Asia's Most Influential: Koh Seow Chuan, Art Collector and Philatelist
He is the renowned architect celebrated for shaping much of modern Singapore; the man responsible for punctuating our cityscape with Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, a thorny issue at the time, but lauded an award-winning design since.
When Koh Seow Chuan unveiled the masterplan for Singapore’s new performing arts hub in the early 1990s, there was a major public outcry. The unusual design was vetoed and encountered all sorts of problems so much so that then-President Ong Teng Cheong and George Yeo, who was Minister for Information and the Arts at the time, had to step in to help push the project through.
Indeed, Singapore’s “Durian” has endeared itself over the years, earning the 2005 Royal Institute of British Architects' Worldwide Design Award and the 2006 President's Design Award—a prime example of DP Architects’ many statement buildings and iconic landmarks in Singapore and abroad, which have made it the country’s largest and most established architectural firm unrivalled in repute.
Since Koh officially retired from the firm in 2004, the distinguished philatelist and avid collector of artefacts has been spending more time nurturing his artistic and historical interests.
His love affair with stamps began at the tender age of four, and his childhood hobby continued throughout his school years in Monk’s Hill Primary School and Anglo-Chinese School, where he started the school’s first stamp club in the 1950s.
By his late 20s, Koh’s fascination and passion for philately had evolved into an investment-hobby when he started building a valuable collection with historical significance.
I evolved from a collector of things to a connector of things.
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In 1974, he co-founded the Inter-Asian Philately Federation, and this marked the start of his many philatelic association posts including president of the Singapore Stamp Club, president of the Association of Singapore Philatelists, chairman of the Singapore Philatelic Museum and president of Fédération Internationale de Philatélie, the world body for philately headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland.
“My journey as a stamp collector took me all over the world,” says Koh. It even took him to outer space—well, his stamps, at least.
At the World Stamp Exhibition held in Singapore in 2004, he met a Russian delegate who knew cosmonauts with an upcoming voyage to space, and offered to have them fly a stamped envelope from the exhibition up to the space station and have it autographed by the astronauts. The prized postcard still resides safely in Koh’s home today.
In the 1990s, Koh also developed a parallel interest in historical artefacts, and amassed a large collection of historical documents, photographs, postcards, maps, antique books, art works, and cultural artefacts dating back to the 1800s.
Retirement then gave him the time to inventorise his vast collection, curate items for conservation, as well as mentor arts groups, galleries and collectors.
The 81-year-old philanthropist, who was also appointed founding chairman of the National Art Gallery in 2009, has since made significant donations to the Singapore Art Museum, which included 150 paintings by Singapore artist Lim Tze Peng and another 63 paintings by Singapore artist Wong Keen.
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He also donated over 90,000 historic photographs and postcards to the Singapore Philatelic Museum, and more than 2,700 historical items from the 19th and early 20th century to the National Library Board, which led to the creation of the Koh Seow Chuan Collection, which today provides researchers with insight into the social history of Singapore.
Looking back on his life’s work, Koh says, “I evolved from a collector of things to a connector of things.”
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“And now, I’m going through this custodian phase. Having been the custodian for these items, this is the time to relinquish them and pass them to better homes for the public and others to enjoy, rather than selfishly owning it and enjoying it only by myself,” he muses. For his contributions towards the preservation of local heritage, history and the arts, Koh was bestowed the Distinguished Patron of Heritage Award by the National Heritage Board in 2008 and 2009.
For a man who once said “Good art, good architecture uplifts the human spirit”, Koh has certainly stamped his legacy on Singapore, and we are better off for it.