Issue 129 | Apr-Jun 2022

Inspirational Icons

A salute to our alumni who have received the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest arts accolade.

Emeritus Prof Edwin Thumboo (right) receiving his NUS Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 2019 from NUS President Prof Tan Eng Chye (Science ’85).

Emeritus Professor Edwin Nadason Thumboo (Arts ’57, ’70)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 1979

Widely regarded as the unofficial poet laureate of Singapore, Emeritus Prof Thumboo is known for chronicling national issues in his poetry. Ulysses by the Merlion, arguably his most famous work, describes the mythical Greek hero Ulysses’ imagined encounter with the statue of the Merlion, and his thoughts about the people and culture of Singapore. Passionate about enriching the local literary community, Emeritus Prof Thumboo served as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences from 1980 to 1991.

Emeritus Prof Thumboo received the NUS Distinguished Arts and Social Sciences Alumni Award in 2016 and the NUS Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 2019.

Dr Wong Men Won @ Wong Meng Voon (Arts '66)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 1981

You may know Dr Wong better by his pen name, Meng Yi, whose micro-novels placed Singapore on the global Chinese literary map. He was the first Chinese-language literature recipient of the Cultural Medallion. Several of his works have been translated into English, Malay, Tagalog and Japanese. Dr Wong remains a passionate advocate of the arts and is eager to help other writers hone their craft, co-founding the Singapore Association of Writers in 1970 and serving as its president, and then honorary president, for over 20 years. 

Dr Arthur Yap (Arts ’65)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 1983

Dr Yap’s first poems were written during his time at St Andrew’s School, when they were published in the school magazine. He continued writing while at the University and published his first collection of poems, Only Lines, in 1971. It won him the National Book Development Council of Singapore’s Book Award (Poetry) in 1976. Three years later, Dr Yap joined NUS as a lecturer, a post he would hold until 1998. Poems were not Dr Yap’s only medium of expression: he also painted extensively, holding seven solo exhibitions during his lifetime. He passed on in 2006.
Dr Lee Tzu Pheng, recipient of the NUS Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 2021.

Dr Lee Tzu Pheng (Arts ’68)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 1985

Many might have read Dr Lee’s words without knowing they were hers: in 1995, she penned the lyrics to that year’s National Day theme song, ‘My People, My Home’, which has been sung by scores of students since. But it was for her poetry collections that Dr Lee received the Cultural Medallion in 1985. Her first anthology, Prospect of a Drowning, published in 1980, features poems that were written while she was at the University. During that time, her works explored the identity of newly-independent Singapore, with some of these works later selected as texts for literature examinations. 

Dr Lee received the NUS Distinguished Arts and Social Sciences Alumni Award in 2018 and the NUS Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 2021.

Mr Isa Kamari (Design and Environment ’85)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 2007

In 2007, Mr Kamari became the first non-full-time artist to receive the Cultural Medallion. He was honoured for his contributions to the Malay literary scene, which he has enriched with his works that include novels, short stories, poems and essays. Mr Kamari also dabbles in music and has crafted scripts for television and theatre.

Ms Tham Yew Chin (You Jun) (Arts and Social Sciences ’72)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 2009

Ms Tham is one of the best-known Singaporean writers in China, having penned more than 200 books, among them travelogues, essays, short story collections and novels. Her travelogues are especially popular in China, as they tell of her trips through countries in South America, the Middle East and Europe. She continues to write regularly and contributes articles to Chinese broadsheets in Singapore. 

Mr Suratman Markasan (Arts and Social Sciences ’71) 

Received the Cultural Medallion in 2010

Mr Markasan is one of Singapore’s Malay-language literary pioneers and has found international fans through poetry recitals in Osaka, London and Paris. Besides poems, Mr Markasan also pens magazine articles, short stories and essays. These have resonated with the wider community, and he holds the distinction of being the first Singapore writer to write for Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (the Malaysian Language and Literature Agency).
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Mrs Joanna Wong (Science ’62)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 1981
An early visit to the Chinese opera cemented Mrs Wong’s passion for the art form and she has since spent her life developing and honing her craft. Encouraged by her husband, Mrs Wong began performing professionally in a Singapore opera troupe in 1967. There were also informal Cantonese opera performances, which grew her reputation as a strong and dynamic performer, one especially able to take on the roles of warrior princesses. 

