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Khor Kok Wah

Administrator and stalwart of the Singapore arts scene.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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It is important that we get the younger generation on board as much as we get experienced people … they see things from a new perspective and are most likely the ones to chart new directions.

Khor Kok Wah is an administrator and stalwart of the Singapore arts scene, who worked in the National Arts Council (NAC) for 24 years . Prior to that, he had served as an administrative officer in five Ministries over a decade: Education, National Development, Communications & Information, Community Development, and Information & the Arts.

At NAC, he played a critical role in boosting the development of the arts with programmes and initiatives that resulted in such institutions or events as the Singapore Film Commission, the Malay Heritage Centre, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, the School of the Arts, Arts Housing properties in Waterloo Street, Chinatown, Robertson Quay etc, the Gillman Barracks, the Singapore Biennale, and Singapore's participation in the Venice Biennale and Frankfurt Book Fair.

Khor Kok Wah was born in Penang, Malaysia in 1956. From 1963 to 1973, he studied at St. Xavier's Institution Penang. Afterwards, he came to Singapore where he attended National Junior College (1974-1975), and then the University of Singapore’s faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (1976 -1980).

After graduating from university, Khor started work as an Administrative Officer in Government Service, at Singapore’s Ministry of Education. There, he assisted with school planning and projects in the Planning Division from 1980 to 1982. Subsequently, he was transferred to the Ministry of National Development where he dealt with public housing, urban redevelopment, land acquisition, resettlement, planning approvals and building control. Five years later, Khor moved to the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) where he assisted with land and sea transport policies.

In 1989, Khor had his first involvement with the arts. That year, he was tasked to organise the 1990 MCI Art Competition and Exhibition. Then, Khor had little knowledge of the arts and learnt from colleagues and curators at the former National Museum Art Gallery. Subsequently, Khor was transferred to the Planning Division (1989), followed by the Cultural Affairs Division (1990) of the Ministry of Community Development (MCD) [later renamed the Ministry of Information and the Arts (MITA)].

With MCD, from 1990 to 1992, Khor led the Secretariat of the Esplanade Steering Committee, which planned and drove the Esplanade project. Then "the Government was gearing up to take a leap of faith in building a major arts centre", recalls Khor. With a team, he organised studies of arts centres around the world that enabled the Committee to work out the foundation of the Esplanade, its mission, design, governance, management structure, outreach and programmes.

He and the Committee considered important issues such as the Esplanade's financial sustainability, the necessity of accommodating Asian art forms, mass appeal, the role of corporate sponsorship, venue design and maintenance, the need to appoint a Chief Executive Officer at an early stage, and the employment of theatre consultants and an acoustician.

He assisted in the consultation of a Users Advisory Group comprising members from the arts community. In 1992, it was decided that the Esplanade should be run by an independent body and the Singapore Arts Centre Company was set up, with assistance from Khor.

In the meantime, in 1991, Khor had also been tasked to help set up the National Arts Council (NAC) with several colleagues. The establishment of the NAC had been recommended by the 1989 "Report on the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts" commissioned by the government, which aimed to build up the arts and culture in Singapore. Transferred from MCD to NAC and appointed its Director of Arts Facilities, Khor led a team in planning and implementing arts infrastructure, focusing on establishing arts precincts, providing housing for arts groups, and setting up Esplanade.

After six years, significant changes had taken place in Singapore's arts infrastructure. Among the theatres under the NAC, the Victoria Theatre and Singapore Conference Hall had been refurbished, and Kallang Theatre had become the venue in which to watch popular foreign musicals. Khor's and his colleagues' Arts Facilities Masterplan resulted in premises for numerous arts organisations – including the Telok Kurau Studios, Selegie Arts Centre, Waterloo Street arts belt, and Singapore Tyler Print Institute.

Khor and his team also managed to secure new premises for the LASALLE College of the Arts at the former Tun Sri Lanang Secondary School at Goodman Road (currently, the Goodman Arts Centre), as well as for the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts at the former St. Anthony's Convent at Middle Road (currently housing the Design Singapore Council) to fulfil their growing needs.

In 1997, Khor was transferred again. This time, he was seconded to the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) as Director of Arts and Heritage. For seven years, he helped to devise policies and initiatives for the development of the museums, archives, arts and library sectors. He directed the Renaissance City Project I and II (2000 and 2002 respectively), which aimed to boost the nation’s arts and cultural development and obtain more funding for arts organisations.

Khor helped to establish the Singapore Film Commission (1998), Singapore Tyler Print Institute (2002), Design Singapore Council (2003), School of the Arts (2004), and The Old Parliament House, now called the Arts House (2004). He worked with Singapore Art Museum to organise Singapore’s first participation in the prestigious Venice Biennale (2001).

Khor's team at MICA oversaw the setting up of the Malay Heritage Centre (2004) with the National Heritage Board, and the establishment of two heritage centres, Reflections at Bukit Chandu (2002) and Memories of Ford Factory (2006) with the National Archives.

