Cultural Medallion

Singapore Infopedia

by Tan, Isabel


The Cultural Medallion honours individuals who have achieved excellence in the fields of literary arts, performing arts, visual arts and film, and contributed to Singapore’s cultural environment.1 The award is conferred by the president of Singapore and administered by the National Arts Council (NAC). Instituted in 1979 by Ong Teng Cheong in his capacity then as the acting minister for culture, the Cultural Medallion is the nation’s highest award for the arts. Candidates for the award are nominated every year, and the Cultural Medallion is awarded if there are suitable candidates.2

Conception and first awards
The Cultural Medallion was instituted in 1979 at the initiative of Ong, who felt there was a need for official recognition of artistic achievement at a time when the nation was developing a distinctive culture. The institution of the award also signalled the government’s intent to promote the arts, affirmed the role of the arts and culture in national development, and aimed to encourage arts practitioners.3

The Ministry of Culture wrote to 120 cultural organisations, including arts groups and newspapers, requesting recommendations for nominees4 in the fields of art, dance, literature, music, photography, theatre and film, as well as details of the nominees’ artistic talent and achievements.5 These recommendations were then submitted to the award committee, who worked with members of the arts community and the ministry to draw up a list of awardees based on a selection criteria.6 These criteria included artistic merit and achievements, and the artists’ contributions to their respective fields.7 The nomination period closed in August 1979, and the ministry received 51 nominations.

In February 1980, the ministry conferred the first Cultural Medallion on six artists. They were Madhavi Krishnan for dance, Bani Buang for drama, Wee Beng Chong for fine arts, Edwin Thumboo for literature, and Choo Hoey and David Lim Kim San for music. On 3 March, Ong presented the award to the winners at a ceremony held at the DBS Auditorium.9

In January 1985, the Ministry of Community Development was formed10 to oversee the arts, including the administration of the Cultural Medallion.11 By 1989, the Medallion’s award process comprised a preliminary committee stage, during which the merits of nominated artists were examined by experts from their respective fields, before the recommendations of the committees were passed to the Cultural Awards Committee. This was chaired by the minister of state (community development) and comprised senior ministry officials and eminent individuals from the arts community. The committee assessed the nominees’ artistic excellence before awarding the Cultural Medallion.12 

The 1980s also saw debate among members of the arts community over various aspects of the Cultural Medallion, including the judging process and criteria, the prestige of the award and its perceived lack of ceremony for winners. While the first Cultural Medallion ceremony included a segment where the artistic achievements and merits of the recipients were cited in front of an audience before the presentation of the award, later ceremonies were of a more informal nature. The ministry altered the format of the awards presentation in 1990 to include citations and exhibitions, as well as a more ceremonial sense of occasion.13 

Other issues, such as the overall standing of the award and government support for award winners, remained the subject of debate.14 In 2000, the NAC instituted a scheme where Cultural Medallion recipients could apply for individual grants of up to S$50,000 or group grants of up to S$200,000 to pursue projects in their field, with the grants subject to NAC conditions. A book, Narratives: Notes on Cultural Journey – Cultural Medallion Recipients 1979–2001, was published in 2002 by the NAC.15 The grant for individual projects was subsequently raised to S$80,000. By 2011, 48 Cultural Medallion grants had been awarded.16

In 2004, the NAC widened the scope of the award to include art forms such as pop music, multimedia art and technical theatre.17 The artistic fields eligible for the Cultural Medallion were originally contained within three broad categories: performing arts, literary arts and visual arts. Film was later added as a fourth category.18 From 2006, the Medallion has been conferred by the president as part of the government’s move to accord high-level recognition to the arts and the award.19

On a number of occasions, there was debate about the suitability of some Medallion recipients. In 2001, conductor Yan Hui Chang was awarded the Cultural Medallion even though he only became a Singapore citizen five years earlier, and spent most of his time abroad as the music director of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra.20 In 2005, when movie director Jack Neo and pop musician Dick Lee were awarded the Medallion, there was debate about whether popular culture should come under the purview of the award.21

Selection criteria
NAC assesses the Cultural Medallion nominees based on the extent to which they have achieved or demonstrated the following: artistic excellence and professional maturity; shaped the development of Singapore’s arts and culture; advanced his or her field of artistic practice; brought the arts to the local public through educational and/or community development efforts; been an inspiration and role model to other artists; and established a good standing and recognition internationally.22

Isabel Tan

1. “Cultural Medallion,” National Arts Council, accessed 28 February 2017; Clarissa Oon, “Arts Awards Should Provoke Debate,” Straits Times, 26 October 2004, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
2. National Arts Council, “Cultural Medallion.”  
3. Venka Purushothaman, ed., Narratives: Notes on a Cultural Journey: Cultural Medallion Recipients 1979–2001 (Singapore: National Arts Council, 2002), 9. (Call no. RSING 700.95957 NAR)
4. “Culture Awards: Ministry Sends Out Letters,” Straits Times, 13 June 1979, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Oon, “Arts Awards Should Provoke Debate.” 
6. Lee Yuen Hee, “Nominees Are Assessed Fairly and Rigorously,” Straits Times, 17 July 1989, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Oon, “Arts Awards Should Provoke Debate.” 
8. “Ministry Gets 51 Names for Culture Award,” Straits Times, 25 September 1979, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Ling Poon Wah, “6 Artistes Win Ministry of Culture Awards,” Straits Times, 2 February 1980, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Logo for Community Development Ministry,” Business Times, 15 April 1987, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Cultural Medallions,” Singapore Monitor, 18 April 1985, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Lee, “Nominees Are Assessed Fairly and Rigorously.”
13. T. Sasitharan, “A Proper Ceremony at Last,” Straits Times, 3 May 1990, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Sasitharan, “Proper Ceremony at Last,” 
15. Clarissa Oon, “$1m Fund for Cultural Medallion Winners,” Straits Times, 23 September 2000, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Mayo Martin, “Medal of Honour?” Today, 28 November 2011, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Clara Chow, “Top of the Pop,” Straits Times, 22 October 2005, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Oon, “Arts Awards Should Provoke Debate.” 
19. Paul Tan, “More Creative Ways to Honour Top S’pore Artists,” Straits Times, 31 March 2006, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Conductor-At-Large,” Straits Times, 20 September 2001, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Chow, “Top of the Pop.” 
22. National Arts Council, “Cultural Medallion.” 

Further resources
A New Cultural Medallion Award,” Straits Times, 17 February 1979, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

Awarding the Cultural Medallion,” Straits Times August, 21 1979, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

Corrine Tham and Ranee Govindram, “‘Medallion Will Help Boost Culture’,” Straits Times, 21 February 1979, 8. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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