From Nanyang to Now – the story of Singtel’s accidental art collection

Cheong Soo Pieng. Resting, 1953. @ Singtel art collection.

For over 50 years, the Singtel Group has been a quiet champion of the Singapore art scene. Piece by piece, it has built up a significant collection of artworks from Singapore’s leading and developing artists.

The collection stands as an important archive of local art history, but its birth happened more by accident than design. Meant to “decorate the office walls”, recalled Singtel GCEO Chua Sock Koong, many of the works were selected purely for their aesthetic merit and the desire to buy local. “There was an intention to support the fledgling local art scene at the time, but we didn’t start off with a formal committee to do so,” mused Ms Chua, whose love for art saw her chipping in during the selection process over the years. “The few of us just got together to buy paintings for the office because of our common interest in art. Little did we know then that it would one day add up.”

Singtel GCEO Chua Sock Koong
“There was an intention to support the fledgling local art scene at the time, but we didn’t start off with a formal committee to do so. The few of us just got together to buy paintings for the office because of our common interest in art. Little did we know then that it would one day add up.” — Chua Sock Koong

Marking milestones

From those simple beginnings with little grand ambition, Singtel has supported Singapore art through the years.

In the early days, works were collected and commissioned from prominent Singapore artists, often to commemorate the milestones of the corporation. In 1955, the Singapore Telephone Board was formed to provide local telephone services, and in 1959, it commissioned the eminent modern artist Cheong Soo Pieng to paint a semi-abstract wall mural for the Board’s premises.

The 1959 mural painting commissioned by the Board, from the book Cheong Soo Pieng, Visions Of Southeast Asia

The 1970s were a busy time for the statutory board, which evolved to become the Telecommunication Authority of Singapore and later Singapore Telecom, and expanded to meet the increasing communications needs of a bustling young nation. In 1992, a corporate company was established and renamed as Singtel.

Formalised support for local artists

While Singtel had been actively supporting the local art scene for years, mainly through the purchase of paintings at community exhibitions, galleries and fairs, it was decided during this period that the practice should be made into policy, to “support budding Singaporean artists as well as purchase works of pioneer and more established local artists”. This was reported in an internal memo in 1994, where the committee at the time also indicated that organising an art competition “would help to promote interest in local art and provide an opportunity for our young artists to gain recognition for their creative talents”.

The first such competition, Singapore Telecom’s Expressions in Art series, was held in 1995.

Hong Sek Chern, then a budding artist who won first prize in the Representational category that year with her painting Expressway-Reconstructed, remembers how the competition enabled young artists like herself to “have a platform to promote their art and the prize money was useful for artists to fund their subsequent art endeavours”. The 1995 graduate from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts went on to obtain an MFA from the University of London in 1998.

“As the painting was my first larger-scale painting, winning the prize encouraged me further to pursue my artistic practice in the choice of using a traditional art medium such as Chinese ink to depict modern architectural structures,” she recalled.


Expressway - Reconstructed by Hong Sek Chern, a prize-winner in the first Singapore Telecom’s Expressions in Art competition.
“Winning the prize encouraged me further to pursue my artistic practice in the choice of using a traditional art medium such as Chinese ink to depict modern architectural structures.” — Hong Sek Chern

Hong continues to practise art today, recently taking part in a group exhibition by Singapore artists organised by an Orchard Road gallery.

Substance of a collection

The expression of a nation’s art conveys the thoughts, preoccupations and dreams of a people. In the Singtel art collection, the value for national development is seen in the many landscape and nature-themed artworks, both based on realism, semi-abstract and abstract compositions.

The collection proudly includes the works of important Singapore pioneer artists, including Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng, Lee Man Fong, Lim Cheng Hoe and Liu Kang, who were all migrants from China to Singapore. The Southeast Asian region was then known to them as Nanyang, and their style of art – which espoused the merging of traditional Chinese painting techiques, Western influences and Southeast Asian subjects – was later referred to as the Nanyang style.

Following the historical line-up are artists who were influenced by these pioneers, such as Chieu Shuey Fook, Choo Keng Kwang, Goh Beng Kwan, Ong Kim Seng, Poh Siew Wah, Tan Choh Tee, Tay Bak Koi, Tay Chee Toh and Thomas Yeo. The young emergents of the 1990s were not forgotten; Anthony Chua Say Hua, Chen KeZhan, Hong Sek Chern, Tiong Tian Tong and Wee Shoo Leong have since attained recognition for their artistic contributions.

More recent acquisitions include art from countries where Singtel has business footprints, including Australia, India and the Philippines.

“We certainly intend to keep growing our collection of art from the region, even as we support the Singapore art scene through acquisitions and sponsorships,” said Ms Chua.

Singtel’s collected artworks are arrayed in its foyers, offices and corporate headquarters; several pieces hang in spaces that are accessible to the public.

“Today, when I walk around the office and see the art that we’ve collected, I’m glad we did what we did those years ago. We think it’s about time we also shared our art collection with the larger public through our online gallery,” said Ms Chua.

“Art is for everyone and art is definitely in the air at Singtel.”