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Choo Thiam Siew

An instrumental figure in the development of the arts in Singapore.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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As artists, art students, arts audiences or arts administrators, we should have a big heart. Be accommodating and open-minded so that we can accept and respect different viewpoints and different means of expression. It’s only through this that we can understand each other better. This diversity also creates vibrancy in the arts.

Choo Thiam Siew is an instrumental figure in the development of the arts in Singapore. Trained in horticulture, he was involved from 1976 to 1996 in the greening of Singapore into a garden city before moving into the arts sector as CEO of the National Arts Council from 1996 to 2003. Choo’s leadership contributed to a more open and understanding environment among arts practitioners and administrators, and the embracing of Singapore arts’ multiculturalism and diversity. He continued to promote a culture of openness and interaction thereafter as President of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

Born in 1951 in Singapore, Choo Thiam Siew’s earliest encounters with art were experienced with his father and during his early education.

His father practised Chinese calligraphy at home, enlisting an intrigued Choo to help grind calligraphic inksticks. As a primary school student in Catholic High School in the early ’60s, Choo had the opportunity to practice calligraphy in school, thus furthering his interest in the art form. As Choo entered secondary education, he started reading Chinese classical poems, which enriched and deepened his love for Chinese art and culture. Inspired to learn more, he read classical books on Chinese calligraphy and classical poetry.

Choo also became acquainted with Western arts as he began learning to play the clarinet in secondary two when he joined the school’s brass band. Choo and his bandmates would practise their instruments with their school principal Brother Joseph Chang after school, learning how to read Western musical notation. Choo would come to feel the influence of his principal’s love for music, and go on to perform many works of classical Western music with the school orchestra.

Through these artistic activities in his teenage years, Choo gained a balanced appreciation for both Chinese and Western arts that would inform much of his later life and philosophy towards the arts.

Having completed his pre-university education, Choo moved to New Zealand to attend the Lincoln College of University of Canterbury in 1970 on a Colombo Plan Scholarship. He graduated with a honours bachelor’s degree in horticulture and 8 years later, went on to obtain his master’s degree at the Australian National University in 1982, also under the Colombo Plan Scholarship.

Choo returned to Singapore in 1976 and joined the Parks & Recreation Department (now National Parks Board), embarking on the first of his two careers playing instrumental roles in the development of Singapore. He spent twenty years at the Parks & Recreation Department, rising to become Deputy Commissioner of the Department in the latter half of his service. For his work with the Department, Choo received the Pingat Pendatbiran Awam (Gangsa) (Public Administration Medal [Bronze]).

Throughout his time at the Parks & Recreation Department, Choo continued being a keen follower and lover of the arts, keeping abreast of the Singapore arts scene through his regular attendance of art exhibitions and arts performances.

In 1996, Choo was presented with the opportunity to begin a new career with the National Arts Council. The ’80s had seen a newly emerging Singapore art scene trying to find its legs in an environment that was described by observers as a cultural desert. Feeling that his management skills would be put to good use in the arts, Choo took on the challenge and joined the National Arts Council as Deputy Executive Director, becoming the Chief Executive Officer of the Council the following year.

In the six years that he led the National Arts Council, Choo brought about a culture of openness and understanding within the Singapore art community, improving the working dynamics and relationships between artists and arts administrators. Believing in the relevance and importance of all kinds of art forms and the advantages of cultivating diversity in the arts, Choo encouraged the healthy sharing of opinions and views, which benefited the multicultural make-up of the Singapore arts scene. With Choo at the helm, the Singapore Arts Festival had its first Fringe opening at Fort Canning Park. The park also played host to the first Singapore Arts Festival Village, which created a communal space where arts lovers could share in their arts experiences.

In 2001, Choo received the Pingat Pendatbiran Awam (Perak) (Public Administration Medal [Silver]) for his contributions to the arts in Singapore.

Besides his role at the National Arts Council, Choo also contributed his services as a member of the board of a number of arts organisations, including the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Singapore Chinese Orchestra and the School of the Arts. He also presided as the Chief Judge of the UOB Painting of the Year Competition for a number of years.

