doing with his thumb? I asked him, “Alvy, what are you doing with your thumb, with the bass?” He said, “I’m slapping, lah.”
“Slapping?” Must remember, I was REALLY naive. I really didn’t know anything about music. “Slapping, what’s that?”
He said, “This one, lah! You don’t know slapping? Okay. I bring you inside the cubicle. I show you.”
That was the first time I saw anyone doing that to a bass. I used to think the bass is the easiest instrument in a band, you know? So now I thought, okay. I want to learn how to do that. I was in my second year, and I totally put away my dreams about the violin.
From there I took up bass. I was not allowed to change my instruments, so I had to practise three instruments at the same time. My major was violin, my minor was jazz piano, and I learned bass on my own. My mornings would be practising violin and trying to learn aurals and chords and all this, by night I would take a drive to Boodean’s house, the bass lecturer. Go to his house and ask him, would you teach me? So it was like that throughout my diploma.
In the time between leaving SIA and joining UMS, Moses joined up with Jessel Yansalang and Suhaimie Jamli to form a band. I had played bass for about seven months, and then Jessel suddenly said, “Come on, let’s play.” Jessel was my senior, and I kinda looked up to him. So it was like, “Wow. I’m going to play with Jessel and Suhaimie.” We played in a pub called Friends in Dongongong. The keyboardist was a Mr. Lim, and we played for RM30 each. I wanted to play in a band so badly, with my bass! So I learned a lot with Jessel and Suhaimie at that time.
Once in UMS, I took up bass as my major and violin as my minor. The hardest part was actually to choose what was Me. Am I a violinist? Am I a bassist? I’m not saying I’m really good, it’s just that not many people has that amount of discipline to actually practise violin. You know violin has its own discipline, you have to do long notes, and long bows, you really have to interpret the music, understand, listen, and all that.
At UMS I practised two instruments in one day, and at the same time studied for all these non-music subjects (in the degree programme).
I was also concert master of UMS Orchestra. In practices, I would play bass because the bass lecturers are not there, but in performances I play violin, because Boodean would be there to play bass (the lecturers play in performances). But it was good, lah.
When I took up bass, I asked Boodean what should I listen to, what kind of music? He just said ‘Jazz’. Just some jazz, lah. So I went to the computer, I think it was Napster, and typed in ‘jazz’, and the next word was ‘bass’. Press ‘Enter’. The first name which came up was ‘Marcus Miller’. So I clicked. The first song was ‘Rio Funk’. When I heard Rio Funk, I couldn’t stop playing it. So from there, jazz is my thing, lah. By now, I wanted to be a performer in KL. To be one of the first Sabahans to actually penetrate KL as a bassist.
During my school time, and in SIA and UMS, I’ve always had this thing, you know, taking charge of things. Events in school. Doing recitals.
At UMS, we were on stage every week. I made sure the students got to perform, even when there was some process of change at UMS, you know? Some lecturers move to a different departments and all this. So we were struggling. I had to stand up for the students, just to make sure the music continued ongoing. So we students come up with our own shows.
For our final recitals, first we have to perform our major instruments, and the second day is the orchestral arrangement. I was more into the orchestra, and I had a vision of how I wanted that performance to be.
I was lucky that I had Annabel Tiu as my best friend. She helped me a lot. So I wanted the orchestra to be like a show! I got my friends from the theatre side; they were good with technical stuff like lighting. So I had to help them in order to get them to help me.
In the mornings, I would come to class. In the afternoons I would go and have meetings with them (in theatre). Then I would write some arrangements. By night, I would be helping one guy with their theatre show, because of course they need musicians backing up their theatre and all this. And then finish up my arrangements.
So for six months it was continuously like that. But in the end, they helped us with the lighting and the stage things, explaining to me, “You know, if you use this kinds of lights, with these kinds of lights, when you take snapshots it creates this effects and all that. And you should have a floor manager and a backstage manager.”
They were teaching me all this backstage production stuff. So I was like: Okay, I’m lucky, lah. I got them to help me.
In the end, the show was really good! It so happens, our external examiner was Dato Mokhzani, the RTM Music Director for the whole Malaysia. He saw all these things going on. We managed to get sponsorship for the sound system, so the sound was really good. Friends from the video side were taking videos from all these kinds of angles, and we have a big projector projecting our faces. It was a really BIG show! For students to do it by themselves, later they said it was the first time something that big was done.
So, Mohzani was really impressed. Especially with the arrangements. Annabel’s arrangement – it was because of her arrangement during that final recital that she got a job here (RTM Sabah). According to my Dean, Dato Mokhzani was so impressed he actually got a phone and called up RTM KL and said “Hey, this is how RTM should sound like!”
So during our viva, (they ask you about your arrangement, what did you do – like a thesis) he asked me, “Are you the leader of this thing here? Are you running the show?” I said, “In a way. But I think we all did it. It was teamwork, lah.”
He said. “Okay, so what are you going to do after this?”
I was really tired; I hadn’t slept in like two days! You know before, when he came out of the room, he actually woke me up saying, “Okay, it’s almost your turn,” because I was sleeping! So I answered him, “I don’t know, lah. Up to God. What he wants me to be, I’ll be, lah.” Because I was so tired.
He was shocked, and was like, “Okay… You never thought of coming into RTM and all this?” And I was like, “We’ll see lah.” Which was really, really dumb of me!
So he said, “Okay. Can you please leave your phone number?”
I said, “Thank you, sir,” and went out. He took numbers for four; Raimon, Romeo, Annabel, Hairul (who is in RTM Johor now) and me. So in a way, because of that final recital, all of us have jobs in RTM today.
So my message to anybody who is studying music is:
1) Don’t be arrogant. Be humble. Not so humble that you are shy to play! Humble means; don’t look down on others. As a musician.
2) You need DISCIPLINE.
3) Never think you know more than another person, because there is always another person who knows something more than you.
And always have this thing! — If you want to do it, you go and do it, and you make sure you do it all the way. Like that one – the final recital – because of that, all of us got jobs at RTM.
Moses V De Silva