N.People who Shaped Singapore

The power list: 30 people who have shaped Singapore

Artists, architects and the wife of Singapore's founding father feature in the first of our three-part series, looking at the personalities who have helped engineer this country's DNA

KP Magazine

7:29 AM  -  Public
The power list: 30 people who have shaped Singapore »
Artists, architects and the wife of Singapore's founding father feature in the first of our three-part series, looking at the personalities who have helped engineer this country's DNA

30. Kwa Geok Chew and Lee Kuan Yew: The power couple

With all the attention focused on the Clintons and the Obamas, it’s easy to forget that the original political power couple was the late Kwa Geok Chew and her prime minister husband Lee Kuan Yew. For over half a century, the Lees played a formidable tag team – he, negotiating the political and social quagmire of a fledgling nation, and she, the very capable voice of reason and counsel. That a tiny island like Singapore with no natural resources to speak of, and a former British colony at that, has managed in the space of two generations to leap frog from Third World obscurity to a First World economic powerhouse is proof enough of the Lees’ enduring class act

29. Shaw Brothers: Kung fu champions

Singaporean’s love for the movies owes much to Shanghainese brothers Runme and Run Run Shaw.
At the height of their success, they operated 19 cinema halls in Singapore and used the city-state as a film distribution center -- that meant easy access to the latest movies.
It helped that the Shaw brothers made and produced their own movies. And that they introduced kung fu films to Singapore.
Apart from movies, they also managed two amusement parks: New World Amusement Park and Great World Amusement Park, and created the Shaw Foundation which continues to contribute to local charities.

28. Najip Ali: Regional wit

Being relevant is important to Najip Ali. And it should be, since it’s his job to keep a 300-million-strong Malay-speaking Southeast Asian audience entertained.
That’s a long way from his early days as the host of "Asia Bagus," a talent search program that aired in the 1990s. His antics, colorful and wacky wardobe and off-the-cuff wit brought him fame that lasted long after the show came to an end.
Today Ali runs two companies and is an executive producer and director. He hopes to one day have a nusantara (Malay archipelago) station called TV:ism, which stands for “TV for Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.”
Success hasn’t gone to his head. “Who I am today,” Najip says, “is because of my community. Thank you for your love and support.” Thanks, Najip.

27. Dr. Kanwaljit Soin: Leading lady

Dr. Soin gave parliament a much-needed female presence when she became the first Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) in 1992.
She held the position until 1996 and has since worked to raise awareness of female issues.
She also served as President of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) from 1991 to 1993 and is one of the most well-known names in Singapore when it comes to women’s issues.
She is still in practice as an orthopedic surgeon and retains her ties to the community as the current president of the Women’s Initiative for Ageing Successfully (Wings).

26. WoHa: Building winners

Founded in 1994, architectural outfit WoHa is an acronym for its principals Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell, but there’s nothing short-handed about the Singapore-based firm’s work.
Boasting an unusual oeuvre that runs from grand churches and towering condominiums to tropical resorts and train stations, the duo’s bold silhouettes pepper the regional architectural environment in places including Bangkok, Bali and China.
Their 2007 Aga Khan award for architecture was an unprecedented scoop for a Singaporean firm, but with the recent completion of the mammoth School of the Arts, and the Bras Basah and Stadium MRT stations -- alongside a clutch of projects underway in China -- it seems that their best work may be in front of them.

25. Lee Wen: Yellow power

First a banker, Lee Wen (thankfully) quit the finance industry in 1988 to devote himself to art.
A few years later he propelled himself to fame when he started appearing as the Yellow Man. For this series of installations and performances that today's audiences continue to define him by, Wen covered himself from top to toe in bright yellow paint -- a statement about his Chinese ethnicity -- and appeared in various provocative settings.
The Cultural Medallion recipient still makes audiences sit up with projects such as his new series “Anyhow Blues,” a take on a conservative society trying to be hip. (We're loving the implied irony here). He's also behind a regular performance art night calledR.I.T.E.S. and is planning to pull together a solo exhibition in 2011.

