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Visual Arts

Laurence Koh Boon Piang

Noted calligrapher with an illustrious career in art, crafts and design education

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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Manuscript is something written by hand, but calligraphy is the dance of the pen when it comes into contact with paper.

Laurence Koh Boon Piang, From Bad Handwriting to the Dance of the Pen, The Straits Times, 19 November 1988

Laurence Koh Boon Piang has a long and illustrious career in art, crafts and design education in Singapore. Since the 1950s, he has played a significant role in shaping local art education, planning and developing its curriculum across levels from kindergarten to teacher-training. He also established the Baharuddin Vocational Institute, becoming its founding principal and teaching art, craft, design and italic handwriting at various institutions including the former Teachers' Training College, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and National University of Singapore's Department of Extramural Studies, among other endeavours. Since retiring from the civil service, Koh has been active as a community leader, lettering artist and part-time lecturer.

Laurence Koh Boon Piang was born on 1 Jan 1927 in Singapore. He attended St. Anthony's Boys' School from 1934 to 1946, interrupted from 1941 to 1945 by the Japanese invasion of Singapore. In school, he joined the Boy Scouts Troop and in 1940 was awarded the King's Scout Badge, and in 1948, the King George VI Defence Medal for bravery and service during the Japanese Occupation.

After graduating from school, Koh studied art under Richard Walker, an Art Master at the Singapore Education Department, and in 1950, attained the Qualified Normal Trained Teacher's Certificate. He became a teacher and assistant scout master at St. Anthony's Boys' School, and was soon awarded an Education Department scholarship by the colonial government, upon recommendation by Walker, to study art in England. Koh arrived at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, London, that year, and took up Lettering, Writing and Illuminating as his main subject, and Letter Cutting as an additional subject.

During his time in England, in his capacity as a King's Scout from Singapore, he was presented to Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle during her Coronation year. A year later, he graduated with a National Diploma in Design and, the following year, was awarded the University of London Institute of Education's Art Teacher's Certificate with distinction. He then returned to Singapore, got married, and secured a job at the Ministry of Education as Art Organiser, a post he held until 1957.

What followed was a long and illustrious career in the public education sector for Koh. After his stint as art organiser for the ministry, Koh returned to teaching, this time, from 1957 to 1963, as a lecturer in the Art Department of the Teachers' Training College, and concurrently from 1959 to 1963 as Chairman of the Ministry of Education’s Art and Crafts Textbooks and Syllabuses Subject Committee.

From 1960 to 1972, he was Chief Art Supervisor for the Overseas Cambridge 'O' and 'A' Levels Art Examinations. In 1963, Koh was promoted to Senior Lecturer at the Teachers' Training College, and then in 1964 became Specialist Inspector (Art and Crafts) for the Ministry of Education. While in this post, Koh was appointed in 1965 to be the project officer that planned, set up and ran the Baharuddin Vocational Institute under the Ministry of Education's Technical Education Department. When the institute was finally built and established in 1969, Koh became its founding principal, a position he held until 1973. Baharuddin was the pioneer post-secondary Singapore institution for the formal study of applied arts courses, such as pottery, commercial art, furniture design, dressmaking, and printing.

That year, he was Acting Assistant Secretary of Personnel Administration and Development at the Industrial Training Board for a year. In 1974, he became the Ministry of Education's Head (Art Unit) and Specialist Adviser (Art and Crafts), Ministry of Education, a position he held until 1979 while simultaneously serving as Chief Art Supervisor for the Overseas Cambridge 'O' and 'A' Levels Art Examinations (1975-1977). In 1979, he was Senior Inspector of Schools with the Ministry of Education, served as a judge of the DBS Children’s Art Competition, and became general manager of Grow, a publication of the Ministry of Education, until 1981. In his last posting with the Ministry of Education, Koh was a media specialist with its Division of Educational Technology for a year.

In 1982, Koh retired from the Ministry of Education. However, instead of taking a break, he promptly found work as a publications and public relations officer at the South East Asian Ministers of Education Organisation (SEAMEO) Regional Language Centre. He left the organisation after a year and returned to teaching. He became a part-time lecturer first at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts from 1984-1989, and later at the National University of Singapore's Department of Extramural Studies where, from 1986 to 1991, he taught italic handwriting, an art form he had studied decades ago in London.

In spite of the rarity of this craft in Singapore where Chinese and Islamic calligraphy were more common than Western calligraphy, Koh received a number of commissions over the years to create the lettering for cards, plaques, certificates and even tombstones. Some of Koh's commissioned works are on permanent display at such locations as the College of Medicine Building and the St Joseph's Institution Chapel, both in Singapore. He took great pleasure in teaching the craft to students and enthusiasts in his classes.

Koh's commitment to the development of local art and design education is apparent in his active membership with various societies and professional institutions. A few examples are the Singapore Art Society (from 1957 to the present) for which he was Vice-President in 1967, UK's National Society for Art Education (1959-1983), The China Society (from 1959 to the present), and the Singapore Art and Crafts Education Society (1965-1984) for which he served as President for a year in 1967.

