This year's Cultural Medallions go to artist Koh Mun Hong and singer Nona Asiah

Here are this year's recipients of the Cultural Medallion and Young Artist Award, which recognise individuals who have contributed to the development of Singapore's cultural landscape.

Pursuing art from age 38

KOH MUN HONG, 64


Chinese calligrapher and ink painter Koh Mun Hong quit his job at a bank in 1989 to become a full-time artist. PHOTO: NATIONAL ARTS COUNCIL

Achievements: An accomplished Chinese calligrapher and ink painter who also composes classical poetry, he did not receive formal training in an art school. He was largely self-taught and mentored by late prominent Singapore calligrapher and poet Pan Shou.

It was the death of a beloved teacher that set Koh Mun Hong's mind on becoming a full-time artist.

He recalls clearly the moment in 1976, at the funeral of Mr Chen Jen Hao, a former principal of Dunman Government Chinese Middle School (now Dunman High School), where he was a student.

 

He had gone to pay his respects, as did his former art teacher at the school, pioneer Singapore artist Liu Kang.

He says in Mandarin: "Liu Kang took my hands in his and told me, 'If you want to be an artist, you should do it while you are still young. Don't wait.'"

The late Mr Chen, who studied art in Shanghai and Paris, was skilled in Chinese calligraphy and an inspiration to younger artists. But instead of becoming one himself, he spent much of his life as an educator.

Koh says: "I had wanted to be an artist since I was young, but I made up my mind then to do it."

The youngest of six children born to a small-time businessman and a housewife says his mother was the one who supported his interest in art and nature. She encouraged him to draw and would scrounge for empty tin cans so he could grow the wild plants and flowers he brought home.

His first brush with Chinese calligraphy was in secondary school as a member of the calligraphy club. His imagination was immediately seized, he says, by the "magical feeling" of wielding a brush and using it to express beauty.

After finishing national service, he worked as an administrative executive at a bank in the day and pursued calligraphy at night, teaching himself by reading books.

He considered enrolling in an art school, but decided that he preferred the freedom of learning on his own to following a structured curriculum.

He credits the late calligrapher Pan Shou, whom he met through a mutual friend, as an important mentor.

He says: "I learnt a lot by watching him write Chinese calligraphy and from our conversations about poetry. His poems have such a dignified air, they leave you deeply inspired."

It was not until 1989, however, when he had enough savings, that he left his job as a bank administrative manager to become a full-time artist.

The bachelor says: "I set myself a deadline to quit by 1989, when I was 38 years old and still had the energy to devote myself to art."

He adds: "Four years before I was going to leave, I told my boss and colleagues about my plan, but they thought I was joking. When they finally realised I was serious, they sat me down and did the sums to show me why I should not give up my job."

 

To supplement his income, he teaches at a community centre, as well as at his Housing Board flat in Marine Parade.

He also sells his calligraphy and paintings through group exhibitions organised by the Siaw-Tao Chinese Seal-Carving, Calligraphy and Painting Society, which he is a member of.

He says he is happy to be conferred the Cultural Medallion award and receive recognition for his hard work and contribution to the arts. He has not yet, however, made plans on how he might use the $80,000 fund he has access to.

For him, a life lived without regrets, in pursuit of his love of art, has been a rich one.

He says he was so inspired to see the lovely moonlight scene described by Tang poet Du Fu in a poem that he once woke up at 4am to try and catch the view.

"What a beautiful sight it was," he says, adding: "I believe that if I enjoy something, but I don't do it, I will have regrets."


Performing for the Japanese during WWII

NONA ASIAH, 86


Nona Asiah's first performance was in a forest near the Seletar army base for Japanese soldiers during the Occupation. PHOTO: NATIONAL ARTS COUNCIL

Achievements: An icon of Malay music and films in the 1950s and 1960s, she was heard across Malaya and Singapore as a popular radio host and a voice-over singer for many Malay films. After she retired from the limelight in the 1970s, she continued to be a vocal instructor, coaching young entertainers and stars in singing.

Nona Asiah began her singing career as a teenager who came of age during World War II in a Singapore under Japanese Occupation.

Her first performance was on a makeshift stage in a forest near Seletar army base, where she sang Malay and Japanese songs, along with other members of her mother's Malay opera troupe, to an audience of Japanese soldiers.

She says: "At that time, I was a teenager. I was just happy that people clapped after we sang. They also gave us cigarettes, rice and food."

While her break into the music scene was not during the best of times, it set her on a career that went from strength to strength.

After the war, she honed her vocal chops with famed Singapore musician and composer Zubir Said, a friend of her mother. Her father was a painter.

She also began singing on Radio Malaya with a trio of musicians and another singer, Ismail Kassim, who would later become her husband. They performed Indonesian songs and Malay covers of foreignlanguage hits such as Mexican ballad Besame Mucho, which made them popular with listeners across Malaya and became a weekly feature on air.

Soon, British entertainment company HMV came knocking, offering them a contract to record Malay songs. By 19, she had made more than 20 song recordings.

With her growing fame, Zubir suggested she take on the stage name Nona Asiah. She still goes by that name today, even after retiring from the limelight. Her given name is Asiah Aman.

Her career received another boost when Zubir roped her in to be a voice-over singer for the film Chinta (1948), which he was music directing. The film was headlined by top stars Siput Sarawak and S. Roomai Noor. She sang the female part, while P. Ramlee, who would go on to become a legendary actor and director, sang the male part.

She became a voice-over singer for other Malay films made in Singapore, including those by Ramlee. The song recordings from these films sold well enough that they spawned concert performances in the region.

Of the many songs she has sung, her favourites remain those composed by Zubir, including Cempaka Biru.

"I like his compositions. His lyrics have deep meaning," she says.

After juggling her career and family of five children for more than two decades, she decided to retire from the stage in 1975. "I had enough, I wanted to spend more time with my children," she says.

Two of her children are well known in the music industry. Her eldest son, Iskandar Ismail, was an award-winning composer and musician and a Cultural Medallion recipient. He died of lung and brain cancer at age 58 in 2014.

Her youngest son, Indra, 50, is an established music producer and director.

After she stepped away from the limelight, she continued to conduct singing and performance workshops for children in the 1980s and 1990s. Her proteges include famed Malay entertainer Najip Ali and television presenter Rilla Melati.

On being conferred the Cultural Medallion, she says: "It should have happened 10 years ago. I'm too old to receive this now."

Still, she cannot hide her excitement. At the interview with The Straits Times, she beams with pride as she shows off the baju kurung she will wear to the ceremony tonight, which she designed and sewed.

She says: "I never expected I would get the award. I thought I had finished achieving everything as a singer and teacher."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2016, with the headline 'Masters of the arts'. Print Edition | Subscribe