Singaporean musician Melvin Ong, who became a prominent paraplegic after a stage accident left him paralysed in 2019, died on Tuesday of lung cancer. He was 32.
Ong was front man of the three-piece metal band Hrvst (pronounced harvest), known in the alternative music scene for their “big” sound and riotous compositions.
“Ask anyone, they’ll tell you he was the best screamer in Singapore,” said former Hrvst guitarist Sanjay Mohan.
“In real life, he could be self-conscious but on stage, he was a ‘monster’.”
In 2019, the band was performing at the Esplanade Annexe studio when Ong fell off the stage and fractured his spine in two places. The freak accident left him paralysed from the neck down.
The band had been on the verge of a European tour, buoyed by the increasing attention on Ong’s emotive vocals, said Mohan.
But his fall ended Hrvst’s run on the stage and the trio called it quits in 2021.
Three years after his fall, Ong was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer – the disease that would claim his life.
Mohan, 33, who has known Ong since they were schoolboys, remembered him as a “sonic rebel”.
The pair co-wrote Hrvst’s songs and they revelled in writing music “wrongly”, often stringing discordant notes together, gleefully rucking the line between sound and melody, said Mohan.
Their songs, which had titles like Fear Reduction and Silver Spoon, won the band a loyal fan base.
Unable to lift the bass or unleash his throaty shouts after his accident, Ong still persisted in making music.
In a tradition established long before Ong’s fall, Mohan continued visiting Ong at home weekly to show him the tunes he had written.
“I’d try to write something and he would tell me if it was nice. He’d add vocals, not screaming but whispering,” said Mohan.
“That’s just the kind of guy Mel was.”
Ong’s older brother, Kervin, said his brother taught himself the bass at 15 and worked part-time jobs to buy himself instruments.
Kervin added that his brother, who also loved drawing, design and photography, turned to apparel design after his accident, launching the graphic T-shirt brand Green Spell.
In the thick of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Green Spell put out a “Covid-19 relief” shirt and donated all proceeds from its sale to struggling migrant workers.
Kervin, 36, said his brother was also a “very involved” member of the paraplegic association.
“He constantly encouraged and counselled fellow members. He showed others that being paraplegic would not stop him,” added Kervin, referring to his brother’s T-shirt business, tenacious music-making, and how he learnt to paint with his mouth.
“In a very large sense, he inspired a lot of people.”
Melia Raine Morrissey, 25, credited Ong with getting her through a difficult recovery after she broke her arm and leg, and punctured her lung in a road accident in September 2022 – around the time he received his terminal diagnosis. The pair first met at an artist market in 2021.
“I knew he was in pain too and was shocked at how he could always reply to me and I could tell they were messages from the heart.” said Morrissey.
“I had no one else to turn to, but I thought of him, the strongest person I know.”
Near the end, the late Ong faced death with equanimity, taking care to leave voice logs and blog posts for the soon-to-be bereaved, his brother said.
He planned most of his funeral, added Kervin, even down to the colour of his undershirt.
His wishes were simple: a wide coffin, an all-black dress code and a plaque bearing an inscription of his daily mantra: “Give thanks.” - The Straits Times/Asia News Network