24. Philip Cheah: Indie prophet

Back in the 1980s, when Singapore was a cultural wasteland and there was nothing on the radio, Philip Cheah and brother Michael started BigO, a now-legendary ‘zine that pushed local musicians and artists into the spotlight.
As director of the Singapore International Film Festival in the 1990s, Cheah's championing of young filmmakers like Eric Khoo led to the revival of Singaporean movies.
Long before "Supporting The Arts" became public policy, he promoted, encouraged and inspired countless bands, directors, writers and artists. Quietly but persistently, Cheah has paved the way for the flourishing of independent music and film.

23. Gerrie Lim: Agent provocateur

When it hit the shelves in 2004, excited crowds ripped open "Invisible Trade," Lim's book about Singapore’s sex industry, like it was a box of condoms.
The pivotal publication explored a subject previously the domain of tabloid journalism in a serious, intelligent yet lively way.
Lim has since delved deeper into the provocative subject, releasing "In Lust We Trust" -- about the porn industry -- and "Invisible Trade II."
While his work has pushed the envelope of journalism in Singapore, Lim does not think Singaporeans are more open-minded now than before he started writing.
"All I can expect is that some people might be willing to alter their perception of things after they’ve read something that has moved them," says Lim.
Up next, a book about Annabel Chong, called "Searching for Annabel Chong."

22. Thomas Wee: Class cut-up

A name synonymous with Singaporean fashion, Wee, dubbed the “King of the Jacket” for his precise suit tailoring, is known for his innovative designs and cutting techniques.
Wee's innovative “one-seam detail” technique uses just one seam to create clothes. During his heyday, Wee designed three labels -- Thomas Wee, Mixables and Luxe -- and operated a high fashion boutique, well ahead of its time.
The 1998 financial crisis forced its closure, however, leaving Wee to lecture on fashion design at NAFA for a decade.
He has only recently returned to the fashion scene with a new collection at Tangs.

21. Ah Meng: Tourism ambassador

Star of the popular zoo event “Breakfast with an Orang Utan,” the lateAh Meng dined with many a celeb, including Prince Philip, Elizabeth Taylor and the late Michael Jackson. Bubbles was not present.
When she died in 2008, more than 4,000 people attended her funeral. A bronze statue now marks her grave on the banks of theUpper Seletar Reservoir.
So significant was Ah Meng that her death monopolized headlines, overshadowing news of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, who died on the same day.
“Visitors to the Singapore Zoo still ask for her," says Sam, her keeper for 36 years. "It brings back all my memories and my love for her deepens as the days go by. Ah Meng will always hold a special place in my heart.”
ountdown from last week's list (30 to 21) with those personalities making up the places from 20 to 11.

20. J.B. Jeyaretnam: Power puncher

A titan in Singapore’s minefield of opposition politics, the late Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, more commonly known as JBJ, worked relentlessly for democracy for almost 40 years before his death at 82 years of age in 2008.
He was the first opposition politician to become an elected Member of Parliament in 1981-86 and served again as a Non-Constituency MP in 1997-2001. But a series of libel and bankruptcy suits against him crippled his political abilities. Shortly before his death, finally cleared of bankruptcy and determined to re-emerge in the political scene, he set up the Reform Party, which is now headed by his son Kenneth Jeyaretnam.
“My father demonstrated to Singaporeans that democracy means the right to change your government if you are not satisfied with it,” says Jeyaretnam. “His legacy lives on in the Reform Party. Our aim is to be in a position to form the government of Singapore … and this aim is enshrined in the Party constitution, which was written by JBJ.”
How would the late JBJ feel about this post-humous honor? “I am sure if he was still around,” says Jeyaretnam, “he would be pleased.”

