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Tan Chin Nam

Prominent government administrator with a focus on the arts.


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : ~10mins

As Singapore matures into an advanced economy, art should no longer be viewed as a luxury, but as a strategic investment tool that contributes towards both the economic competitiveness and social well-being of our nation.

Born in 1950 in Singapore, Tan Chin Nam is a public figure best known as a government administrator who played prominent roles in the Ministry of Manpower, National Computer Board, Economic Development Board, Singapore Tourism Board, National Library Board, Media Development Board, and the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. An arts policy maker who changed the way arts and culture was seen against the backdrop of national development, Tan championed arts and culture as active economic contributors and cultural capital. He campaigned for the development of Singapore arts and media industries, bringing prominence and recognition to the arts’ role in nation-building.

Born in pre-independence Singapore in 1950, Tan Chin Nam was already a keen amateur pianist as a young man in his early school years. He went on to obtain two engineering and economic degrees from Australia in 1972 and 1973 on Colombo Plan and President’s scholarships that ensured his first career steps in the Ministry of Defence. Through the 1980s, Tan garnered experience in various posts in economic and technology portfolios before a return to tourism and creative industries in the 1990s.

The idea of a cultural renaissance in Singapore clearly resonated with Tan, who even since his days as Chairman of the National Library Board (1995–2002), concretised this notion with the installation of a classical Florentine fountain in the old National Library courtyard to symbolise this cultural revitalisation; Florence, after all, was the birthplace of the Renaissance. While the fountain may have been a temporary physical symbol in the now-demolished old National Library, the equally iconic new National Library serves as a daily reminder of the direction Tan hoped to see arts and culture go in Singapore.

His time at the Ministry of Labour from 1998 to 2001 saw him guide the ministry in its transformation into the Ministry of Manpower. While there, he also led a task force that initiated the upgrading of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and LASALLE College of the Arts to meet the future manpower needs of the arts sector. The plan was outlined in a paper, Creative Singapore – A Renaissance Nation in the Knowledge Age.

Upon joining the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts in 2002 as its Permanent Secretary in his subsequent move, Tan wasted no time furthering the arts cause. He oversaw the opening of the $600 million Esplanade theatres in the same year, and spearheaded Singapore Season festivals in London and China which brought together arts and commerce. He chaired a committee that laid the blueprint for Singapore’s creative industries which led to the formation of Media Development Authority and Design Singapore Council. This was a critical development that legitimised the creative industries’ contributions to Singapore’s socio-economic development and was integrated into the Economic Review Committee’s Report in 2002.

Various arts organisations in Singapore also benefited from Tan’s guidance and advice, as he served on the boards of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Singapore Dance Theatre, and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. Tan also was the Chairman of the steering committee which oversaw the conception and establishment of the School of the Arts, and one of the first 15 charter members of the National Arts Council. Tan has also been recognised for his contributions to Singapore’s development in his careers across industries through many awards, including the Public Administration Medal (Gold) (Bar) in 2002 for reinventing the public library system.

Along the way, Tan never forgot his passion for piano playing. He found the time to occasionally indulge in this, and performed in a charity dinner concert with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in 1998, playing a medley of popular Broadway tunes.

Tan retired from civil service in 2007 and became a Senior Corporate Adviser serving on the boards of various public and private companies. He continues to have a hand in the arts and cultural landscape of Singapore as Chairman of the Media Development Authority International Advisory Panel and as a member of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra Council.


Aug 1950

Born in Singapore.


Graduated from Raffles Institution.

1969 to 1973

Attended University of Newcastle, Australia, on a President’s and Colombo Plan scholarship. Graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering (First Class Honours) in Industrial Engineering and Bachelor of Arts in Economics.


Systems Engineer, Singapore Armed Forces.


Graduated with Master of Business Administration, University of Bradford.

1977 to 1982

Various appointments including Director, Systems and Computer Organisation, Ministry of Defence.


Received Pingat Pentadbiran Awam (Gangsa) (Public Administration Medal (Bronze)).


Received Pingat Pentadbiran Awam (Perak) (Public Administration Medal (Silver)).
Chairman, Advisory Board, School of Infocomm Technology, Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

1987 to 1994

Chief Executive, National Computer Board.


Received Friend of Labour Award, National Trade Union Congress.

1990 to 2002

Member, Board of Directors, Singapore Symphonia Company Limited.

1991 to 2000

Member, Board of Directors, Singapore Dance Theatre.

1 Sep 1991

Charter member, National Arts Council.


Led the Library 2000 Review Committee.

1994 to 1997

Chief Executive Officer, Singapore Tourism Board.

1995 to 2002

Chairman, National Library Board.


Conferred Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters, University of Bradford.
Received Eisenhower Fellowship.


Received Travel Personality of the Year award, Travel Trade Gazette Asia and Pacific Asia Travel Association, Travel News Asia Pacific.

1998 to 2001

Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Labour.


Conferred Honorary Degree of Doctor in Engineering, University of Newcastle.

2001 to 2009

Director, Asia-Europe Foundation (Governor for Singapore).

2002 to Jan 2006

Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts.


Received Pingat Pentadbiran Awam (Emas) (Lintang) (Public Administration Medal (Gold) (Bar)).

2002 to 2006

Member, Board of Directors, Singapore Totalisator Board.

2002 to 2007

Member, Board of Directors, The Esplanade Co. Ltd.

2002 to 2003

Chairman, Singapore Broadcasting Authority.

2003 to 2010

Chairman, Media Development Authority.

2004 to 2007

Chairman, Singapore Season Steering Committee.

2005 to 2007

Founding member, Singapore Arts School Ltd (now known as School of the Arts).


Received Economic Development Board Society Distinguished Fellow Award.

2008 to Present

Senior Corporate Adviser and Independent Director on various listed and private companies.

2011 to Present

Chairman, Media Development Authority International Advisory Panel.

2012 to Present

Member, Singapore Symphony Orchestra Council.


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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