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Arun Mahizhnan

Arts administrator and advisor.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


Time taken : ~10mins

Artists in Singapore have been suppressed too long. It's time to change. Oh, my government, be not afraid!

Born in India and moving to Singapore at a young age, Arun Mahizhnan’s passion for the arts fuelled a significant arts career. In his decades of involvement with the arts in Singapore, he has been instrumental to elevating the Singapore Arts Festival to international stature in the ’80s, and has contributed his expertise in the arts and media in various capacities. He sits on the board of the Intercultural Theatre Institute and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and is deputy director at the Institute of Policy Studies at the National University of Singapore. In 2002, he published Selves: The State of the Arts in Singapore with the support of the National Arts Council.

Born in India in 1945, Arun Mahizhnan grew up in a family who had a tradition of involvement in the literary arts. He fostered a special interest and passion for the arts and this would propel him towards a significant arts career. Moving to Singapore as a young boy for his secondary school and Pre-U education, he went on to graduate from the University of Malaya with a Bachelor in arts and later on obtained a Masters in arts at Flinders University in Australia.

Mahizhnan’s first professional encounter with the arts in Singapore came around when he worked at Radio Television Singapore as a senior producer in the Central Productions Unit. Besides current affairs programmes, the unit also produced arts-related programmes and documentaries. Mahizhnan was involved in a number of these productions, and counts a documentary on sculptor Ng Eng Teng as one of his particular favourites. Here, in the Central Productions Unit, he would also meet and form a significant and influential friendship with his colleague, Kuo Pao Kun.

In 1979, Mahizhnan joined Mobil Oil Singapore as manager of its public affairs team in 1979. During his time there, he deepened his involvement with the arts in Singapore, being instrumental in Mobil’s decision to sponsor the 1982 Singapore Arts Festival with $500,000. Mobil Oil Singapore had been the sole sponsor of the festival since it began in 1977, but this 1982 sponsorship was an unprecedented show of support at the time for an arts event, and it emphasised the importance of the arts.

Firm in his belief that, besides increased financial support, the festival also needed a trained arts professional to guide it, Mahizhnan also engaged Anthony Steel—the artistic director of the Adelaide Arts Festival—to be the Singapore Arts Festival’s first ever artistic director. With the expertise of Anthony Steel, the festival’s programming received a breath of new life and was greatly enhanced.

These contributions by Mahizhnan raised the profile of the Singapore Arts Festival considerably from that of a national arts festival run by civil servants to one of international stature. Additionally, Mahizhnan would actively approach other corporations to support later editions of the festival, using Mobil’s sponsorship as a successful and beneficial example.

Besides his influential Mobil role, Mahizhnan was also advisor to the festival as a member in the festival’s steering committee and chairman of the marketing sub-committee. He would serve as a member of the steering committee from 1980 to 1990, and later returned to chair the committee in from 2004 to 2006.

Throughout his career, Mahizhnan has been involved in many other organisations, such as the Ministry of Culture and The Substation, in various capacities, contributing his expertise in arts, public affairs, and media. He believes himself extremely fortunate to have encountered and worked with extraordinary individuals, counting persons such as Singapore theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun and Singapore’s ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh as important influences.

Mahizhnan has also published books on media, social issues, and the arts in Singapore. In 2002, together with fellow editors Kwok Kian Woon and T. Sasitharan and with support from the National Arts Council, he published Selves: The State of the Arts in Singapore.

Mahizhnan sees tremendous potential for Singapore’s growth as a multicultural nation, and believes that Singapore can be an internationally recognised hub of regional cultures in Asia. To this end, he worked with Tamil counterparts from Chennai, and founded the non-profit INFITT (International Forum for Information Technology in Tamil) in 2000, and served as its executive director till 2007.

Spending his free time involved in community and arts-related activities, Mahizhnan has recently contributed his efforts particularly towards the Singapore Tamil literary community. Together with R. Ramachandran of the National Book Development Council of Singapore, he has organised a variety of community activities to advance and spread Tamil literature in Singapore.

Mahizhnan currently serves as deputy director at the Institute of Policy Studies at National University of Singapore, where—amongst other responsibilities—he leads research work in arts and culture. He also serves as vice-chairman of the Board of Directors of the Intercultural Theatre Institute, and is an adjunct professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University.

Timeline

7 Jul 1945

Born in India.

1959 to 1963

Enrolled in Bartley Secondary School.

1970

Graduated from University of Malaya with Bachelor of Arts (First Class).

1970 to 1979

Senior Producer, Central Productions Unit, Radio Television Singapore.

1979 to 1987

Public Affairs Manager – Public Affairs Advisor, Mobil Oil Singapore.

1980 to 1990

Member, Steering Committee, Singapore Arts Festival.
Deputy Chairman – Chairman, Marketing Committee, Singapore Arts Festival.

1987 to 1990

CEO, Hill and Knowlton.

1990 to 1991

Graduated from Flinders University, Australia with a Masters in arts.

1991 to Present

Deputy Director, Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore.

1994 to Present

Adjunct Senior Lecturer – Adjunct Associate Professor – Adjunct Professor, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information, Nanyang Technological University.

1995 to 2010

Member, Board of Directors, The Substation.

2000 to 2007

Founder and Executive Director, INFITT (International Forum for Information Technology in Tamil).

2002

Published Selves: The State of the Arts in Singapore with fellow editors Kwok Kian Woon and T. Sasitharan, with the support of National Arts Council.

2004 to 2006

Chairman, Steering Committee, Singapore Arts Festival.

2006

Received Lifetime Achievement Award, PRISM Awards, Institute of Public Relations of Singapore.

2008 to Present

Vice-chairman, Board of Directors, Intercultural Theatre Institute.

2009 to 2010

Member, Board of Directors, The Substation.

2012

Member, Board of Directors, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.
Member, Board of Directors, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre.
Chairman, Board of Management, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre.
Member, Steering Committee, Singapore Writers Festival.
Member, Steering Committee, Singapore Literature Prize.
Member, Media Literacy Council.
Fellow, World Academy of Art and Science.
Fellow, Institute of Public Relations of Singapore.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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