19. Violet Oon: The domestic Bibik

The Delia Smith of her generation, Violet Oon has been cooking and evangelizing about food -- Asian food, in particular -- for over 40 years.
Through TV programmes, magazine articles and bestselling cookbooks, her influence on Singapore’s culinary tradition and her considerable repertoire of recipes are belied by her jovial countenance and now, in her sixth decade, she is parlaying her Nonya heritage to a new audience with great effect.
This past September, Oon was the marquee attraction for the Peranakan Exhibition in Paris' Musée du quai Branly, bowling over the French with her mix of buah keluak ayam, pineapple tarts and homespun élan.

18. Eric Khoo: Celluloid genius

Eric Khoo put us on the global stage with his art house films: “Mee Pok Man” and “12 Storeys.” Both of which have picked up awards at film festivals. They showcased our filmmaking talents to the world, and the world reciprocated -- “12 Storeys” was shown at the 50th Cannes Film Festival.
Unlike our saccharine television dramas, Khoo’s films celebrate the anti-hero with disturbing but soulful stories that capture Singapore's underbelly. 

Khoo is currently directing his first animated feature based on the works and life of Japanese manga artist, Yoshihiro Tatsumi.

17. Kumar: The drag Queen of Singapore

No one is knocking off Singapore's comedian numero uno anytime soon. 

We love Kumar not just because he dresses (and looks good!) in drag, but also for mocking everything Singaporean from the city state's policies on making babies to our racial quirkswithout getting hauled up by the authorities.
The key to Kumar's balancing act of raunchy wisecracks with social acceptability lies in "not being too political." 

Regardless, this man (or lady when he's working) is an example on how Singaporeans aren't a humorless lot. He makes us laugh regularly at the Three Monkeys in Orchard Towers .

16. Michael Chiang: Mood manager

In a prolific career that has spanned nearly three decades, publisher, playwright, editor, novelist and media consultant, Michael Chiang has effortlessly captured the mood of Singaporeans with deft humour and subtlety.
Whether his first book "Army Daze" -- a cheerfully sardonic snapshot of military service that still resonates 25 years later -- or his nostalgic musicals ("Beauty World" and "Mortal Sins" among them), Chiang captures the appealing nature of ordinary Singaporeans with flair. 

The humor of his work has an affection that is universal while remaining intrinsically Asian. It’s a tricky balance to be sure, but it’s one that leaves you cheering for more. 

15. Ng Ling Kai: Wonder girl

We were as surprised as Ng Ling Kai when she was featured on YouTube for her song “Larkin Step," with her self-written song garnering over one million views.

That certainly caught the attention of Australia-based independent label Lempicka Records who signed her on for a two-week musical tour in Brisbane while she recorded her first album “Honestly.”

Since then, she has opened for Aimee Mann during her maiden concert in August 2009 and performed at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games.

More importantly, you’ll know that Ng’s the real thing when YouTubers are recording covers of “Larkin Step.”

14. Dick Lee: Our local Madonna

The Mad Chinaman   is, perhaps, the most well-known -- and well-loved -- local singer .

Lee started his career in the 1970s, and his first album, "Life Story," was released in 1974. As Singapore’s version of Andrew Lloyd Webber, he has also written a number of musicals, including "Beauty World," "Fried Rice Paradise" and "Sing To The Dawn."

The always fashionably turned out Lee has also reinvented himself with several forays into the fashion world, written National Day songs, been the creative director for the National Day Parade and the annual Christmas light-up, and been a judge on "Singapore Idol." His contributions have not gone unnoticed, having received the Singapore Cultural Medallion in 2005.

If we’re ever looking for a new national song, we reckon Lee’s classic "Fried Rice Paradise" should be given a look in.

13. Professor Roy Chan: AIDS educator

Singapore saw its first case of AIDS in 1986.
In 1988, Prof Roy Chan started Action for Aids, which has gone on to become Singapore’s largest HIV/AIDS support organization.
The AFA runs campaigns, public education programmes, support and welfare groups and the only anonymous HIV testing centre in Singapore.
And while much of AFA’s efforts have paid off more needs to be done.
“HIV-related stigma and discrimination is still rampant and has discouraged people with Aids from ‘coming out’ to friends, colleagues and even their families," says Chan. "This means HIV infection is still very much an invisible disease in Singapore, making prevention and education all the more challenging. The law that criminalizes homosexual sex feeds this stigma and discrimination of HIV/AIDS.” 

