Frontman of iconic rock band, Ronin, finally finds what he has been searching for
by Janice Tai // December 30, 2020, 12:34 pm
At the peak of his music career in 2007, Levan Wee (pictured performing at the National Stadium) left his band Ronin. "What's the point of recognition when I feel miserable?” he asked. All photos courtesy of Levan Wee and Ronin.
Everywhere he went, his white hair and pale skin would attract stares, comments and labels.
Decades later, Levan Wee, who has albinism, would remember how his secondary school teacher had told him – in front of the class – that he would be lucky to achieve half of what everyone does because he is “not like other people”.
Levan, now 39, bought into a certain narrative about himself from an early age: “Normal” people do not want him around and so he has to rely on his own strength to fight his battles and prove himself to them.
“I felt like I was a disappointment.”
After graduating from polytechnic with a diploma in Information Technology, he applied for an interim job as a cashier at a convenience store.
He was rejected.
The interviewer was afraid that issues with his vision, associated with albinism, would affect his work performance.
“It was such a basic job yet I couldn’t even get it,” said Levan.
Eventually, he got a job in the IT department of a start-up, only to end up not being paid for three months. He later found out that the company was a sham.
When his furious father confronted the boss, the man retorted that he had only hired Levan out of pity.
“Again, I felt like I was a disappointment.
“I began to have a fear of applying for jobs because my options seemed to be getting smaller and smaller.”
From rejection to fame
Little did Levan know that the trajectory of his life would soon swing to the other extreme: From disdained and discriminated to having thousands of adoring fans pay to see him and queue for his autograph.
That season of his life began with a former secondary school friend pestering him to join their rock band.
“He had not heard me sing. But for some reason, he strongly believed that I was the person to front the band. It was ridiculous. Here I was, already attracting unnecessary attention. I did not need to be on stage to be even more scrutinised by others,” said Levan.
After a year of badgering by his friend, Levan obliged by joining a jam session at an old, dusty and hot house in Katong.
The band members believed that they were going to be big and famous in Singapore. Levan privately thought that they were wildly delusional.
“I was already attracting unnecessary attention. I did not need to be on stage to be even more scrutinised by others.”
Though he had no previous interest in singing, Levan found himself enjoying his first jam session with them.
The music was loud and the lyrics were streaked with rebellion. It was an outlet for him to vent the anger and other emotions swirling within.
He eventually joined the band as their singer.
The band, Ronin, played its first gig in a bar in Boat Quay to 10 people in 2003. Six were parents of the band members.
“When I went on stage for the first time, it felt natural. I thought that would be the last thing I would want to do. But facing the people, the other side of me came out. I could express everything I was feeling and that was energising,” said Levan.
“We were not very good players but something happened along the way when we began writing original music.”
Ronin went on to become a top local rock band.
It released its first album Do or Die in 2005. Two of their songs – Black Maria and One More Moment – hit the Number 1 spot on local radio. They performed live to thousands of people – up to 50,000 at one time – at the National Stadium, Indoor Stadium, Zoukout and the Esplanade. Motorola signed them on to endorse their cell phones.
Ronin was also first band to do an extensive school tour in Singapore, performing at over 50 schools and 30,000 students in secondary and tertiary educational institutions.
“People were singing our sings, cheering for us. It was a complete flip to the other end of the spectrum. I bought into the hype and thrived on the attention because I was searching for acceptance,” said Levan, who co-wrote most of the songs.
“Though I am introverted, I played up my rebellious side and amplified it in my shows,” he added.
Their shows were rowdy.
The band members, led by Levan, often spewed vulgarities on stage. Antagonistic in nature, they also incited disobedience. They were banned from returning to one third of the venues that they performed in.
A bone to pick
Levan also had a special bone to pick with Christians. He could not stand their “goody two shoes” image and considered them to be self-righteous.
When he performed in convent schools, he would take the opportunity to make fun of the nuns.
He was the type of person who would enter a room, sniff out a Christian, and challenge their belief in Christ because he felt like it.
“I bought into the hype and thrived on the attention because I was searching for acceptance.”
The self-labelled “hardcore agnostic” would do in-depth research to dismantle their beliefs and weaken their faith. He would not hold back even if it hurt friendships.
Sometimes, he was so angry at the faith and its believers that he would run into a Christian bookshop or megachurch service and shout “Satan!” at the people present.
“I took delight in doing that because I was so angry at them saying things like ‘God has a plan’ and ‘God is good’. I was born different and these beliefs were so out of sync with my life experiences,” said Levan.
After five years with Ronin, Levan made a shocking move. He left the band at the peak of his music career in 2007. By then, Ronin had branched into collaborations such as writing the theme song and title soundtrack, Memories, for the film, Singapore Dreaming.
“From not being accepted, my situation swung to hyper-acceptance that showed in terms of the fame, money and attention that I was getting. But I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I did prove people wrong in showing that I could be successful. So I was supposed to feel better. But instead I felt that something was missing,” said Levan.
“I was feeling worse – as if my soul was dying – even though I was the personality of the band. What’s the point of recognition when I felt miserable?” he questioned.
Rocker with a PhD
Levan went on to do a short stint as a journalist in a music magazine before leaving for Australia to get a degree in sociology.
“I was feeling worse – as if my soul was dying – even though I was the personality of the band.”
If success in music did not make him happy, he reasoned that getting educational qualifications may give him satisfaction and fill that void in his life.
He still had a chip on his shoulder. He desired to prove his school teacher – and others who thought he was not able to study – wrong.
He threw himself into his studies and did so well that he got a perfect GPA score, emerging top of his cohort. He landed a scholarship to do his PhD in anthropology – for free – and a stipend from the Australian government.