In 2004, Khor returned to NAC as Deputy Chief Executive Officer (CEO). In this role, he helped to oversee new funding schemes for artists, the Arts for All community engagement programme and the Traditional Arts Plan, among other programmes. In 2005, he was Commissioner to Singapore’s third participation in the Venice Biennale. He helped to initiate the Singapore Art Show (2005) and Singapore Biennale (2006).

In 2011-2012, he and his colleagues drafted the Visual Arts Masterplan, which aimed to create more opportunities and avenues for artists to create and present their work, as well as to promote greater awareness of art and artists among Singaporeans. This resulted in the launching of the flagship art fair, Art Stage Singapore (2011), and art gallery enclave, Gillman Barracks (2012).

In 2006, Khor was concurrently made NAC's Director of Literary Arts. In that role, he supported literary agents and homegrown publishers, encouraged promotion and participation in international book fairs, and developed co-publishing programmes. He oversaw the Singapore Writers Festival -- for which, in 2007 and 2009, he established a partnership with The Arts House.

In 2010, he played a guiding role in the drafting and implementation of the National Literary Arts Plan. This created new opportunities for writing, publishing, translation, internationalisation, residencies and training, provided support for new literary genres and more funding for literary publishers, new Singapore literature textbooks in schools and teaching resources.

He initiated new public outreach schemes, and boosted the Mentor Access Project as well as the Singapore Writers Festival, which became, from 2011, an annual rather than a biennial event, with a fulltime festival director. His team presented a second Literary Arts Plan in 2015 which successfully proposed a national campaign for the buying and reading of Singapore literature, a platform for discovering and promoting Southeast Asian literature, and the idea of appointing poets to play a national role.


While working towards generating more interest in Singapore literature, he also felt it was important to encourage more multi-disciplinary work. "Writing is very much a part of theatre already, you need to have a script. … We often try to bring writers and filmmakers, and film producers and directors together, so that there will be more interaction, and hopefully writers can be involved in creating/adapting new scripts for new platforms. Cross-disciplinary collaborations will be very useful for promoting the arts in the future."

In 2016, he moved into the education aspect of nurturing artistic talents, joining the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts as Senior Director in the President’s Office and subsequently Vice President (Industry & Projects) and Dean (Centre for Lifelong Education).

Timeline

1956

Born in Penang, Malaysia.

1963 to 1973

Underwent primary school and secondary school education at St. Xavier's Institution Penang.

1974 to 1975

Attended National Junior College, Singapore.

1976 to 1980

Attended the University of Singapore's Arts and Social Sciences Faculty.

1980 to 1982

Assisted with school planning and projects while in the Planning Division at the Ministry of Education, Singapore.

1982 to 1987

Held various policy posts at the Ministry of National Development, Singapore. Responsibilities included public housing, urban redevelopment and conservation, land acquisition, resettlement, land reclamation, planning approvals and building control.

1987 to 1989

Assisted with land and sea transport policies while at the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), Singapore.

1989

First involvement in the arts: Organised MCI Art Competition and exhibition with the theme Communications and Information – 25 Years and Beyond.

1989 to 1991

With the Planning Division (1989) and then the Cultural Affairs Division (1990) at the Ministry of Community Development (MCD).
MCD was later reorganised and renamed Ministry of Information and the Arts (MITA).

1990 to 1992

Led Secretariat of the Esplanade Steering Committee, which planned and drove the Esplanade project.

1991 to 1997

Helped form the National Arts Council (NAC), Singapore and joined it as Director of Arts Facilities.
Led team in planning and implementing Singapore's arts infrastructure such as the Esplanade project, NAC Theatres, Arts Facilities Masterplan, housing for arts groups, LaSalle College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, among others. Involved in Committee which recommended upgrade of NAFA and LaSalle, and establishment of Yong Siew Toh Music Conservatory.

1997 to 2004

Seconded to the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts as Director of Arts and Heritage.
Helped devise policies and initiatives for the development of the museums, archive, arts and library sectors and for international cultural relations.
Led the Renaissance City Project I and II (2000 and 2002 respectively). Helped initiate the development of the Singapore Film Commission, Malay Heritage Centre, Singapore Tyler Print Institution, School of the Arts, Design Singapore Council, first Venice Biennale participation for Singapore.

2004

Returned to NAC as Deputy Chief Executive Officer.

2005

Commissioner to Singapore's third participation in the Venice Biennale. Helped initiate Singapore Biennale.

2006

Took on an additional role as Director of Literary Arts, NAC, Singapore.Supported literary writers, publishers, agents, participation in international book fairs, literary festivals and co-publishing and funding programmes.

2007

Partnered The Arts House for Singapore Writers Festival.

2009

Partnered The Arts House for Singapore Writers Festival.

2010 to 2014

Guided in the drafting and implementation of the National Literary Arts Plan 2010 which raised the profile of Singapore Writers Festival and initiated new literary programmes.

2012

Helped draft the Visual Arts Masterplan.

2015

Guided the Second Literary Arts Plan.

2016

Joined Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts as Senior Director, President’s Office, and subsequently Vice President (Industry and Projects) and Dean (Centre for Lifeliong Education).


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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