Speech By Acting Minister For Education (Higher Education And Skills) Mr Ong Ye Kung At The Naming Of The Ngee Ann Kongsi Galleries Ceremony, 4 Dec 2015, 1130am, At Nanyang Academic Of Fine Arts Campus

Published Date: 04 December 2015 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Chairman of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Board, Ms Low Sin Leng

President of The Ngee Ann Kongsi, Mr Tan Kien Lip

The Ngee Ann Kongsi Committee of Management

NAFA Board of Directors

Artists, ladies and gentlemen


1. Over the last two months, I have been visiting various institutions,either visiting formally or attending events. After covering all three ITEcampuses, three out of five polytechnics, NUS, NTU, SMU and SIT, I amglad I am here today for my first visit to a private education institution, atthe Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), and for a good cause.

2. When my old friend Mr Chia Mia Chiang asked if I could officiate the naming of the Ngee Ann Kongsi Galleries at NAFA, I could not say no. Firstly because he dedicated 14 years of service at Ngee Ann Polytechnic and contributed tremendously to the development of the polytechnic. Secondly, because the occasion today brings together two venerable organizations and two strands of Singapore history together, and marks a wonderful confluence of the arts and philanthropy. And Iam honored to be invited to share this moment, and to share the stories of NAFA and Ngee Ann Kongsi.


3. In the 1930s, the idea of setting up a fine art college in Singapore was mooted by China-born artists Huang Sui Heng (黄燧弼) and Lim Hak Tai (林学大). Huang Sui Heng (黄燧弼) founded the Xiamen Arts Academy in Fujian, China. The idea was supported by other Chineseartists resident in the Straits Settlements, such as Yong Mun Sen (杨曼 生) and Tchang Ju Chi (张汝器). These artists and many others like themwere trained in Fujian, Shanghai and Hangzhou, where the arts curriculum incorporated both the East and West.

4. In 1938, with the financial support and backing of Chinesebusinessmen like Tan See Siang (陈厥祥) and Zhou Lian Sheng (周莲生 ), the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts or NAFA was born, withpracticing artist Lim Hak Tai (林学大) as its first principal.

5. For centuries, the term ‘Nanyang’ has been used to describeSoutheast Asia - the delta of Chinese immigration from the southern ports of China. Groups of businessmen, merchants, artists and writers alike arrived in Singapore seeking opportunities and fresh adventure. Hence, Nanyang at its broadest reflects the spirit of discovery of that time. Today, many young Singaporeans, including myself, are descendants of these enterprising people. The founding of NAFA, which was a collaborative effort between immigrant Chinese artist and businessmen, demonstrates that spirit of pride and self-reliance duringthat time. There was no MOE then.

6. In 1955, Lim Hak Tai (林学大) laid down the principles for the school - fusion of cultures of the different races (融混各族文化风尚); bridging of Eastern and Western art (沟通东西艺术); diffusion of the scientific spirit and social thinking of the 20th century (发挥二十世纪科学 精神,社会思潮); reflection of the needs of the peoples of the Federation of Malaya and Singapore (反映本邦人民大众需求); expression of local tropical flavor (表现当地热带情调); fulfilment of educational and social needs (配合教育意义,社会功能). These statements are in fact a rough sketch of a philosophy for the development of the arts and a national cultural identity. Nanyang was Chinese, but not China; Malaysian but not Malay. Anyone who contemplates Liu Kang’s ‘Life by the River’ will know what I mean.

7. The principles of NAFA led to the development of the ‘Nanyang Style’ or ‘Nanyang Flavour’. What is it? It is hard to describe, but we know it when we see it. To say it is a reflection of east and west is to say the least about it - it expresses the spirit of the Chinese immigrants, the cultures and colours of the islands in Southeast Asia. It is in Liu Kang and Georgette Chen, in Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Pieng. It is the artistic style that started to define a place like Singapore.

8. After the passing of Lim Hak Tai (林学大) in 1963, his son Lim Yew Kuan (林友权) took hold of the reins and was principal from 1964 up till 1979. These were financially challenging years for NAFA, but Lim Yew Kuan ( 林友权 ) steered NAFA well, calling upon the resources of established alumni and philanthropists in the 70s to raise funds and keep the school in operation. In fact, the graduates of the decades of 1950s, 60s and 70s included many well-known artists who have gone on to receive the Cultural Medallion, the highest national honour to be bestowed by the President of Singapore for contributions to art and culture. NAFA has the pride and privilege of having groomed 13 Cultural Medallion recipients as alumni. Today, we are pleased to have with us five of the recipients - Mr Ang Ah Tee (洪亚弟), Ms Han Sai Por (韩少芙), Mr Lim Yew Kuan (林友权), Mr Tay Chee Toh (郑志道) and Mr Wee Beng Chong (黄明宗).

9. NAFA did not set out to produce artists that win medals, fulfill KPIs or aim to be world-class. It was driven by simple but powerful convictions, and that laid the foundations for its accomplishments. It is a spirit worth emulating today.

10. The work of the 13 Cultural Medallion recipients from NAFA as well as these teachers are familiar to many of us. They defined the distinctive Nanyang artistic style, and the artistic identity of Singapore. Itis befitting that their works are found in abundance along the halls of the newly-opened National Art Gallery. The colour and brushstrokes tell the stories of the life and times of the early generations and uncover the multilayered texture of Singapore society. It is not just a place for admiring art and understanding history, but an essential piece of a gradually emerging distinctive Singaporean identity.

