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Sim Tong Khern is an early Singapore artist and art educator. An accomplished painter, he was a founding member of the informal Singapore art group, Group 90. For almost three decades, he taught art as an art lecturer at the Teachers' Training College (TTC) and Institute of Education (ITE) and nurtured generations of art teachers.
Sim Tong Khern was born on 26 February 1930 in Singapore. From 1937 to 1951, he studied at the Anglo Chinese School and attended Chinese classes at Tuan Mong School and Tao Nan School, attaining his Senior Cambridge Certificate in 1951.
Sim had been interested in art from a very early age. He loved to draw as a young boy, and became, quite possibly, Singapore’s first street artist when he began drawing on public streets next to the Singapore River where he lived. His large-scale public art works drew a lot of attention from passers-by, boatmen and workers in the area. In the early days, Sim was intrigued by all forms of art. Hungry for knowledge, he found much to learn in art books that he sought out in the public library and in friends' collections. Later on, he got to meet other artists, including famous pioneer artist and watercolourist Lim Cheng Hoe, and began painting outdoors with them on weekends.
Keen on pursuing formal art studies, Sim became a trainee teacher and successfully applied for the Colombo Plan Scholarship in 1957. Under the scholarship, he travelled to Australia with other fellow trainee teachers and, from 1957 to 1961, majored in art at the National Art School in Sydney. This resulted in a Diploma in Art (Painting) and a six-month Junior Fellowship visiting arts and education institutes around Australia.
Upon his return to Singapore in 1961, Sim began teaching art and literature at Jurong Secondary School. He taught there for two years and then, in 1963, joined the Teachers' Training College (TTC) and Institute of Education (ITE) where he became an art lecturer. In the years that followed, Sim furthered his studies twice in the ’70s. In 1970, he took a year’s study leave and travelled to London where he received further art and art education training at the University of London's Institute of Education and also took up print-making at the Central School of Design in London. Sim returned to Singapore with an Associateship of The Institute of Education, University of London. Later in 1979, he took sabbatical leave and went to the US where, after two years of study, he obtained a Masters in Art with a focus on art and art education from the University of Cincinnati, Ohio.
During the ’70s and ’80s, while Sim lectured at TTC and ITE, he was concurrently an adjunct teaching staff member in the Department of Architecture at the University of Singapore. There, he taught Basic Design to first-year students for 13 years. For some years, he also taught art part-time at the Hwa Chong Junior College, and conducted art and design classes for adults at various institutions. Despite the challenges of juggling multiple jobs, Sim found meaning in his work.
"When you are involved in art education, you are dealing with people in terms of developing their knowledge of the subject, exposing them to examples of art and hoping that indirectly they would…have a chance to develop their talents", explains Sim. "We try our very best to help those who are talented in their own way, through encouragement, through stimulation, through the sharing of interest, and through dialogue to build their confidence in the subject, and hopefully to allow them to create their own [space] to engage in artistic expression."
Throughout his teaching career, Sim continued working on his art practice, painting at night after work and on weekends. Although he drew and painted frequently, he did not exhibit his works often. Among the various exhibitions he participated in were a major show in 1969 for the 20th anniversary of the Singapore Art Society, a personal exhibition of his drawings and sketches in 1976, a major show in 1984 to celebrate 25 Years of Art in Singapore, and 1988’s Resurgence: An Art Exhibition by four Singapore artists at the Goethe Institute, Singapore.
Amidst a hectic schedule balancing work and art-making, Sim was spurred on by several awards he received for his art in the ’70s. These included prizes for designing the first commemorative Silver Coin in Singapore and for the design of a set of stamps on the theme of science and technology, a prize at the first mural design competition organised by the Malaysia-Singapore Airlines, and another at an art competition in London organised by the Association of the British Commonwealth. A decade later, in 1988, he was appointed Chief Judge of the seventh UOB Painting of the Year competition.
The following year, in 1989, Sim became a founding member of Singapore art group, Group 90. Founded and led by Joseph McNally, it was an informal group of experienced artists, designers and professionals committed to the study of the human figure as artistic expression. Sim, who had always had an interest in drawing both the landscape and the human figure, and painted en plein air landscapes regularly, was finally able to draw the human figure from observing a life model, something that he had not had the opportunity to do in Singapore.
Shortly after, in 1990, Sim retired from teaching. In an almost three-decade-long teaching career, he nurtured the artistic interest and talents of generations of students and trainee teachers. "An art educator is quite different from an artist", emphasises Sim. "The artist would have the focus on the production of art form. An art educator…is basically a teacher, concerned about theory and practice, as well as methodology, pedagogical approaches… there are many factors where an art educator [has] been able to reach the younger people," he says. "Because of that, I think it is worthwhile for one to be both—an art educator as well as an artist".
For an artist who has always been fascinated by nature, its myriad landscapes and the human figure, Sim's post-retirement years have been vastly rewarding. Since retiring, Sim has travelled extensively to countries such as China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, UK, US, France, Norway and Switzerland to paint and visit their art galleries. "I [was] really stimulated by what I saw", he says. He has also taken part in many studio and outdoor painting excursions, often with groups of fellow artists, and still takes part in Group 90 life drawing sessions today.
Sim continues to work on his art. Lucid, vivacious works in colour, his paintings are influenced by Impressionism and are mostly rendered in oil or acrylic, sometimes in watercolour. "Now I paint to keep my mind and body active," he says. "Despite the normal process of ageing, my good vision and mobility are advantages in the creative process and outburst of energy."
Born in Singapore.
Attended Chinese classes at Tuan Mong School and Tao Nan School.
Attended Anglo Chinese School.
Completed Senior Cambridge Certificate.
Awarded the Colombo Plan Scholarship and majored in art at the National Art School in Sydney. This led to a Diploma in Art (Painting) and a six-month Junior Fellowship visiting arts and education institutes around Australia.
Taught art and literature at Jurong Secondary School.
Art lecturer at the Teachers' Training College and Institute of Education, Singapore.
Held a major show for The 20th Anniversary of the Singapore Art Society.
Won several prizes for designing the first commemorative Silver Coin in Singapore; stamp designing; the Malaya-Singapore Mural Competition; and an art competition in London organised by the British Commonwealth Department.
Adjunct teaching staff in the Department of Architecture, University of Singapore, with focus on Basic Design, for 13 years. (c. 1970s - 1980s) .
Received further art and art education training in London, UK.
Awarded the Associateship of The Institute of Education, University of London, UK.
Also took up print-making in Central School of Design, London, UK.
Held drawing and sketches exhibitions.
Took sabbatical leave to the United States and obtained a Masters in Art from the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.
Held a major show to celebrate 25 Years of Art in Singapore.
Participated in Resurgence: An Art Exhibition by four Singaporean artists at the Goethe Institute, Singapore.
Appointed Chief Judge of the seventh UOB Painting of the Year competition.
Founding member of Group 90, an informal group of experienced artists, designers and professionals who focus on the study of the human figure as artistic expression.
Retired from teaching.
Continues to travel and paint.
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Sim Tong Khern (second from right), at age nine, with his brother and cousins at Boat Quay, Singapore. 1939.
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Sim Tong Khern carrying his son in a place he stayed while attending the University of Cincinnati, USA. 1979.
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Sim Tong Khern (extreme left) and his family went to dinner with pioneer artist Liu Kang and his wife, Singapore. 2000.
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.