The Patron of Heritage awards celebrate those who give back to the museums

The Patron of Heritage awards honour those who gave a total of $8.5 million last year to help the arts, culture and heritage

Sixty-nine heritage heroes receive the National Heritage Board's annual Patron of Heritage awards today. These are a celebration of individuals, corporations and organisations which donate generously - in cash and in kind - to help the arts, culture and heritage thrive.

Last year, their contributions amounted to more than $8.5 million. This included $4.4 million in cash and $4.1 million in-kind or as artefact donations.

The figures have dropped from 2013, when contributions totalled $20.54 million and a record number of 108 patrons were honoured.

In its response, the board says that last year, it introduced the new Supporter category, which recognises gifts valued between $10,000 and $50,000. The previous minimum donation criteria was $50,000 and above. This new category was one reason for the record number of patrons honoured from 2013.

It adds that "donations and loans fluctuate on a yearly basis due to situational factors".

For instance, it did not receive any loans of objects last year, which could have contributed to the decrease in the total value of contributions.

However, there is cause for cheer in that this year, there are 36 new donors, pointing to more individuals coming forward to support heritage causes. Of the 69 recipients of the awards this year, 37 are organisations and 32 individuals.

Only one donor, Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, will receive the Distinguished Patron award for contributions of $2 million and above.

The temple in Waterloo Street is a long-time supporter of arts and heritage causes. It is recognised for its cash donation to the Asian Civilisations Museum and The Peranakan Museum.

The heritage board adds that these generous gifts have enabled it to strengthen the exhibition offerings, outreach initiatives and programmes at its seven museums and heritage centres.

The donations have also contributed to the building up of Singapore's national collection and museum and heritage capabilities, all of which the heritage board says has "greater meaning as we celebrate Singapore's 50th anniversary this year".

Among those being recognised are long-time donor Ms Agnes Tan, the daughter of prominent Straits Chinese community leader Tun Tan Cheng Lock. She has supported the NUS Museum by donating various objects to the museum's Straits Chinese Collection, including portraits, furniture, porcelain, ceramics and an assortment of domestic utensils and display objects. The NUS Museum is managed by the National University of Singapore.

Banyan Tree Holdings' senior vice-president Claire Chiang is also recognised this year for her cash donation to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, as is Dr Shahzad Nasim, group executive chairman of engineering and consultancy firm Meinhardt, for his cash donation to the Indian Heritage Centre.

Another donor, Mr Hugh Young, managing director of Aberdeen Asset Management Asia Limited, is being recognised for his support to the Founder's Circle. Through this, the National Museum of Singapore aims to cultivate patrons, who are champions for the museum.

Mr Young, 56, tells Life! he decided to get involved because he has loved museums since childhood.

"Growing up in London, I was lucky to be spoilt with museum overload. Museums are such an important part of culture and I think especially important for a relatively young country."

The Briton has lived in Singapore for more than 20 years and says that "it has been great to see museums here start coming to life and bringing that life to the people - no longer the rather stiff places I remember from 50 years ago".

Established in 2006, the Patron of Heritage awards aim to cultivate a pool of supporters for the museums and encourage others to be involved in adding to, treasuring and preserving Singapore's unique heritage.

This year, the impact of the $200-million Cultural Matching Fund, launched by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth in 2012, can be felt.

The Fund provides dollar-for-dollar matching grants for private cash donations to the arts and heritage.

To date, $60 million worth of applications for matching funds have been received.

Says Ms Jane Binks, the heritage board's director of philanthropy: "Such heart-warming response from the community is telling of the heightened passion and interest that Singaporeans have in our arts and culture."

Ronney Tan

It is the first time accountant Ronney Tan has made a donation to a museum.

For this contribution, he is being awarded the Supporter of Heritage given to donors who have contributed between $10,000 and $49,999 in cash or in kind.

Mr Tan, 60, has donated portraits of Tan Beng Chong and Yeo Swee Neo to add to the NUS Museum's study of 19th- and early-20th century portraiture in this region. Tan Beng Chong was one of the founders of the Keng Teck Whay Association, set up in the 19th century by 36 Hokkien Baba merchants as a self-help group for business and family matters, and Yeo Swee Neo was his wife.

He has grown up with both portraits that used to hang in the study of his grandfather's house at Ayer Leleh in Malacca, Malaysia, "for as long as I can remember". Tan Beng Chong (1799-1875) was his great-great-great-grandfather and the pair of portraits were handed down from one generation to the next.

On why he decided to donate them to the museum, Mr Tan said: "There are stories behind these portraits which I think are better for the museum to preserve and present to future generations to enjoy. Also given the weather conditions in Singapore, I feel these rare portraits will deteriorate in future due to high humidity and heat."

Mr Tan says that the date of the paintings is unknown and that they form an indelible part of his memory of his grandfather, a collector who also displayed in his study "the coffin to be used for his future funeral". This was a common practice then.

What is known is that Tan Beng Chong's father, Tan Siang Long, settled in Dutch-occupied Malacca sometime in 1790 after trading as a merchant in Batavia (Indonesia) and Siam (now Thailand).

To a historian, the portraits are significant because they show, as commissioned portraits did during that time, that the family was well-off.

They also lend themselves to a study of portraiture techniques, the fashion of the time and how the subjects posed for studio shots.

Mr Tan, who is married with a son, 26, likes the thought that donating from a family collection is a larger contribution to public knowledge.

He says: "I believe such contributions enrich our understanding of the past. By showcasing these portraits from my family collection, comparison can be made with pictures of similar time periods. New knowledge may evolve from these studies by historians."