11. Apart from the pioneering generation of artists, NAFA has groomed many contemporary artists whose works can be found alongside these masters. NAFA has groomed 13 Young Artist Award recipients and some among them may be future Cultural Medallion winners.

Ngee Ann Kongsi

12. With the same sense of adventure and enterprising spirit as the founders and pioneers of NAFA, Teochew businessmen travelled from Guangdong province in China to Singapore in the 19th century. In 1845, they founded Ngee Ann Kongsi. ‘Ngee Ann’ is the old name for Chaozhou or Teochew while ‘Kongsi’ means ‘company’, and so the name Ngee Ann Kongsi itself calls into existence a collaborative collective.

13. For almost 100 years, Ngee Ann Kongsi worked to preserve the customs and traditions of Teochews in Singapore. The foundation also cared for the poor and underprivileged Teo chews here. By the 1930s,the merchant Chinese population in Singapore had grown, and many brought their families and settled down here. Hence, in 1933, the Ngee Ann Kongsi Ordinance was drawn up to formalize the foundation’s wider societal and economic objectives, including supporting and funding education through bursaries, scholarships and the setting up of schools.

14. From setting up Ngee Ann Girls School in 1940 and taking over the management of Tuan Mong High School in 1953, to active involvement in the governance and management of Ngee Ann Primary school, Ngee Ann Secondary School and Ngee Ann Polytechnic today, the Kongsi’s contributions towards education are significant. I was privileged to serve on the Ngee Ann Polytechnic Council from 2009 to 2012, alongside Mr Richard Lee (李秀炎), Mr Goh Kim Hock (吴锦福) and Mr Jaime Teo (张绵耀) who represent the Kongsi in the council. As a half Teochew, I was proud to witness firsthand the unwavering commitment of the Kongsi in educating our young. 15 One of Ngee Ann Kongsi’s prominent commercial projects is Ngee Ann City along Orchard Road, where Takashimaya is a major tenant. The land was first bought from the East India Company, and then used as a burial ground. Later, parts of the land were acquired for public use, such as road widening and for the MRT line. Whatever remained was developed, including into Ngee Ann City today. 16 From 1972 to 2006, Ngee Ann Kongsi contributed 75% of its surplus towards the educational objectives and support of Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Through the years, the Kongsi has also donated millions of dollars towards other cultural and social initiatives, including the Chinese Heritage Centre at Nanyang Technological University, the Chinese Development Assistance Council and the Singapore International Foundation. An amendment to the ordinance in 2007 enabled the Kongsi to diversify its support, and today, 25% of the surplus is ploughed back to Ngee Ann Polytechnic, with a further 40% to other institutions of higher learning and the balance of 10% towards other charities.

15. NAFA, being one of many beneficiaries of the philanthropic efforts of Ngee Ann Kongsi, has received $1.2 million in the form of scholarships and bursaries from the Kongsi. This sum has benefited many talented, financially needy and deserving students.

16. Amongst the early pioneering Teochews who ventured into Singapore were merchants, businessmen, agriculturalists and arable land workers and manual labourers. My maternal grandfather camelater in the 1930s to open an optician shop. That was before Lasik.

17. While diverse, the community shared common beliefs and traditions that bonded them together as a cultural demographic. Then establishment of Ngee Ann Kongsi and its subsequent philanthropic contributions are testimony to this. Today, 170 years after its founding,Ngee Ann Kongsi has not only benefitted the Teochews of our community, but Singaporeans of all ethnicities.


18. Today, we witness another milestone in the Kongsi’s giving - a $10 million donation to NAFA to support its latest student and campus development plans. Like the Kongsi’s many other gifts, the latest donation is purposeful, grounded in society and its needs, and will serve to help our young realize their aspirations.

19. The two galleries at NAFA will be named after Ngee Ann Kongsi. They have a total floor area of 529 square metres. They are a muchsought-after space to showcase a wide range of visual art programmes, from both local and international art communities. NAFA intends to evolve the programming to boost the galleries’ standing as a premier space for artistic showcases.

20. While Singapore has drastically transformed over the decades,one thing has not changed from the 18th to the 21st century. From the early immigrants to the post-independence new generation, we share common dreams and hopes, to create a better tomorrow and a better Singapore. In this process, we will need knowledge and skills, new capabilities to earn a living and make ourselves useful and relevant to the world. We will need each other. The early Teochews and Ngee Ann Kongsi helped each other grow stronger, and created generations of master artists, a Nanyang legacy which lives on today at the National Art Gallery.

21. Likewise, Singapore will grow stronger and steadily discover ourselves and solidify our identity. I don’t read poetry very much, but a friend recently pointed out this one to me which I thought was very meaningful. In the words of Heng Siok Tian, our island is our canvas, it is for us to frame with ‘passing beatitude and mosaic wisdom.’ We have no ‘mountain ranges nor bushfires’, but we have a collective dream, a dream that is more than ‘campaigns, policies and long-term planning.’

22. I thank Ngee Ann Kongsi for its significant donation and wishNAFA every success in its mission to inspire learning and growth through the arts.

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