Cultural Medallion recipients: Arts' highest honour

Rahimah Rahim has been entertaining since she was six

The Cultural Medallion is conferred by the President on individuals who have contributed significantly to the arts and culture of Singapore. The award, which is administered by the National Arts Council and regarded as the highest arts honour in the country, comes with a trophy and access to the Cultural Medallion Fund for funding of up to $80,000.

The Cultural Medallion is conferred by the President on individuals who have contributed significantly to the arts and culture of Singapore. The award, which is administered by the National Arts Council and regarded as the highest arts honour in the country, comes with a trophy and access to the Cultural Medallion Fund for funding of up to $80,000.

Midway through the interview, Rahimah Rahim declares matter-of-factly: "I'm not a fantastic singer."

Fans of the 66-year-old, who has recorded more than a dozen hit albums, would beg to differ. But the Cultural Medallion recipient explains that she sees herself more as an entertainer than a singer. "I love to entertain because I feel closer to people. I feel like it's a customer service."

Rahimah was born into entertainment. Her father Rahim Hamid was nicknamed the Nat King Cole of Singapore and was a popular club act in the 1950s and 1960s. Her mother was award-winning actress Mariam Baharum, who starred in movies during the Malay Film Productions studio's heyday in the 1950s.

At the age of six, Rahimah was cast alongside her father in the film Korban Kasih. She recalls being fed lines by the adults since she could not read the script.

The affable entertainer, whose speech is peppered easily with Hokkien and Mandarin words, says: "I don't remember my childhood, playing like other children play goli (Hokkien for marbles). My schedule was school, then straight after school, studio."

Fans who watched her grow up in films and the early days of Singapore television, including the hit 1960s Malay sitcom Pak Awang Temberang (Mr Awang's Antics), gave her the affectionate nickname of Kak Gerl.

Show business is just another trade for Rahimah, who lives in a Housing Board flat in Bishan and is happy to take public transport. Asked what she thinks is her signature as an entertainer, she chortles: "My turbans, my spectacles, my humour, my nonsense."

Her love of entertainment is evident when she talks about her early career. As a teenager, she accompanied her father to his gigs at Orchard Road's best hotels like Ming Court and sang with him.

Later, when she began performing solo, she would dash from her sets to catch other performers at venues such as the Pink Pussycat and Barbarella. "You could see Halil Chik, the Tom Jones of Singapore, you could see the life in Orchard Road. We had really good live singers."

She recalls laughingly that everyone in the business knew she was Rahim Hamid's daughter, so they would tell her parents if she was spotted in places other than the nightspots she was supposed to be working at.

She perks up when talking about concerts she has seen, fondly recalling how she drove to Las Vegas with friends to watch Diana Ross - "effortless lah, that woman, beautiful" - and marvelling at the memory of the flamboyant Roman Tam in concert in Hong Kong - "got one big fan, so drama".

Nowadays, she enjoys going to Esplanade's Concourse to see new performers. She adds wistfully: "I miss live shows."

She does not seem to miss working in entertainment, however. At the peak of her career in 1989, she quit show business. Her 11-year marriage to national football hero Mohamed Noh Hussein had ended in divorce and she went on the haj pilgrimage.

"I was soul-searching and taking care of my daughter because she wasn't doing very well. I thought there was something I did wrong. I don't want to blame people," she says.

Her faith helped settle her and she found a way to balance her personal beliefs with her public persona. Instead of the hijab, she wore turbans. She is unapologetic about who she is. "I'm spiritual. I'm a Muslim. This is me."

She remarried in 1994 to Mr Remy Taib, who worked in securities, and has another daughter with him. Of stepping away from the spotlight, she says firmly: "I have no regrets."

She is happy to be a retiree, adding mischievously: "My CPF enough already."

She sees much of her work now as a way of giving back to society. She has taken on projects such as producing senior-friendly content for VintageRadio.SG and working on public service announcements like the Vaccinate Already? song and video.

She says of the Cultural Medallion honour: "I feel proud. It's an achievement and I'm being recognised for all my years in this line."

She adds, looking skywards in a moment of seriousness: "This is for my parents. I get it from you."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2021, with the headline 'Rahimah Rahim has been entertaining since she was six'. Subscribe