In 2003, Choo left the National Arts Council to focus his efforts on arts education as the President of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

His philosophy of multicultural diversity and sharing carried on at the academy, with the academy attracting growing student numbers across a diverse range of nationalities, especially from the Southeast Asia region. Choo had also planned for the expansion of the academy’s campus so that students have more spaces for interaction and exchange of ideas.

Choo served as the Chief Executive Officer of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre from 2014 to 2017. His current appointments include serving as Chairman of the Tote Board Arts Fund Committee.

In his free time, Choo practises Chinese calligraphy and composes classical Chinese poems.

Timeline

15 Jan 1951

Born in Singapore.

1958 to 1969

Attended Catholic High. Primary, secondary and pre-university education.

1970 to 1973

Attended University of Canterbury, New Zealand on Colombo Plan Scholarship. Graduated with Bachelor of Horticulture.

1976 to 1982

Curator, Parks & Recreation Department (now National Parks Board).

1981

Attended Australian National University on Colombo Plan Scholarship. Graduated with Master of Science (Forest Management).

1982 to 1986

Assistant Commissioner, Parks & Recreation Department.

1984

Received Pingat Pendatbiran Awam (Gangsa) (Public Administration Medal [Bronze]).

1986 to 1995

Deputy Commissioner, Parks & Recreation Department.

1996 to 1997

Deputy Executive Director, National Arts Council.

1997 to 2003

Chief Executive Officer, National Arts Council.

1997 to 2008

Member, Board of Directors, Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

1999 to 2008

Member, Board of Directors, Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

2000 to 2003

Chairman, Singapore Youth Award Advisory Committee (Arts & Culture).

2000

Named Honorary Fellow, Institute of Parks & Recreation.

2001

Received Pingat Pendatbiran Awam (Perak) (Public Administration Medal [Silver]).

2003 to 2014

President, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA).
Member, Board of Directors, Nanyang Fine Arts Foundation Ltd.

2003 to 2007

Member, Board of Directors, Singapore Art Museum.

2004 to 2008

Member, Land Transport Authority Art Review Panel.

2004 to 2006

Member, Arts Appeal Advisory Committee, Media Development Authority.

2004 to Present

Member, UOB Group Art Committee, OUB Painting of the Year Competition.

2004 to 2010

Member, Promote Mandarin Council.

2005

Chief Judge, UOB Painting of the Year Competition.

2005 to Present

Director, Asia Theatre Education Centre, China.
President, General Society for Chinese Classical Poetry (International).

2006 to 2009

Vice Chair, Broadcast, Publications and Arts Appeal Committee, Media Development Authority.

2006 to 2012

Member, Chinese Language and Culture Fund Selection Committee, Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations.

2007 to Present

Member, Board of Directors, School of the Arts, Singapore.
Independent Director, Composers and Authors Society of Singapore.

2007 to 2011

President, Xin Hai Calligraphy Society.

2008

Chief Judge, UOB Painting of the Year Competition.

2009 to Present

Chairman, Broadcast, Publications and Arts Appeal Committee, Media Development Authority.

2010 to Present

Member, Business China Go East Committee.

2010 to 2012

Council Member, 40th Council of Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.
Member, Arts & Culture Strategic Review (ACSR) Working Committee.

2010 to Present

Chairman, Cultural Committee, Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.

2011

Chief Judge, UOB Painting of the Year Competition.

2011 to Present

Member, Board of Directors, The Chinese Opera Institute.
Member, Board of Directors, Ding Yi Music Company.

2012

Chief Judge, UOB Painting of the Year Competition.
Vice Chairman, 2012 National Chinese Music Competition Advisory Committee.

2012 to Present

Council Member, 41st Council of Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.
Member, Promote Mandarin Council.
Member, Board of Directors, Singapore Centre for Chinese Language Ltd.
Chairman, Tote Board Arts Fund Committee.
Member, Board of Directors, Singapore Chinese Orchestra.
Vice-president, Xin Hai Calligraphy Society.

2014 to 2017

Chief Executive Officer, Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre.


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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