Beyond Cultural Heroes

Published on 2 October 2014

The Cultural Medallion is Singapore’s highest artistic accolade. While we hail the recipients on the pedestal, we also remember the human journeys that got them there.

TEXT BY PAMELA HO

The Cultural Medallion is Singapore’s highest artistic accolade. While we hail the recipients on the pedestal, we also remember the human journeys that got them there.

It’s been 35 years. Since its institution in 1979 by our late President, Mr Ong Teng Cheong (then Minister of Culture), the Cultural Medallion has been conferred on 115 artists for their exceptional achievement and contribution to Singapore’s cultural landscape.

Past recipients include Kuo Pao Kun (theatre), Jeremy Monteiro (music), Iskandar Jalil (art), Goh Choo San (dance) and Ho Minfong (literature). The Cultural Medallion is, without doubt, Singapore’s highest artistic accolade. It celebrates cultural leadership.

But beyond the accomplishments and the works we applaud are the very human journeys that got them there. Perhaps it’s in the little things that we find our deepest connection with these cultural heroes.

Defying Humble Beginnings

“I remember between 1963 and 1967, I had to attend night classes after work and didn’t have time to spend with my children or to write, those were tough years,” recalls Tamil poet KTM Iqbal, one of this year’s Cultural Medallion recipients.

When his first son was born in 1963, Iqbal was working as a peon, drawing a monthly salary of S$90. He dispatched letters around Raffles Place and did filing work at Gattey & Bateman, an auditing firm located on the second storey of Fullerton Building.

“My highest education was Primary 2 Tamil,” Iqbal discloses, adding that he went back to Primary 6 in his 20s. “I attended the Adult Education Board’s night classes and got my Senior Cambridge certificate in 1967. I was then promoted to a clerk.”

Cultural Medallion recipient, KTM Iqbal, with his young family in 1969.

“I started writing in the early 60s after reading poems by Mr Mathithasan in Malaya Nanban, a Tamil daily published in Singapore,” he tells of his early inspirations.

Iqbal pursued his passion for writing on top of his day job and family commitments. He contributed poems, essays, songs and plays to Radio Singapore and newspapers around the region. Some of his works have since been translated to English, Malay, Chinese, Thai, Korean, German and French. In 2001, he won the SEA Write Award.

Now 74, Iqbal continues to contribute to Singapore’s literary scene through editorial work and mentoring young writers. His commitment and contribution to the Tamil literary scene is recognised today as he receives the Cultural Medallion from the President of Singapore. 

Embracing Your Element

It is tempting to think that all talented men and women are aware of their gifts. But like most of us, these accomplished artists went through periods of self-doubt. Sometimes, it took someone to give them an opportunity or simply to believe in them.

“I was a very average student in school. I actually decided to serve the church as a religious teaching brother. I qualified as a teacher but eventually left the religious order,” shares sculptor Chong Fah Cheong, 68, this year’s Cultural Medallion winner. “Although I did art as my main elective, I never felt I was a trained artist.”

Chong reveals that his foray into sculpture was almost serendipitous. The seeds were sown after he returned from the City of Birmingham Polytechnic with a Diploma in Curriculum Studies (Art and Design) in 1974, and was relief teaching at St Patrick’s School.

Several trees had been felled in the school compound and then-Principal Brother Joseph McNally asked if he wanted to use the wood for his art. It was working with these unwanted pieces of wood that ignited Chong’s interest in sculpting. His techniques were all self-taught.

“When I met sculptors Ng Eng Teng and Anthony Poon in the early years, I became acutely aware of my lack,” Chong chuckles. “But it was through Anthony that I was able to hold a solo exhibition at Alfa Gallery, which turned out successful enough to give me some confidence in my own sculptural works.”

“For the longest time, I didn’t feel comfortable calling myself an artist, much less a sculptor,” Chong admits, adding that it was his friendship with Ng Eng Teng (Cultural Medallion, 1981) that boosted his self-confidence and reinforced his decision to do sculpture full-time.

Today, 18 of his works are in the permanent collection of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). Perhaps best known are his iconic public commissions, like ‘First Generation’ (2000), the bronze sculpture of five boys jumping into the Singapore River near the Fullerton Hotel.

“The acceptance of my sculptures gives me a sense of accomplishment and gratification, but I’m quick to remind myself that all the elation that comes with public praise is not the reason I do this,” Chong asserts. “To me, it’s the privilege of being the eyes and hands of a time, a place, and people.”

Chong Fah Cheong with sculptors Ng Eng Teng and Ron Gomboc, mid-1980s.

Chasing Dreams

“In 1992, the arts scene in Singapore was so nascent, people were sceptical it will take off. I am the eldest son. What was I doing quitting teaching and going full-time as an artist?”

The words of theatre director and Cultural Medallion recipient, Alvin Tan, 51, probably still rings true today. He was a graduate of English Literature and Sociology from the National University of Singapore, and held a stable job teaching English and Literature for the Gifted Programme at Raffles Institution.

But Alvin took a leap of faith and took up the challenge of being a pioneer of professional theatre in Singapore. In 1987, he founded The Necessary Stage (TNS), going full-time in 1992.

Alvin Tan (centre) with TNS’ playwright, Haresh Sharma (left), 1992.

“I felt a deep need to address the Singaporean identity – our voice, concerns and multiculturalism,” he explains. “I believe the arts has the potential to transform the way we live in the community. That’s why we adopt a very communal approach to theatre-making.”

Important to Alvin was his parents’ support. “They told me to go ahead and choose a job that would make me happy as I have only one life. They even sacrificed one toilet in the home to store our props and the backyard to store our set pieces. We rehearsed in the living room and my bedroom turned into an office in the day,” Alvin recalls.

“We were very grateful when NAC offered us a room at Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre. Of course, we had to have a certain number of shows under our belt to deserve the sponsorship,” he qualifies. “So that was the struggle, to prove to funders that we were fly-by-night but serious about developing our art, and would be around for a long, long time.”

But bumps on the road didn’t sway TNS’ Artistic Director from sticking to the chosen path. To date, they have created over 80 original plays and sparked the next generation of co-creators in the theatre-making process. One of them is this year’s Young Artist Award winner, Siti Khalijah.

“I was studying at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), pursuing an NTC2 certificate in Building and Drafting. But once I finished those two years, I immediately started auditioning for theatre gigs,” reveals the gutsy 29-old-old actress. “The only theatre experience I had was attending TNS’ Theatre for Youth Ensemble!”

Siti sees her award as an encouragement for budding artists who feel they can never make a living in the arts. “This award is especially for the students who are struggling academically. I was an ITE student, and I never thought I’d ever be accepted in theatre.” 

“I believe passionate people are resilient,” Alvin reflects. “So even without awards, the arts community will somehow initiate its own way of acknowledging its own heroes. Any artist worth his or her salt simply focuses on the work. Many good ones fall outside the radar and remain unrecognised, but they’re still working passionately today. It’s a calling.”

For more information on the Cultural Medallion and Young Artist Award 2014, visit www.nac.gov.sg.

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