Champions of culture

Cultural Medallion winners talk about achievements and failures

Playwright Haresh Sharma, realist painter Chua Mia Tee, avant-garde musician Margaret Leng Tan and Chinese-language novelist Lin Gao received the nation's highest artistic honour at the Istana last night. Life interviews this year's recipients of the Cultural Medallion.

(From left) Chinese writer Lin Gao, virtuoso pianist Margaret Leng Tan, dramatist Haresh Sharma and painter Chua Mia Tee received the Cultural Medallion on Friday (Oct 16) at the Istana.
(From left) Chinese writer Lin Gao, virtuoso pianist Margaret Leng Tan, dramatist Haresh Sharma and painter Chua Mia Tee received the Cultural Medallion on Friday (Oct 16) at the Istana. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Absurdly serious musician

She is a serious musician who makes music out of absurd instruments - a teapot, a cassette deck and her signature toy piano were just some of the tools Margaret Leng Tan used at her well-received performance in August during the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

Tan, who turns 70 in December and resides in New York, is the first woman to earn a doctorate in musical arts from Juilliard as well as the first Singaporean musician to perform on Carnegie Hall's main stage.


Writing plays with heart

Slender and boyish even at 50, Haresh Sharma is ageless, like his plays.

By turns breezy and lacerating, the resident playwright of The Necessary Stage knows how to tell stories that capture the pulse of society and draw out complex issues and characters, from mental patients to political detainees to victims of sexual abuse.

These plays were researched and created together with his long-time collaborator, The Necessary Stage's artistic director Alvin Tan, and devised with actors.


Creating beautiful yet realistic paintings

Anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time in Singapore would have seen Chua Mia Tee's work.

His portrait of the late President Yusof Ishak is found on Singapore's currency notes. The realist painter's works are also in the national art collection of art.

On receiving the Cultural Medallion, the Mandarin-speaking artist, 84, says: "I have always found painting to be a joy and am thankful for the recognition and award."


Nourishing readers with his short stories

Singaporean author Lin Gao, 66, is a slight, avuncular man, but head and shoulders above others in the local Chinese literary scene.

Last year, his short-short story collection, Micro-Fiction (Lingzi Media), won the Singapore Literature Prize in the Chinese fiction category.

A former Chinese-language teacher, curriculum specialist writer at the Ministry of Education and editor of children's literary magazines, he has penned three short story collections since 1991.


The next generation

Artists honoured with the Young Artist Award, given to promising artists aged 35 and below.

Chun Kai Feng, 33

The visual artist and arts educator is also co-founder of curatorial group Latent Spaces, with his twin, Kai Qun. His art questions the notion of memory and reinterprets familiar icons such as the orange plastic bus-stop seats and concrete benches in HDB estates.

Chun Kai Qun, 33

Visual artist and Kai Feng's twin, Chun focuses on works that explore object biographies, and dioramic installations and sculptures. An example is A Lifetime Of Warranties, an exhibition playing on the macabre installations at Haw Par Villa.

Diana Soh Li Ling, 31

The composer has worked on choral, opera, orchestral, chamber and interactive music compositions. She did her doctoral studies in music theory and composition at the University at Buffalo. Her works have been played on radio stations in Germany, Denmark, France and the United Kingdom.

James Tan Khoon Song, 35

The lighting designer has worked on many large-scale events such as the Esplanade's da:ns festival, and productions by companies such as Pangdemonium, Wild Rice and Singapore Repertory Theatre. He also mentors budding lighting designers at Lasalle College of the Arts and Republic Polytechnic.

Kirsten Tan, 34

The film-maker has had her quirky, droll films screened at international film festivals in countries such as South Korea, the Netherlands and Canada.

She is a recipient of the Tisch School of the Arts Fellowship, and has a master's in film production from New York University.

Loo Zihan, 31

The multi-disciplinary artist is acclaimed for his performance works, which examine and investigate Singapore's society and history. He has produced multimedia works and also acted in several local theatre productions and films such as A Language Of Our Own (2012) and Pleasure Factory (2007).

Muhammad Riduan Zalani, 30

A skilled percussionist who is well versed in drums of the Malay Archipelago as well as Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian drums, Riduan is a co-founder of Nadi Singapura, a group which promotes traditional Malay drums and percussion. He has performed at music and dance festivals worldwide.

Go to for our writers' picks of three iconic works by each of the Cultural Medallion recipients.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2015, with the headline 'Champions of culture'. Subscribe