12. Daniel Wang: Hawker hunter

In 1973 Daniel Wang, an engineer-trained civil servant, led the government’s movement to rehouse all of Singapore’s street food vendors within permanent food centers, thus creating our currenthawker centers.
Without his work, we might have lost the true culture of Singapore: its hawker food. 
Aside from rounding up a bunch of itinerant street food vendors, Wang (aka “Mr Hawker Center”) made eating hawker food safer with hygienic practices such as banishing spittoons from under the tables and habits such as “kopitiam boys who scratch at the crotch and handle food then after.”
The resort-like Lagoon Food Centre on East Coast Parkway is Wang’s greatest achievement: creating a beachfront-dining experience in a hawker center. 

11. Phua Chu Kang: The ah beng we love

It’s funny how we love people who aren’t real. Phua Chu Kang, the lead character in a local sitcom, is a construction contractor with yellow construction worker boots, permed hair, a giant mole and catchphrase: “Don’t play play!”
He stamped his way into our pop consciousness for being an ah beng with a large heart.
And we laugh with Phua because of how he parodies Singapore’s heartlands and shows up our foibles and quirks.
What’s interesting is that his brand of humor has found fans across the region, which lends credence to his other catchphrase: "Best in Singapore, JB, and some say … Batam."

10. Alex Au: The most influential gay in the village

When asked how he felt about being on this list, 48-year old and openly gay Au said, “I don’t know what ‘influential’ means for someone not in government in a place like Singapore, where freedom of expression is so restricted."
"We’re confined to the media margins; we have no access to policy makers.”

But Au’s influence is clearly strong among the populace, for his liberal Yawning Bread blog of 14 years has amassed a sizable following and covers a wide breadth of topics, ranging from sexuality to politics, media, society, the environment to “being human.”

While the blog receives many comments and is frequently cited, Au doubts that non-mainstream new media will be allowed too far a reach in society.

“New media is freer than traditional media," says Au. "But the question remains whether the government will continue to tolerate a robust new media when its influence surpasses that of the docile old. Reversal of trends is not out of the question.”

9. Cheong Koon Hean: Hotspot planner

If there’s one person who’s really given Singapore an urban facelift, it would have to be Cheong Koon Hean, former CEO of Urban Development Authority (URA) and now CEO of the Housing Development Board. 
Cheong has spearheaded some of the most ambitious city development projects during her time at the URA.

She transformed Marina Bay, once the sleepy southern tip of Singapore, into sin city, complete with a new waterfront and a high-rolling, high-living lifestyle that most Singaporeans can only dream of.

On a more family-friendly angle, she's helmed Singapore’s new island-wide Leisure Plan. That’s right, leisure for everyone, leisure on the dams, in the parks, everywhere.

As the hotspot planner of Singapore, Cheong has earned her place in Singapore’s history by building a mega watt city that doesn’t sleep.

8. Electrico: Scene breakers

This pop-rock group quite likely revived the local indie music scene by themselves. Proof of their influence? Their song "What Do You See" was the 2009 National Day Parade theme song.

Electrico, comprising of guitarist/vocalist David Tan, bassist Desmond Goh, and drummer William Lim Jr., have released three albums, which received nominations at the 2005 and 2008 MTV Asia Awards.
More importantly, they’ve exposed the world to music made in Singapore by performing all around the region and in the United States at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Festival in 2007 -- they were the first Singaporean act to do so.

Who says that Singaporeans don’t know how to rock out? Electrico is currently working on a new album.

