Cross Talk with Iskandar Jalil and Royston Tan

Potter Iskandar Jalil and film-maker Royston Tan talk about their bond as mentor-protege and artists

In the sixth and last instalment of Cross Talk, a fortnightly series where two major figures in the arts have a chat with The Straits Times, potter Iskandar Jalil and film-maker Royston Tan talk about their bond as mentor-protege and artists

As master potter Iskandar Jalil sat at home in mid-October recounting to The Straits Times his near-death experience on a recent holiday to Switzerland - he trekked a mountain without allowing his body to acclimatise - his former student, film-maker Royston Tan, stood outside the house for about 15 minutes, mustering the courage to enter.

When Tan finally made his way in, he confessed his jitters aloud, then leaned in to give the teacher he holds in fearsome regard a polite hug.

"You smoke?" asked the 75-year-old potter, picking up on the smell of cigarettes trailing Tan.

Cue a second confession from Tan; he took a few puffs at the door.

That one thing he said hit me very hard. ‘You don’t understand, you don’t respect the material.’ I had worked really hard,what did I not understand? It took me a while to think it through, but what he said, ‘Go understand the nature of the clay’, spurred me on. ’’

ROYSTON TAN on being a rebel at Iskandar Jalil’s pottery classes

"If you were still in school, you know what I would do," said Iskandar. He is married to a retired teacher and they have a son and daughter and two grandchildren.

I remember you asked me to do the opening. And I told you: ‘If I see any imitation of Eric Khoo, I’d murder you and walk off.’ Luckily, there was not a single resemblance to Khoo’s work. That is very important. He has to develop his own voice, find his strengths and his weaknesses. ’’

ISKANDAR JALIL on Royston Tan’s first solo showcase of three films in 2001

Tan, 39, who is single, responded meekly by squirting his mouth with a breath freshener.

They entered each other's lives in 1993 at Temasek Polytechnic's School of Design. The strict lecturer, who held himself to high artistic standards, left a lasting impression on the rebellious teenager.

Over the years, their relationship has matured into a mentor-protege bond where "the connection is unspoken", says Tan, even though they do not meet often.

Their rapport was palpable during the hour-long chat with The Straits Times. They opened up about their teacher-student relationship to show, rather than tell, what a life of mentorship and artistic pursuit looks like. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.

The Straits Times: What were your first impressions of each other?

Iskandar: When he came in with the others, they were all students, I had no impression of anyone. After two or three projects, I became aware that he is good in doing work that has a feminine part to it, work that entails weaving, stitching, using of fibres. That's why he now deals with people who are fragile and susceptible to whims and fancies.

Tan: I was very scared of him, he was very strict. That's the kind of respect I have for him even now. Usually, my hands don't get sweaty at interviews because I've done them so many times; I don't get nervous. But now, my hands are sweaty. (Laughs)

But the "terror" lecturer who traumatised my life taught me some of the most important lessons. One of them was to be honest with the material. I remember, for one of our special projects, I did a horrendous sculpture that looks like a (department store) window display.

  • Career milestones


    1940: Born in Singapore

    1962: Graduated from Teacher's Training College specialising in mathematics and science

    1966: Received a Colombo Plan scholarship to study textile weaving and spinning in India

    1972: Received a Colombo Plan scholarship to study ceramics engineering at the Pottery Design and Technical Centre in Tajimi City, Japan

    1973 to 2000: Taught art at the Baharuddin Vocational Institute, which later formed Temasek Polytechnic's School of Design

    1988: Received the Cultural Medallion award

    2015: Conferred the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette by the Japanese government for contributions to cultural exchange between Japan and Singapore


    1976: Born in Singapore

    1997: Graduated with diploma in visual communications from Temasek Polytechnic

    2000: Released his short film Sons, which won Best Short Film at the 13th Singapore International Film Festival and the Silver Award at the 23rd Tokyo Film Festival

    2002: Received the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award

    2003: His first feature film, 15, a critically acclaimed work on Singapore's troubled youths, won accolades at film festivals in Venice, Toronto, London, Los Angeles and Vancouver

    2007: His feature film, 881, about Singapore's getai scene, was the country's first movie to hit the $2-million mark

    2015: Spearheaded 7 Letters, a compendium of short films by seven Singapore directors, which was released to critical and popular acclaim and is Singapore's entry for the Oscars' Best Foreign Language Film category

Iskandar: Using fibres, I still remember. The (project was to use any of the) materials that I taught them - clay, plaster of paris, wood, metal, fibres. Very few people chose to work with fibres because it is a difficult material. He did, but I said: "No, I won't accept it", because he didn't know the characteristics of fibre, how to use it to its maximum. So he redid it.

ST: Did Iskandar reject other works you submitted?

Tan: The pottery projects that I did, he threw them away. He said: "Raku clay is supposed to be rough. How can you go and smoothen the whole thing?"

Iskandar: You should respect the material. He did not know that so when he did it, it didn't look like clay, it looked like a piece of wood or metal, which defeats the purpose of using that material. So that's the end of it, it goes through the door, from the fourth floor to the ground floor.

Tan: My tears came down in slow motion. (Laughs)

ST: But you redid it?