Mrs Wong received the NUS Distinguished Science Alumni Award in 2014 and the NUS Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 2015.

Dr Max Le Blond (Arts and Social Sciences ’72)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 1981

Singaporean stories and Singaporeans on stage: that was the bold vision Dr Max Le Blond put forth in the local theatre scene. Guided by this, he created and developed a Singapore theatre scene that prominently showcased Singaporean identities and characters in locally-written plays and adaptations. His efforts encouraged other theatre practitioners to embrace their Singapore identities and inspired the formation of English-language theatre companies such as ACT3 and The Necessary Stage.

Mr Ong Keng Sen (Law ’88) 

Received the Cultural Medallion in 2003

As the critically-acclaimed artistic director of local theatre company TheatreWorks, Mr Ong is best known for staging Shakespeare-inspired works. He is also renowned for his work with arts festivals and in the early 2000s, became the first Asian to be appointed to curate In-Transit, the Berlin international arts festival. In 2013, he was appointed the festival director of the Singapore Arts Festival (later known as Singapore International Festival of Arts) to revamp it, a position he held until 2017.

Mr Thirunalan Sasitharan (Arts and Social Sciences ’82) 

Received the Cultural Medallion in 2012

Although he had developed a lifelong passion for theatre in secondary school, Mr Sasitharan never intended it to be his career. Instead, he taught philosophy at the University and went on to become a reporter with The Straits Times. It was after a short stint as the artistic director of The Substation, that he co-founded a theatre school to teach people how to act in a multilingual, multicultural and interdisciplinary fashion. Rebranded as the Intercultural Theatre Institute, it has since trained artists from Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Mexico and even Poland. 

Mr Ivan Heng (Law ’88)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 2013

The flamboyant and larger-than-life characters and storylines of Wild Rice productions have won fans across Singapore and the region. Its founder, Mr Heng, has been a fixture in the local arts scene for three decades and is best known for being the first male actor to portray Nonya matriarch Emily Gan in Emily of Emerald Hill, a role he has performed more than 100 times. Besides Wild Rice, he has also founded other theatre initiatives such as the Singapore Theatre Festival and served as the creative director of the National Day Parade 2009.

Mr Haresh Sharma (Arts and Social Sciences ’90)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 2014

Mr Sharma is the resident playwright of The Necessary Stage and has penned over 100 plays. These have been staged both at home and abroad, in cities like Berlin, Busan and Melbourne. During his University days, Mr Sharma became an early member of The Necessary Stage. He started writing plays for them in 1988 after initially acting and handling publicity and backstage production. He continues to give back to the local theatre community by teaching at the NUS Theatre Studies department and running theatre workshops for students.

Mr Alvin Tan (Arts and Social Sciences ’88)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 2014

Mr Tan is one of Singapore’s most prolific theatre directors and arts educators, and the founder and artistic director of The Necessary Stage. Since its founding, Mr Tan has led the company to be one of Singapore’s leading theatre companies, that cherishes its Singaporean identity and pays homage to our language and concerns. In his career, Mr Tan has directed over 100 original Singaporean plays, many of which are critically acclaimed.
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Mr Tan Swie Hian (Arts ’68)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 1987

Described by TIME as Singapore’s “renaissance man”, Mr Tan’s art stretches across a variety of mediums including, but not limited to, painting, sculpture, Chinese calligraphy, printmaking, seal-carving and even dramatic performances. Regardless of medium, his works often effortlessly blend Eastern and Western philosophy. Over the years, Mr Tan has published 25 collections of poetry, essays and fiction, and has also translated books by English and Indian authors into Chinese. 

