She moved to Singapore when she was 18 and majored in sociology at the National University of Singapore.
After graduating, she landed a job as a television researcher, but gave it up after three months to join the National Museum in the early 1990s, taking a 20 per cent pay cut.
Her friends were perplexed at her decision to give up an "exciting career in the media" for the quiet museum scene, which she joined even before the National Heritage Board came into existence in 1993.
Ms Tan, who is married with no children, went on to spend 18 years with ACM and five years with NLB, putting together exhibitions ranging from Islamic calligraphy to the NLB's ongoing Tales Of The Malay World: Manuscripts And Early Books, which brings together rare, ancient Malay manuscripts from collections around the world.
She has travelled through rural Malaysia documenting village pottery and slept under the stars in western Turkey while on a trip to commission carpets.
Curation, she says, goes beyond the mere selection of objects. "You have to imagine how they react to other objects in space. It's not just a supermarket display. Placement can make or break the story."
One of the toughest exhibitions she helmed was Serenity In Stone: The Qingzhou Discovery in 2009, which featured 6th-century Buddhist figures from Qingzhou, China.
Its centrepieces were some 3m-high stone stelae, which arrived in parts weighing half a tonne each and had to be stacked onsite by hand-cranked pulleys because the gallery could not admit a lifting machine. Ms Tan, "sweating like crazy" from nerves, oversaw the operation under the tense gaze of museum representatives from China.
While most exhibitions take a few years to put together, she once spent 10 years negotiating with Turkish museums to bring the treasures of the Ottoman Sultans to the ACM for the first time.
She moved to NLB five years ago, drawn in part by the new opportunities to engage with visitors - opening up its rare collection of 15,000 books and artefacts, for instance.
"At the library, we encourage you to come and use the collection. You can't do that in the museum."
Her goals include the continued digitisation of the library's resources, to make them accessible to the public.
"Learning should not stop after you leave the library," she adds.
When the job gets difficult and dirty
Clarissa Chikiamco, 34
National Gallery Singapore