Reflections: The Man Called Tiger Tan

I have often been asked how I got into Public Relations. Instinctively, my reply would be that I started out as a journalist at the Straits Times (ST), Singapore’s English daily and progressed from there.

This merely scratches the surface, however. Delving deeper, I only really cut my teeth in PR when I started writing two columns regularly for ST – one to promote local artists and their exhibitions and the second on squash, more specifically, the competitions organised by the Singapore Squash Racquets Association (SSRA). These were columns which I started on my own initiative outside my designated work as a features writer for ST.

Both were weekly columns except that for squash, I also ran almost daily reports of matches played during the SSRA League season. On practically every weeknight, I covered the matches for the B to the F grades at various squash venues and then returned to ST to bang away the stories on archaic typewriters. This routine affected my own game and impeded my progress beyond C grade status. (In the SSRA, ‘A’ was the highest attainable grade and only one expatriate held the honour at that time.).

In essence, I was publicising the game and the local artist community through these columns – much like a PR practitioner. The only difference being that I was both publicist and journalist rolled into one.

But why the sudden desire for pensive reflection? Two weeks ago, Mr Tan Seng Yong a.k.a. the Tiger Painter of Singapore invited me to attend the launch of The Singapore Mint’s Lunar New Year Coin Collection, which featured his tiger paintings on their floral-shaped ingot among other collectibles. Since 2010 is the year of the Tiger, featuring Seng Yong’s paintings was most appropriate.

Tan Seng Yong , The Tiger Painter, (Centre) with his wife, Mavis, and Yap Boh Tiong at The Singapore Mint's Majestic Tiger Lunar Fair in Singapore on 8 January 2010

Tiger Tan, which is what Seng Yong was affectionately called, was an artist whom I featured in my column on local artists.

The year was 1973. Tiger Tan was a secondary school art teacher, about to stage the first exhibition of his works. For dramatic effect, I took him to the Singapore Zoological Gardens and made him pose in front of the barrier-free tiger enclosure, where the free roaming tigers were separated by a small moat. As he trained his eyes on the majestic animals, he held a brush in hand to put the finishing touches to one of his tiger paintings. A short distance away, the ST photographer clicked happily away.

The publicity that appeared in ST contributed to the success of his exhibition and started him on his journey to fame.

A year later which was the Tiger Year, my PR instincts kicked in again. I connected him with Exxon which sponsored his Tiger paintings exhibition. Twelve years later, Exxon followed up with the sponsorship of a wall calendar. The calendars were distributed free to motorists who pulled up at ESSO stations to “put a tiger in the tank” – the EXXON tagline at the time.

Following this marketing feat, a connection was made with yet another company with a Tiger symbol – Asia Pacific Breweries (APB), which manufactures Tiger Beer. Thinking along the lines of the Tiger Beer brand logo, APB commissioned Tiger Tan to paint a tiger standing next to a coconut tree.

Looking back, my early foray into PR, sponsorship and some event management at Seng Yong’s exhibitions (all gratis) helped this now-retired school teacher attain success and fame. They also helped me develop as a PR practitioner. More importantly, however, Tiger Tan has attained recognition of his craft and his paintings have been acquired by many local collectors and foreigners.

Today at 67, he remains as humble as ever and has not lost his artistic skill. May he have many more roaring years.

© Copyright 2014 Mileage Group All Rights Reserved