Prof Tan Siah Kwee (Arts and Social Sciences ’72)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 2000 

The gentle art form of calligraphy has a champion in Prof Tan, who was introduced to it as a student. He credits calligraphy for teaching him the values of patience and hard work — and he spreads these through the Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore, the nation’s primary organisation for the art form. He has worked tirelessly and is renowned for his public calligraphy demonstrations and workshops, both at home and abroad. In 2006, he became the first overseas recipient of China’s Special Honour Award for Contribution to Chinese Calligraphy (China Calligraphers’ Association).

Mr Ho Ho Ying (Arts ’63)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 2012

Mr Ho is a prominent pioneer of modern art in Singapore, having co-founded the Modern Art Society Singapore in 1964. He often draws inspiration from Chinese culture, calligraphy and philosophy. Also a scholar of Chinese language and literature, Mr Ho has authored numerous books and short stories, and has contributed to the growing field of critical artistic discourse in Singapore.
Mr Chong Fah Cheong (right) receiving his NUS Distinguished Arts and Social Sciences Alumni Award in 2016 from then-NUS President Prof Tan Chorh Chuan (Medicine ’83).

Mr Chong Fah Cheong (Arts and Social Sciences ’71)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 2014

Mr Chong is a self-taught sculptor who is locally and internationally recognised for his iconic creations. Among his public works, he is most famous for First Generation, a bronze sculpture depicting a group of boys jumping into the Singapore River near the Fullerton Hotel. His works explore society and social issues, addressing concepts and themes about social class, power and wealth.

Mr Chong received the NUS Distinguished Arts and Social Sciences Alumni Award in 2016.
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Mr Goh Choo San (Science ’70)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 1986

Mr Goh served as the resident choreographer and associate artistic director of the Washington Ballet, where he was a major in ballet composition and performance. He received global recognition for his works that were characterised by sensitive, elegant interpretations, strong athleticism and incorporation of Asian elements. He showed an early passion for ballet and wanted to follow in the footsteps of his three older siblings, who were already professional ballet dancers. But his father insisted that he first complete a university education. After graduating from the University, Mr Goh went to Europe to begin his illustrious but short-lived career. Mr Goh passed on in 1987, just a year shy of his 40th birthday.
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Dr Choo Hoey (Doctor of Letters (Honorary) '89)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 1979 

Singapore’s music scene has forever changed because of Dr Choo, who founded the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) in 1979 and served as its first resident conductor and music director. He first encountered classical music at an early age, while listening to his father’s vast record collection. That childhood love turned into a lifelong passion and Dr Choo built up the SSO into a regional powerhouse. In 1996, he stepped down as its music director and assumed the role of conductor emeritus.  

Ms Jennifer Tham (Arts and Social Sciences ’85)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 2012

Ms Tham has been the conductor of the Singapore Youth Choir since 1986. In this time, she has been actively involved in educating young musicians and local audiences on contemporary choral music. She also uses choral music to foster deeper cultural exchanges between countries and does so in her capacity as an elected board member of the International Federation for Choral Music. Hundreds of budding artists who have learnt from Ms Tham have been inspired to pursue professional careers in the arts and music.

Dr Liang Wern Fook (Arts and Social Sciences ’88)

Received the Cultural Medallion in 2016

Dr Liang has contributed extensively to Singapore’s xinyao (local folk songs) movement. His love for music was sparked at a young age, when he heard a neighbour playing the piano. He then begged his father for piano and music lessons. Armed with these, he wrote songs and music while at the University and released his first album in 1986. He continues to pen pop songs for Mandopop heavyweights like Stefanie Sun, Jacky Cheung and Andy Lau.



The Cultural Medallion was instituted in 1979 by former Singapore President and then- Minister of Culture, Mr Ong Teng Cheong. 

It is Singapore’s highest arts accolade, honouring individuals whose artistic excellence, contribution and commitment have enriched and distinguished Singapore’s arts and culture scene.

To date, there have been 130 Cultural Medallion recipients.

Each Cultural Medallion recipient will have access to funds of up to $80,000 to support their continuous artistic pursuits and help them make a positive impact on Singapore’s artistic and cultural development.

Source: National Arts Council

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