Benjamin Kheng has overcome a difficult youth to grow into a young adult who has got it all together. He is now enjoying success as a well-rounded entertainer with legions of fans on Instagram.

At just 26 years old, Benjamin Kheng exuded confidence as he took instructions from our fashion photographer. Whether it was serious, fun or pensive, Kheng delivered what was requested. It is hard to believe that this Singaporean musician, actor, host, writer, advocate for youth and social causes, and former national swimmer was insecure as a teenager.

In 2014, he was invited to present a talk at TEDx- [email protected] and he gave an honest and inspiring speech. The talk, Walk With Your Mind; Run With Your Heart, is on YouTube and already has more than 80,000 views. In 20 minutes, he told the audience about his depression and anxiety disorder, and how he even contemplated taking his own life as a teenager.

He overcame his insecurities through synesthesia — a perceptual condition in which stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to automatic involuntary experiences in a second sensory pathway. In Kheng’s case, he “sees” music in colours and shapes, or as he describes it, “coloured hearing”. When all the colours and shapes came together, they gave meaning to what he was feeling — and gave him a sense of purpose in his life. Kheng also gave a heartfelt speech about how he lost his mother to cancer when he was 12. He even read a handwritten note she had left for him and his younger sister Narelle. Watch the video and you will see Kheng’s raw emotions as he stood there vulnerable to his audience.

Hard to believe all this had happened to someone at such a young age and who did not end up becoming bitter and angry. Today, Kheng has achieved a lot and has so much more to offer. His life story, as outlined by FLY Entertainment, which represents him, reads like a bestselling motivational novel. No wonder he has about (at last count) 166,000 followers on his Instagram page.

Kheng’s first foray into the arts and entertainment world began when he was 17, as a radio producer/ presenter hosting two recurring programmes. In 2012, he founded the folk-pop quartet The Sam Willows, made up of Kheng, Narelle and their friends Sandra Riley Tang and Jon Chua.

Since then, the quartet has performed globally at the SXSW Festival in Austin, the Canadian Music Festival in Toronto, MU:CON and Zandari Festa in Seoul, the Singapore F1 Grand Prix 2013 and 2014, and the Western Australian Music Festival in Perth.

They even caught the attention of five-time Grammy award winner Steve Lillywhite, who has produced for U2 and The Rolling Stones. The Sam Willows recorded a song, Glasshouse, with Lillywhite. Their latest single, Take Heart, hit No 1 on the Singapore iTunes charts.

Kheng’s body of work goes beyond music and into the world of acting. His recent theatrical projects include Edges the Musical (Sight Lines Productions), National Broadway Company (TheatreWorks) and The Little Prince (ACT 3 International), which played to Shanghai audiences.

With his good looks, Kheng also landed many lead roles such as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet (Toy Factory) and army recruit Ken Chow in the local movie blockbuster turned sellout musical Ah Boys To Men: The Musical (Running Into The Sun).

His onscreen acting debut was as the lead character Pete in the three-part telemovie Love is Love — Fat Hope, a guy who sees through the superficial to find love. Since then, Kheng has become a regular face on local TV series. He also finds time in his busy schedule to write for various online art and lifestyle magazines, and perform his own spoken word pieces.

As a presenter, Kheng has helmed shows such as oktoLIVE! Season 7, an edutainment programme designed for tweens that is recorded in front of a live audience. He was also paired with Narelle in the first-ever magazine-infotainment-variety-mockumentary-sitcom that revolves around a pair of siblings finding out new ways to DIY for their start-up.

In 2015, Kheng performed solo to a live audience of 50,000 people at the SEA Games Opening Ceremony, which had an estimated viewership of 600 million tuning in around the region. The Sam Willows were also invited to open at NDP 2015: Singapore’s Golden Jubilee Celebration to a live audience of 26,000 people at the Padang, with the nation’s favourite, Home. Next year, we will see Kheng in the movie Wonder Boy, in which he portrays a young Dick Lee — a well known Singaporean pop singer, composer, songwriter and playwright.

Kheng tells Options a little bit more about himself and what his future holds.

You are always stylishly put together. Can you describe your style?
Common sense, I guess. I definitely don’t always feel “put together”, but I do love my earth tones. From time to time, I find myself looking up mod/grunge moodboards for a little inspiration, but for the most part, it’s just working with what I have in the closet. You can do a lot more with what you have than you think!

Between acting, singing and hosting, which do you prefer?
It’s like asking a parent which child he loves more! Music and theatre/film will always be alongside each other (just different forms of storytelling) as first choice. I don’t particularly adore hosting, but it sure beats most other things. I guess hosting is the stepdaughter.

You did a very honest [email protected] talk. What was that like and will we see you doing more of such inspirational talks?
That was as scary as it was fun. I think the most empowering thing you can do for yourself is to open up and be vulnerable and honest to other people, especially when you’re in a position of influence. People, especially artists, like to glamorise and romanticise pain and depression, but to talk about it as it was, and acknowledge and learn from it, was as therapeutic for me as I hope it was for them. I would definitely love to do it all over again.

Is this one of the ways you connect with your fans? Hence, your huge Instagram following?
No, it’s thanks to my huge collection of bikini images. To be honest, I’m hugely afraid of delving into the science of “following”. I’m fortunate that people follow and connect with me because of my real self. Yeah, some things are heightened for social media, but for the most part, I try to be as authentic as possible. It’s not hard when you showcase a wonderful array of both confidence and paralysing self-doubt. People relate to that.

What was the highlight of your career?
The Sam Willows’ recent concert at the Hard Rock Coliseum. Never thought we’d be able to pull off something like that. Hoping it’s the first of many to come.

What is your favourite thing to do during your downtime?
Netflix, catching up on NBA [games] or hitting up a karaoke spot with friends. The irony of paying to sing makes it even more fun.

What was life like before you joined the entertainment industry? What was your childhood like and how did it shape the person that you are today?
I spent most of my growing up years in the pool, trying to make the Olympics. Swam in the national youth team and realised I would never amount to anything “Joseph-Schooling- esque”, so I traded that life away. But it taught me discipline and the importance of sticking to one thing and perfecting it. Six hours a day, six days a week. Endless hours of pain for a moment of glory. That’s the stuff.

If you weren’t in the entertainment business, what would be your next choice of career?
I would be a copywriter, teacher or hedge fund manager.

We know that you will be in Wonder Boy, a movie that has a 2017 release date. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you prepared for the role?
Besides spending as much time with Dick as possible, picking up on his mannerisms and thought process, it’s really about understanding the gravity of that era and the things artists had to go through to get their work across. But many things help inform me of the character too — the music, the piano playing, the bowl haircuts.

What do you hope viewers will take away from this movie?
A deeper appreciation of Singaporean music and art, and a sliver of hope that 1970s fashion trends would return.

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 747 (Sept 26) of The Edge Singapore.