Oil paintings of Mr Lee Kuan Yew go on display at exhibition at Suntec City

SINGAPORE - A PHOTO of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew shaking hands with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping inspired a retiree to amass more than 300 oil paintings depicting significant moments in Singapore's history.

The collection, which includes 80 specially-commissioned portraits of Mr Lee that chart his life from boyhood to elder statesman, are now on exhibition.

All the paintings were commissioned by Mr Vincent Chua, 71, an insurance professional who retired in 2000.

He assembled the collection over six years, after chancing upon an old black-and-white photo of Mr Lee and Mr Deng in 2007. The photo was taken in November 1978, when the then-Senior Vice-Premier of China made his first and only official visit to Singapore.

In his memoirs, Mr Lee remembered the Chinese leader being impressed by Singapore's transformation.

A month after the visit, Mr Deng embarked on landmark economic reforms to open China up to the world, which ushered in more than 30 years of rapid economic growth for China.

Seeing the photo of "two great men, shaking hands and changing history", inspired Mr Chua to record episodes of "real significance that people should know about", said the founding president of the Life Underwriters Association, the precursor of today's Insurance and Financial Practitioners Association of Singapore.

After commissioning a painting of that photo, Mr Chua dug through archives and old books for iconic photos of Mr Lee, Singapore's other founding fathers and local buildings and street scenes over the decades.

The photos, which include a group shot of the 1959 Cabinet and snapshots of landmarks such as the old National Theatre, were then turned into paintings with the help of a pool of artists.

Mr Chua estimates that his art collection, which also includes a bronze sculpture of the meeting between Mr Deng and Mr Lee, cost just under $2 million.

The running of the exhibition is partly funded by the SG50 Celebration Fund, which offers up to $50,000 for each approved project commemorating Singapore's 50th birthday and is administered by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

An MCCY spokesman said the exhibition showed the potential of reaching out to Singaporeans, especially the younger generation, to appreciate Singapore's heritage through the medium of art.

While the exhibition was originally planned for August, Mr Chua said he brought it forward so Singaporeans have another chance to pay their respects to Mr Lee, who died on March 23.

"This is a memorial for us to pay tribute and to honour Mr Lee Kuan Yew's legacy, while at the same time reflecting on where we come from," he said.

The free public exhibition at The Crescent, on level 2 of Suntec City Mall, opened today and will run till June 30.

yanliang@sph.com.sg