Singapore

63 heritage patrons in S'pore honoured for their contributions worth $3.24 million


SINGAPORE – When the Peranakan Museum re-opens in early 2023, a portrait painting of Captain Koh Keng Bock, a prominent member of the Straits Settlements, will be on display.

But just a few years earlier, the painting lay “in a pile of rubbish” in a clock repair shop in Malacca’s Jonker Street, said Mr Rapheal Koh, the late Captain Koh’s grandson.

During a visit to Jonker Steet with his cousin, Mr Koh was given the painting by a shopkeeper, Mr Chan Kin Wah, who had previously lived in a unit that Captain Koh once occupied.

On Tuesday (Nov 30), Mr Koh, 48, was one of 63 philanthropists and patrons of the heritage sector recognised for their contributions at the National Heritage Board’s (NHB)Patron of Heritage Awards 2020.

In 2020, donors contributed about $3.24 million in cash and artefact donations, as well as in kind, to support various heritage causes, said NHB in a statement.

The sum was the lowest received by the NHB in recent years, something the board attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic. Between 2016 and 2019, the value of contributions yearly ranged between $5.55 million and $8.67 million.

“The pandemic has been a challenging time, putting a halt to many of our events where we lost opportunities to canvas for donations,” said an NHB spokesman.

“As such, we are all the more grateful to our heritage benefactors who had continued to support us, and helped sustain important heritage and cultural efforts.”

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong, who was guest of honour at the awards ceremony, thanked the patrons for their support.

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“You have contributed not just donations, whether in cash or kind, but also ideas and suggestions which help us to take our heritage ecosystem further forward,” he said, adding that heritage provides Singaporeans with a sense of belonging, and acts as an important social glue.

Mr Koh, a commercial policy director in the medical industry, said he grew up not knowing much about his family’s history, until he discovered that much had been written about the late Captain Koh through newspaper archives.

From there, Mr Koh found that his grandfather joined the Malacca Volunteer Corps in 1915. Besides rising through the ranks, Captain Koh was made a Member of the Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) by King George V.

Outside of the military, Captain Koh was a justice of peace and served in various capacities in several clubs and associations such as the Malacca Branch of the Straits Chinese British Association and the Malacca Chinese Benevolent Society.

Mr Koh said that though the exact date and cause of Captain Koh’s death is unknown, he was tortured by the Japanese during World War II due to his close associations with the British.

“He survived the torture, but he was never the same,” said Mr Koh, based on oral accounts of his grandfather.

The donated painting, dated 1920, is the work of pioneering Peranakan artist Low Kway Song, who is known for his portraits of famous personalities in Singapore and Malaysia.


The donated painting, dated 1920, is the work of pioneering Peranakan artist Low Kway Song. PHOTO: PERANAKAN MUSEUM

Mr Koh said the decision to donate the painting was a difficult one.

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“The portrait was the only thing that I had that belonged to my grandfather. I prefer it to be kept within the family, but I know that it would be a selfish thing to do because it is only fair for people to know him and his contribution to the Peranakan community,” said Mr Koh, a docent at the Peranakan Museum and the Asian Civilisations Museum.

Also recognised on Tuesday was Mr Peter Lee, whose family has over the years contributed thousands of artefacts to the NHB and the National Library. The latest donation was made with his three brothers in memory of their parents, Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee.


Mr Peter Lee’s family has over the years contributed thousands of artefacts to the NHB and the National Library. PHOTO: COURTESY OF PETER LEE

It comprises 134 photographs that collectively show the far reach of the Peranakan community, said Mr Lee. The photos, some from the 1800s, were taken across the region. They were taken from the collections of family members, and some bought from antique shops and flea markets.

“As I gathered more photographs, I began to step back and realised that altogether, they form quite an interesting resource,” said Mr Lee, who added that many aspects of the photos have yet to be studied, including sub-themes such as the development of photo studios in the region.


Photographs donated by Mr Peter Lee. PHOTOS: PERANAKAN MUSEUM

He hoped the donation will help to strengthen Singapore’s cultural heritage.

“To make history richer, we really need more narratives. The more people step forward with their stories and their heirlooms – this sort of kaleidoscope material can only make Singapore more of what it really is, a wonderful melting pot,” said Mr Lee.

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