In the 1980s, the Ministry of Culture engaged the arts community in its art promotion efforts by setting up Advisory Committees for Dance, Drama, Choral Music, Instrumental Music, Literary Arts, Photographic Arts, and Visual Arts. The role of the committees was to advise the Ministry on its art programme and art award nominations while the Singapore Cultural Foundation sought artists’’ views on grant applications.
When I joined the Ministry in 1981, the Visual Arts Advisory Committee functioned in Mandarin. Chaired by the late pioneer artist Liu Kang, its membership comprised the luminaries of the scene including Chen Wen Hsi, Choo Keng Kwang, Huang Pao Fang, Ho Kok Hoe and Ng Eng Teng. When the term of the Committee expired a year after I joined, I took the opportunity to balance the composition of the Committee by adding the National Art Gallery’s Art Curator Choy Weng Yang, art teacher Teo Eng Seng, artist Thomas Yeo and Jafaar Latiff. Sadly, my good intentions provoked remarks that I was “anti-Chinese” but I knew that I was doing the correct thing in a multi-cultural society.
The idea of publishing a directory of Singapore artists was hatched before I joined the Ministry. After some months, however, I sensed that the project was not moving partly due to funding constraints but more because Committee members had difficulty in deciding which artists to include in the directory.
Ironically, my ignorance, naïveté and sense of efficiency stood me in good stead in those circumstances. Since I did not know any of the artists and had no preferences or preconceptions of who was good or bad, I adopted a clinical approach by asking every Advisory Committee member to list anonymously on blank pieces of paper, the artists that they thought were worthy of listing in the publication. After counting up the nominations, we arrived at a list of 48 artists who had clearly been ranked above the others. I invited members to speak up if they felt uncomfortable about any of the names. While I don’t recall any objection being raised, the question of whether artists engaged by the Ministry, such as art curator Choy Weng Yang, may be included. My stance was that if they had been admitted into the list of 48, they should not be penalized because of their employment status and so, they were included.
“Singapore Artists” was launched by Minister of State for Culture Major Fong Sip Chee on 16 Aug 1982 at the opening of the 1982 National Day Art Exhibition. It was co-published by the Singapore Cultural Foundation and Federal Publication. The publication carried a Foreword by Minister for Culture S. Dhanbalan. Its Co-ordinating Editor was art educationist / critic Chia Wai Hon who wrote an “Introduction” while Liu Kang and Choy Weng Yang co-wrote the article on “Singapore Art”. The book cover featuring the ciment fondue skin of Ng Eng Teng’s sculpture “The Heart of Man“ (located at the ASEAN Sculpture Park on Fort Canning) won Federal’s Art Director Lim Ching San a prize at an international book fair.
The “directory” turned out to be the very first coffee-table book on Singaporean artists. Thankfully, all the artists published continue to be active , validating the simple selection process we adopted. In later years, artist Thomas Yeo published “Singapore Artists Speak” and two other publications updating the list of reputable Singapore Artists.