Others include the Singapore Science Centre (for which he was a Board member in 1972), UK's National Association for Design Education (1974-1983), the National Museum Advisory Committee (1975-1977), Australia's Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration (1975-1983), and UK's Society for Italic Handwriting and Society of Scribes and Illuminators (1982-present).

Koh was also active in community service for many decades. In 1960, he was appointed Scout Commissioner for the Serangoon District. In 1975, after having obtained a Diploma in Management Studies from the Singapore Institute of Management, he served as Chairman of the Alexandra Citizens’ Consultative Committee from 1976-1982, and from 1977 to 1982, he was Chairman of the Alexandra Community Centre Building Committee. In 1985, he joined the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association as a voluntary aftercare officer.

For his work, he received in 1970 the Pingat Pentadbiran Awam (Gangsa) [Public Administration Medal (Bronze)] and in 1982 the Pingat Bakti Setia (Long Service Medal) from the Singapore government. He was featured in both the 1981/1982 and the 1991/1992 issues of Who's Who in Singapore. In 2000, his work with SANA was recognised when he received the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association's Medal of Honour (Silver).

Timeline

1 Jan 1927

Born in Singapore.

1934 to 1941

Attended St. Anthony's Boys' School.

1938

Joined the Boy Scouts Troop.

1940

Awarded the King's Scout Badge.

1947 to 1950

Teacher, St. Anthony's Boys' School.

1948

Awarded the Defence Medal for his service as a Passive Defence Scout during the Japanese Occupation.

1950

Attained the Qualified Normal Trained Teacher's Certificate.

1950 to 1954

Graduated from Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, London, with a National Diploma in Design on an Education Department scholarship.

1955

Awarded the University of London Institute of Education's Art Teacher's Certificate with distinction

1955 to 1957

Art organiser, Ministry of Education.

1957

Life member, Singapore Art Society.

1957 to 1963

Lecturer (Art Department), Teachers' Training College.

1957 to 1982

Member, National Society for Art Education, United Kingdom.

1959 to Present

Life member, The China Society, Singapore.

1959 to 1963

Chairman, Art and Crafts Textbooks and Syllabuses Subject Committee, Ministry of Education.

1960

Appointed Scout Commissioner for the Serangoon District.

1960 to 1972

Chief Art Supervisor, Overseas Cambridge 'O' and 'A' Levels Art Examinations.

1963 to 1964

Senior Lecturer, Teachers' Training College.

1964 to 1966

Specialist Inspector (Art and Crafts), Ministry of Education.

1965 to 1970

Appointed project officer to plan, set up and run the Baharuddin Vocational Institute under the Technical Education Department, Ministry of Education.

1965 to 1984

Member, Singapore Art and Crafts Education Society.

1967

Vice-president, Singapore Art Society.

1967 to 1968

President, Singapore Art and Crafts Education Society.

1970

Awarded the Pingat Pentadbiran Awam (Gangsa) [Public Administration Medal (Bronze)].

1971 to 1973

Founding principal, Baharuddin Vocational Institute.

1972

Board member, Singapore Science Centre.

1973 to 1974

Acting Assistant Secretary, Personnel Administration and Development, Industrial Training Board.

1974 to 1979

Head (Art Unit) and Specialist Adviser (Art and Crafts), Ministry of Education.

1974 to 1983

Member, National Association for Design Education, United Kingdom.

1975

Obtained Diploma in Management Studies, Singapore Institute of Management.

1975 to 1977

Chief Art Supervisor, Overseas Cambridge 'O' and 'A' Levels Art Examinations.

Member, National Museum Advisory Committee.

1975 to 1983

Member, Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration, Australia.

1976 to 1978

Member, Board of Commissioners of Currency, Singapore Coin Advisory Committee.

1976 to 1982

Chairman, Alexandra Citizens' Consultative Committee.

Member of the Board of Directors, National Safety Council of Singapore.

1977 to 1982

Chairman, Alexandra Community Centre Building Committee.

1979

Senior Inspector of Schools, Ministry of Education.

Judge, DBS Children's Art Competition

1979 to 2 Jan 1981

General manager, Grow (a publication of the Ministry of Education).

1980 to 1982

Council member, Marketing Institute of Singapore.

1981 to 1982

Media specialist, Division of Educational Technology, Ministry of Education.

1981

Featured in Who's Who in Singapore (1981/1982 issue).

1982 to Present

Member, Society for Italic Handwriting, United Kingdom.

Member, Society of Scribes and Illuminators, United Kingdom.

1982

Awarded the Pingat Bakti Setia (Long Service Medal).

1982 to 1983

Publications and public relations officer, South East Asian Ministers of Education Organisation (SEAMEO) Regional Language Centre.

1984 to 1989

Part-time lecturer, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

1985

Joined the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association as a voluntary aftercare officer.

1986 to 1991

Part-time lecturer, National University of Singapore Department of Extramural Studies.

1991

Featured in Who’s Who in the World (1991/1992 issue).

2000

Awarded the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association’s Medal of Honour (Silver).


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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