The power list: 30 people who have shaped Singapore (Part 2)

The power list: 30 people who have shaped Singapore (Part 2)

This week we salute the artists, activists and a TV character who've given Singapore its distinct character

We continue the countdown from last week's list (30 to 21) with those personalities making up the places from 20 to 11.

The late JBJ

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.”

Violet Oon

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.

Eric Khoo

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 .

Michael Chiang

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.

Turn to page 2 for numbers 15-11.

Ng Ling Kai

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.”

Dick Lee


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.

roy chan

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.”

Daniel Wang

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 current hawker 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. 

Phua Chu Kang

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."

Log in next Monday for numbers 10-1.