7. Brian Richmond: (Still) surfing the airwaves
Richmond is, possibly, the most famous ‘ang moh’ in Singapore.

Having been in radio since 1971, generations of Singaporeans have grown up hearing his voice on the radio, which he's still doing today, on Gold 90.5FM.
Local soccer fans also spent many years listening to his entertaining football commentary, especially during the heyday of the Malaysia Cup. A strong supporter of local music, Richmond was given a special award by COMPASS, the society for composers and artistes, in 2006, in recognition of this contribution in the promotion of local talents.

He was also given the Lifetime Achievement award by MediaCorp that same year.

6. Tan Howe Liang: Our true blue Olympian
Singapore has made known its, some say rather lofty, ambitions to bring home medals from the 2012 London Olympics.

For Tan Howe Liang, this is a feat already achieved in 1960 in Rome where he won a silver medal for weightlifting in the lightweight category. 
This victory brought him a lifetime of accolades, from the Meritorious Service Medal to the Spirit of the Century award, and he remains a symbol of Singapore’s Olympic medal hopes today.

5. Jack Sim: Janitor to the world

Sim sticks in people’s minds because he started a group to promote good hygiene and sanitation and decided to call it, very simply: World Toilet Organisation.
While the name draws giggles and bemusement, the WTO’s work is quite serious. Its aim is to improve sanitation globally so people, especially in poor communities, can have better health. 

“Proper sanitation is the number one preventative medicine,” says Sim on WTO’s website. His aim besides doing good? “We want to make toilets sexy."

4. Lincoln Cheng: The original raver

In Singapore’s ever-changing and fickle nightlife scene it’s rare for one club to reign for this long ... unless of course your name is Zouk.
At the top of its game for the past 19-odd years, this successful nightclub has seen a few generations of clubbers and superstar DJs pass through its pumping dance halls.
The secret to its success? The passion of its founder no doubt, who remains closely involved in the development of Zouk.
 “I spare no cost in keeping everything in top form," says Cheng. "We keep improving the décor, sound and light systems, and the service."
"We’re also increasing our management team so that we can spread our wings abroad. The Zouk brand is very strong after 20 years of cultivating it.” 

Rave on, we say.

3. Mustaq Ahmad: Mega shopper

When Mustafa first opened as a clothes shop on Campbell Lane in 1971, not many foresaw that this humble store would become a retail institution in Singapore.
It is unrivaled in its variety of goods and the fact that it stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A department store like none other, whether you want perfume, jewelry, Aryuvedic remedies, hearing aids, a blender or a loaf of bread, you can pick it up here. 

You can also buy foreign currency, get a travel visa to India or Malaysia (for which Mustafa is now the authorized agent) or check into their 130-room hotel. 

How has Mustafa achieved such success? “Simplicity works best," says co-founder and managing director Ahmad. And what more can Ahmad do? 

“Open one more mega outlet in Singapore.” 

A man of few words but clearly a lot of action.

2. Fandi Ahmad: Twinkle toes

No doubt his exploits at home -- leading Singapore to the Malaysia Cup Final win in 1994 -- and in Europe has much to do with his elevated status.
Ahmad was the first Singaporean to play in Europe, making his mark by scoring 10 goals with FC Groningen in the Dutch Football League, and notching one against soccer powerhouse Inter Milan during the 1983 European Championships.
Since his retirement, Ahmad has coached at soccer clubs all around the region, and  is now a judge for The Chance, a talent scouting program seeking out the next big soccer talent in Singapore.

1. KF Seetoh: The god of hawker food

If Singapore is a food heaven, then Seetoh is the reigning god. 

Having started as a photojournalist in the 1980s, Seetoh turned food into art, but it was when he launched a humble food guide of Singapore's hawker food in 1998 that he found his true calling.
His annual Makansutra guide is a hawker food lover’s bible. Not many Singaporeans or global foodies would say no to a food stall given the Makansutra tick of approval.
He was honored in 2008 by the Singapore Tourism Board with a Special Recognition Award for being “a true Singapore Food Ambassador” and we have to admit that trying out new hawker food wouldn’t be the same without Seetoh guiding us through it.
last update - 2012.05.23 -

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