Tan: Firstly, it was anger. I dared to tell Mr Iskandar a very rude thing. "Today you throw my pot, but you just wait, in a few days' time, I might throw you down the fourth floor." I was very rebellious and naughty.

But that one thing he said hit me very hard. "You don't understand, you don't respect the material."

I had worked really hard, what did I not understand? It took me a while to think it through, but what he said, "Go understand the nature of the clay", spurred me on.

ST: You cared so much about the work?

Tan: My lecturer is someone we held in very high regard. We wanted to get into his good books. I've been waiting for 21 years to share this. When I did my final sculpture project, he told me: "I deliberately destroyed you emotionally, mentally as a person to see how badly you want to continue your craft." That statement really changed me.

Iskandar: I show no favour towards anyone. If you are good, I'll be stricter because I must bring out in you what you can do. The ones who are very weak, I will guide and help.

Tan: But the most valuable lesson he taught me was how to live as a person.

Iskandar: Whatever I do, I know I'll be observed by my students so that's my approach to teaching. I don't try to make them learn; I guide them and let them see what I do. When I do pottery on the wheel, I criticise my work to the extent that I will squash my work after making it. The important thing is you must do well yourself, you must be cruel to yourself.

Teaching is not about imparting knowledge, it's about whether you can "open" the students' brains and make them think. Most of them are used to being spoon-fed, that's not good. The only way to make them open up their minds, their thinking, their feelings, their approach to the subject is to "bash" their head and I'm not afraid to do that. My motorcycle tires were punctured but I was not the least worried.

ST: Your motorcycle tires were punctured by students who couldn't take your criticism?

Tan: (Nods silently)

Iskandar: I think so. They got very angry with me. But a student who has good behaviour and does all the homework, I don't think such a student is necessarily good. I like the rebellious ones who show their character. He was one of the rebels.

ST: How was Royston a rebel?

Iskandar: He rebelled in the language he used. He would turn around and talk to the wall, that's how he expressed his anger. But he wasn't afraid of me, he would ask me directly, "Mr Iskandar, why did you throw away my thing?" so I had to explain and he would redo it.

I was very proud when he received the Young Artist Award. It was held at the Istana and he invited me. Now he has to get the Cultural Medallion.

ST: Have you always kept in touch?

Tan: I have a certain fear of Mr Iskandar, I'm always scared he's going to scold me so I don't dare to meet him. I hear about him on and off from my classmates. Even at his exhibitions, I'll stay in a corner, look, then disappear.

But I really wanted him to be the guest-of-honour for my first solo showcase of three films in 2001 at The Substation. I told him: "You're a very important person in my life. Please be there for me. If you're not there, the whole thing wouldn't be complete."

Iskandar: I remember you asked me to do the opening. And I told you: "If I see any imitation of Eric Khoo, I'd murder you and walk off." Luckily, there was not a single resemblance to Khoo's work. That is very important. He has to develop his own voice, find his strengths and his weaknesses. No one should teach or tell you, or influence you in your approach to your work.

Tan: Like he says, I have to find my journey. That's why all this while, I've been going on my own and not really contacting him because I'm still searching for myself. There are different "train stops" in life and I felt I hadn't reached that stop yet where I can present a whole chunk of work and ask, "Mr Iskandar, this is my work. Have I grown? What do you think, give me your critique." But this interview pushes me to reach that station.

ST: Are your creative processes as a potter and a film-maker alike?

Iskandar: I think we share similarities. Whether it is pottery or filming, the criteria is the same. You are dealing not with the machine, not with the people in front of you, you are dealing with yourself.

Tan: The creative journey is the same. Mr Iskandar would make us observe and describe something in detail. For example, he would ask us to look at a tree and describe the texture, the movement, the feeling. He taught me to have a keen, detailed sense of observation, which I continue to rely on for my work.

Iskandar: But for him, it's harder. He has to teach his actors whereas I just have to show my piece and it will speak to the audience. He is dealing with human beings, mine is an inanimate object which I can control. If you can have just one or two characters in your film, my goodness, that'd be very good. Very few people can do it. Try to achieve that.

Tan: Incidentally, my next film has just two characters.

Iskandar: Ah, that's beautiful. If you do it well, others will open their eyes.

Tan: Would you be the guest-of- honour then?

Iskandar: If I'm still alive. My health is not very good, but I will be there.

ST: Royston, will your relationship with Iskandar influence you as a mentor in the Education Ministry's mentorship programme that matches professionals from various industries with schools and students?

Tan: One of the most important things for me is to be what Mr Iskandar taught me. He didn't try to be somebody else, he was himself. I'm a little bit quirky. I want to show students the world as I see it and I hope that will trigger them to find their own view of things. It's not a matter of spoon-feeding them or telling them to do what the school wants them to do but to find themselves. That's what a true mentor should do.

(To Iskandar) How can I be a good mentor to the students?

Iskandar: I think it's very simple. Mentor yourself. Have a high standard for yourself. Project yourself and what you want so that they can discern it. If you just tell them this and that, you will get nothing. If you want them to be very strict with their work, you have to be very strict with your work. All the best to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2015, with the headline 'Unspoken mentor- student bond'. Print Edition | Subscribe