When he eventually got his PhD after nine years in Australia, the University of Melbourne offered him a teaching appointment.
“I didn’t take it up because I did not feel like it.
“After the high of graduation, I still didn’t get the satisfaction I was looking for. I still had the feeling that something was missing,” said Levan, whose father passed away while he was studying in Australia.
His depression got so bad that he began Googling how to die painlessly.
He returned to Singapore last year and decided to contribute to the local music scene by joining a company that promoted local bands to the region.
The work was fulfilling, but unlike the intensity of his band days and academic pursuits, it was not enough of a distraction to keep depression at bay.
“The seeds of my depression were planted in my teenage years through mindsets of inadequacy and the need to outperform others. Everything I chased, I chased with zest. But when I no longer had a consuming project at hand, there was nothing left to do but to face myself … and I was still not okay with myself,” said Levan.
“The things that people strive for, whether it was success in career or education, I had achieved. Yet I was still not seeing myself in a loving way.”
He got help from a psychologist, as well as a psychotherapist who prescribed medication.
His depression got so bad that he began Googling how to die painlessly.
Green plastic bag
One afternoon in July this year, his family gathered at home for lunch. He recalled feeling utterly miserable and terrible.
“I felt that I was such a letdown and that it was better for me not to be around,” said Levan. “It was such a strong feeling.”
He went into his study room and faced the window. He felt so helpless and desperate.
He uttered his first prayer. It was directed to the Christian God, despite his past attempts at disparaging the faith. While studying the texts and beliefs of different faiths, he could not deny that Christianity has a coherent doctrine that is clear and consistent.
“Everything I chased, I chased with zest … until there was nothing left to do but to face myself.”
In his hour of need, he told God: “Dear God, I have been agnostic for so long, I don’t even know if you are real. I don’t even know if I am speaking to air. But God if you are real, please show me a sign that you are there and that you care. Because I don’t even care for myself now. If you are there, help me because I can’t do this on my own.”
He ended the prayer weeping. “In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.”
At that moment, he saw a green plastic bag and a green reusable bag in his mind’s eye.
“I thought, ‘This is so random. You’re the Creator of the universe and I don’t know if You’re there. And here I am thinking of plastic bags and reusable bags. This is crazy,” said Levan.
He thought nothing of it and went to the foot of his block. There, he spied a green plastic bag on a table at the void deck. It looked like the one he had just seen after his prayer.
Well, a green plastic bag is not that uncommon, he thought.
When he went back upstairs, he saw that his girlfriend had left a green, reusable bag on the beanbag.
“I thought that was interesting. But it takes a lot to break me down. So I prayed again and told God I didn’t know what was going on and if He would show me another sign,” said Levan.
“God, please show me a sign that you are there and that you care. Because I don’t even care for myself now.”
He then saw a vision of a little bird that he had never seen before. It looked like a penguin, with black wings and a white chest.
The next day, he saw three uncles hanging up their bird cages. He had been walking down that same path for the last 20 years and had not encountered these people before. He noticed that the bird in the centre cage was what he had pictured in his mind the day before.
By then, his resolve was shaking. He continued to ask God for more signs. The items became rarer and rarer.
“This happened for seven or eight times in a row and it got harder and harder for me to live as an agnostic. I may be psychologically weak but I’m not the kind of person that creates fantastical things out of nothing,” said Levan.
“Maybe You are real but why show me all these weird items? Would You show me in a way that defies all probability or coincidence so that I can get past my rational hurdles?” he asked God.
What happened next challenged all his logical notions of reality.
As he was walking to get some coffee one day, he saw a small orb which was floating and pulsating in the air. Then it exploded, bursting forth beams of green iridescent light in broad daylight at the void deck.
“I started crying because I felt this outpouring of love. It was so distinct.
“I knew then that all these signs were not of me grasping at straws nor of my imagination. God knew I needed such explicit supernatural signs because my heart was so hardened and there were decades of cynicism He had to undo,” said Levan.
Crying, he went to tell his girlfriend what he had just seen and experienced.
Levan got on to his knees and put his face on the floor of his living room and prayed. This time, he had a vision of Jesus in a white robe. Levan reached out to touched His hand.
God set things in motion to answer his prayer request that very day.
“I kept thanking God and asking God what I should do next. Or what to read or study since I am new to the faith. I reached a place of surrender where I wanted to give my life to Him and do what He wants,” said Levan.
He was surprised that God set things in motion to answer his prayer request that very day.
He had arranged to meet the only Christian friend he knew for dinner that day. His friend’s cell group friends came along. And at the end of the dinner, one turned and said to Levan: “I don’t know why but God told me to tell you to attend the school at Youth With A Mission (YWAM).”
Later, Levan’s aunt texted him with the same suggestion. He got a third confirmation via a friend’s message on social media.
With these three confirmations, Levan left his job, in preparation for the course which starts in 2021.
The five-month-young Christian has been reading and growing in the Word, and learning to hear God more and more clearly.
Lately, he has received several confirmations and prophetic words prompting him to return to music.
“I have been running away from music for a long time. I didn’t want to return to it because I felt that music did not bring out the best side in me,” said Levan.
He was also not keen to do mainstream Christian music, which he felt did not suit his style.
“I asked God if He was sure He wanted me to go back to music.
“He said, ‘You do you and I will do the rest.’”
Levan is currently waiting on God to provide the people and resources to form a Christian band.
Even as he turns 40 next year, Levan now has only one mission that drives him – to help others know and experience how much God loves them.
“If you don’t feel loved, valued or accepted, know that God doesn’t see you that way. You don’t have to keep fighting on your own.
“If anyone is wondering whether God loves you, go into your closet and ask God,” urged Levan.
“Give it a try. He will respond.”