Award-winning potter Iskandar Jalil is the first Singaporean artist to receive a prestigious award from the Japanese emperor.
He was conferred The Order of the Rising Sun (Gold Rays with Rosette) "in recognition of his significant contributions towards the cultural exchange and mutual understanding through the pottery between Japan and Singapore", the Embassy of Japan said in a statement recently.
The conferment ceremony will be held soon.
"I receive this award on behalf of all Singaporeans. I am very grateful to the Japanese government, as well as to all my students and good friends, for example, the Gifu Prefecture government (where he first studied pottery) and all Japanese people," says the 76-year-old, whose works are displayed around the island including Tanjong Pagar MRT and Changi Airport Terminal 2.
He honed his craft at Tajimi City Pottery Design and Technical Centre in Japan as a Colombo Plan scholar in 1972. Since 1992, when he was a lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic, he has been taking his students to various places in Japan almost every year to learn from potters there.
Iskandar has a great respect for Japan and its culture. He says: "The Japanese have a culture that is much to be desired. It's the people that gives the culture and they somehow have it as a priority in their lives to maintain it - parents will teach their children how to bow, how to say thank you.
"It is a very unique culture and they work very hard. We should admire and learn from them."
Iskandar's Japanese foster parents, who are in their 90s and looked after him during the year he lived with them while he was studying, called him to congratulate him on receiving the award. He and his foster parents have remained close over the years and they hope to attend the ceremony here.
The award has been given to 12 Singaporeans since 1967, including former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh and former Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar.
"I feel very proud that I'm getting the same award as well-known personalities such as Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Being brought up to the same stature, I feel very awkward, because I'm just an ordinary potter," says Iskandar, who last year received the Japanese Foreign Minister's Commendation Award for his "distinguished contribution to introducing Japanese culture, and promoting the friendship between Japan and Singapore".
Diagnosed with prostate cancer last January, the 1988 Cultural Medallion recipient visits the hospital every two to three months for blood tests and to check if the cancer cells are spreading. He is recovering from an operation to remove cataracts in March.
A retrospective exhibition of his works to be held next November will probably be his last, he says. His hope is that the exhibition, which compiles his pottery works and writings, will tell people that "it takes time to develop a culture, especially in pottery, which is not part of our culture".