Singapore Art Society, Society of Malay Artists and the British Council

Kwok Kian Chow

This document is part of a joint project of the Singapore Art Museum and the Honours Core Curriculum, National University of Singapore. This image and accompanying text appears here with the kind permission of the Singapore Art Museum.

Scholars Programme

In the immediate years after the Second World War, pre-war cultural institutions and groups re-established themselves while new organisations were founded. Local members of the Society of Chinese Artists under the leadership of Liu Kang made preparations to revive the society, but found that documentary records and contact with the scattered members had been lost (Society of Chinese Artists p. 14). Richard Walker resumed his art classes at the Raffes Institution from 1948 to 1950.

In the political front, the British promoted schemes of Malayan confederation while Singapore became a separate British colony. In the midst of heightened and contending anti-colonial, nationalist ideologies, NAFA, restored in the early months of 1946 (Lim Hak Tai), steered its educational philosophy away from Chinese nationalism and became more entrenched in the social and environmental context of Southeast Asia. Thus, concerted movement towards the Nanyang School in art was forged.

The Singapore Annual Report of 1946 commented on cultural activities during the Japanese Occupation:

With regard to its cultural interests the interruption of the normal life of the city caused by the Japanese occupation did less damage than might have been expected.... After the first few months cinemas showed only Japanese made films, and lost much of their popularity... so the arts had to be cultivated at home, or not at all, and the result was that during these years many acquired their first experience of and love for classical music, Chinese calligraphy, and the monuments of Asiatic or Western Literature. [p. 97]

In reviewing the year 1946, however, it was felt that painting and sculpture were the most neglected of all the arts. The report commented that this was not due to the lack of exponents the energy of which could be seen in "the revived annual exhibition which was given to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce [which] contained examples of painting in both the traditional and modernised Chinese styles which would have held their own in any country in the world where they might have been shown." The main problem was, the report commented, "the lack of any public gallery, or of any influential society to foster and bring out the talent which exists has tended to retard the growth of an educated public interested in pictures." [Colony of Singapore p.98]

The need for a focused gallery appeared to have been met in the following year when the Singapore branch of the British Council was established adjacent to the Raffles Library (now the National Library) along Stamford Road. The Singapore Annual Report of 1947 expressed the cultural mission of the British Council:

"---there being no local collection of originals or even copies of [art] works by great masters, there is no standard which the average person can take as his guide. For this and for other reasons, Singapore is therefore glad to welcome the establishment in the past year of a branch of the British Council ... [to] extend the range of vision of the local artist or art lover to take in what is going on in the outside world." [p. 115]

The Colonial Office continued to report on the growth of visual arts activities in the annual reports of the subsequent years The establishment of venues and organisation of events appeared not only to have provided a platform for aesthetic exchange amongst the different cultural enclaves in Singapore, but also served as a catalyst for the establishment of the first multicultural art society -- the Singapore Art Society -- in 1949. Multi-culturalism appeared to be an important theme from this point onwards and was incorporated into the objectives of NAFA in 1955. [Tan Siah Kwee]

The Singapore Art Society was based in the British Council but was not part of the council. The founders were Richard Walker, Francis Thomas, Liu Kang, Sun Mohyani, Charles Salisbury (of the British Council), C. A. Gibson-Hill (of the Raffles Library and Museum), Roy Morrell, Phyllis MacKenzie, and Tok Khoon Seng. The objectives were "to establish an independent body which could foster the practice and appreciation of art in Singapore." Institutions and societies including the British Council, Society of Malay Artists, Society of Chinese Artists, Indian Fine Arts Society, YMCA Art Club, and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts became corporate members. (The Singapore Artist v1, n2, p.2).

The Society of Malay Artists (Persekutuan Pelukis Melayu) was also formed in 1949 with Mahat bin Chaadang as president and M. Salehuddin as secretary. The society, with members from peninsular Malaya and Singapore, organised its first exhibition in April that year (Colony of Singapore 1949 p. 146). Participating artists at the society's next exhibition in 1951 at the British Council included Mahat bin Chaadang, Sulaiman Haji Suhaimi, Suri Mohyani, M. Sawoot, Saidin Yahya and A. B. Ibrahim (A. G. Hamid pp. 7-8). In a 1954 article, Sudar Majid wrote that due to a "miscomprehension" of the teaching of Islam, portrayal of the human figure was thought to be unacceptable, As such, while the Malays traditionally excelled in wood-carving, poetry, music, dance, silver engraving and etching, the visual arts were an "unfamiliar" mode of expression. This situation was changing in the late-1940s and Sudar Majid was able to name Sulaiman Haji Suhaimi and Suri Mohyani among 25 better-known Malay artists from both sides of the Causeway (v1, n2, pp.8-9).

The Singapore Annual Report recorded a total of more than 17 art exhibitions in 1949, including one each organised by the Alliance Francaise and the United States Information Service. Solo exhibitions by Singapore artists included shows by Chen Wen Hsi, Yong Mun Sen, Wu Tsai Yen and Chang Tan Nung. Within the short period of five years from the point when painting and sculpture were regarded as "the most neglected of all the arts," visual arts appeared to have witnessed a staggering growth. The Inter-School Art Exhibition of 1950, for instance, received a very impressive figure of 2,700 entries. The Singapore Art Society organised four art exhibitions in 1950 with some five to six thousand visitors at each show (Colony of Singapore 1950 pp. 151-53).

Liu Kang, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Pieng emerged as the leading artists in Singapore in the early 1950s. They were so popular that the Singapore Art Society organised two joint exhibitions of their works within a single year (Colony of Singapore 1951 p. 136).


Abdul Ghani Hamid. An Artist's Note. Singapore: Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya, 1991.

Lim Hak Tai. "Benxiao Chuangban jingguo de huiyi" in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Nanyang meishu zhuanke xuexiao fuban jinian tekan. Singapore: 1946.

Society of Chinese Artists. "Huishi" in Art 90. Singapore: 1990.

Sudar Majid. "The Malay Artist". The Singapore Artist, 1954.

Tan Siah Kwee. "Lin Xueda dui woguo meishu shiye de gongxian" in Malaysian Institute of Art, Nanyang meishu jiaoyu zhi fu Lin Xueda. Kuala Lumpur, 1991.

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Last updated: May 2000