Shahzad Nasim

Dressed in a sharp grey suit, Dr Shahzad Nasim, who heads the Meinhardt engineering consultancy group, is totally at home in Singapore.

At the age of 22, he had a choice to study either at Cornell University in the United States or do engineering here. Much to the surprise of his family and friends, he picked Singapore.

"It is one decision I have never regretted," says Dr Nasim, now 65.

Tracking his own migrant's tale and looking at some travellers' tales showcased at the beautifully curated Indian Heritage Centre, he speaks of Singapore fondly as "a country that grows on you".

To open on May 8, the centre in Campbell Lane, opposite the Little India Arcade, is home to more than 440 artefacts which have been acquired, donated or are on loan from individuals or institutions.

Dr Nasim's cash donation has helped in the creation of a Mosque Facade, which is an integral part of the display. It is likely to be one of the most photographed and Instagrammed spots when the centre opens. The amount he donated was not revealed.

He receives the Partner of Heritage award given to heritage and cultural philanthropists who have contributed between $150,000 and under $1 million.

The two-storey tiled Islamic facade features underglaze cobalt and turquoise blue on white slip and is from Multan, Pakistan. Dating back to the 1890s, it came partially assembled with some loose tiles. Conservators had to work on it like a jigsaw puzzle to recreate the appearance of what would have been the mosque's facade.

Its presence in the Indian Heritage Centre is a nod to the diverse cultures that make the South Asian community what it is. The centre has a floor area of about 3,000 sq m and five permanent galleries on the heritage of Singapore's Indian community and its links to the global Indian diaspora.

Dr Nasim lauds the team for the curation and presentation of the exhibits, calling them "immediately appealing".

"This is an excellent place to look at our many journeys, our shared stories and explore how closely linked South Asia and South-east Asia are. Singapore, having travelled from third world to first world in a short span of 50 years, is a part and parcel of many of our arrival journeys that have been documented here."

Married with a grown-up son who is in his 30s, Dr Nasim feels very much invested in this journey: "I left Pakistan in 1972 and I arrived in a country that has no glass ceiling. Today, I have a company headquartered in Singapore with over 40 offices globally. I feel proud that my story started here."

The country's first museum on the Indian community here is a fitting addition to "explain not just the cultural narrative but also to chronicle our early interactions as well as our many contributions", he says.

He adds: "You get automatically inspired when you walk in through the large door that leads you to this centre".

The door he refers to is a late 19th century wooden doorway from Chettinad, Tamil Nadu.

Dating to the 19th century, it has 5,000 minute carvings and presents the architectural style of South India's Chettiar community, which had acquired wealth from their moneylending businesses across South-east Asia.

Claire Chiang

Such is her commitment to her causes that Ms Claire Chiang has made time for this interview and photo shoot on the only free day she has in between trips to London and the Maldives.

As senior vice-president of Banyan Tree Holdings, Ms Chiang travels around the world to speak on issues she is passionate about. These range from sustainability and environmental issues, to books, to women's representation on the boards of companies.

Ask her about museums and the articulate 63-year-old says: "Museums have a special place for me. I find visiting them a very humanising experience. It reminds us of our past, gives us a sense of history and allows us to imagine."

This was what led to her donation to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. She receives the Supporter of Heritage Award given to donors who contribute between $10,000 and $49,999 for her contribution to the museum's endowment fund. The amount she donated was not revealed.

Her love for museums can be traced back to her visits as a child to the National Museum of Singapore. With a history dating back to 1887, it is the nation's oldest museum and used to display natural history artefacts as well.

Ms Chiang recalls: "Of course, there was no air-conditioning then, but I remember the gorilla, the whale. It was such a fantasy place filled with many cabinets of curiosities. There was always something to explore. And I missed that when the museum changed."

She wanted to support the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum because she feels it offers the potential for Singapore to emerge as "a hub for exchange for world scientists, researchers and scholars to look at a whole range of issues ranging from our natural habitat to our rainforests to our bio-diversity. A museum is a starting point for these conversations".

The mother of three grown-up children says these are issues that are very close to her heart and on Banyan Tree properties globally, these are addressed seriously through various initiatives that support sustainability.

These include support for indigenous crafts and various environmental initiatives such as tree planting, coral transplanting in Koh Samui and terrapin conservation in Vietnam.

With a museum such as this, where the big draw are the fossils of three diplodocid sauropod dinosaurs, she thinks visitors ought to take a bigger perspective. "They are platforms for not just triggering our imagination but a platform for learning."

These dinosaurs, are among the largest creatures to roam the earth 150 million years ago.

The $46-million museum building was funded through philanthropic gifts, with the Lee Foundation donating $25 million.

Visitors to the museum, which is located on the National University of Singapore campus in Kent Ridge, can look at a treasure trove of 2,000 artefacts in its biodiversity and heritage galleries.

While she has been supportive of this museum, which opens for public viewing today, she admits that raising money for heritage and museum causes is not always easy.

"It is a tough challenge. We all know that we are often reaching out to the same pockets and... donors often like to support the needy, the elderly," she says.

The bright spot, she says, is that there is now "more sensitivity and understanding of arts, culture and heritage though these are not often the top causes we support".

Having watched the arts and culture scene evolve, Ms Chiang is confident things will change.

She says: "I think we are already seeing that - a greater degree of involvement.

"The understanding that giving is not just about writing a cheque. It is about staying engaged with each of the causes we choose to pick."

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