School rebel turns to art

School rebel turns to art

Mr Alan Koh, 32, the recently appointed director of the Affordable Art Fair, made his parents unhappy when he dropped out of St Joseph's Institution after Secondary 3.

"It was a rebellious phase. I think it must have been hormones, growing up - whatever you call it, I felt the need for freedom," he recalls.

"My parents were not happy, but couldn't get me to listen to them. I wanted to do things my way."

At 15, he got his first job, which he held for two years, at a Jean Yip hairdressing salon, where he started work as a shampoo boy.

Subsequently, he worked as a hair and make-up artist, took up several professional courses and, in 2011, acquired a diploma in positive psychology. He joined the Affordable Art Fair team in Singapore as a marketing manager in 2010.

Next month, he will helm the popular biannual Affordable Art Fair. The fair, which will be held at the F1 Pit Building from April 17 to 19, is part of the global Affordable Art Fair network, which was launched in London. In November last year, 18,200 visitors attended the fair here.

Mr Koh's mother, Madam Lilian Lim, 68, says she and her husband "feared that he would go astray, but didn't give up on him".

After failing to persuade him to stay in school, they encouraged the younger of their two children to work hard and supplemented his $700 starting salary, adds Madam Lim, who does part-time secretarial work.

Her husband, Robert, died of colon cancer at the age of 70 in October last year. The couple ran various small businesses together over the years, including doing secretarial and administrative work, selling groceries and running a money-changing outfit.

Madam Lim says: "Once Alan started working, he picked up new skills. His father and I were happy that the companies gave him a chance - and he gave himself a chance - to do well."

Mr Koh, a bachelor who has a 42-year-old sister working in the visual arts field, lives with his mother in an HDB maisonette in Hougang.

What sparked your interest in art?

Alan:I like all things beautiful. I'm more geared towards the creative. I was drawn to glossy magazines. The natural route was to go into hair and make-up. Later, in 2007, I had the opportunity to move into the arts. I joined Sotheby's Institute of Art here as a marketing executive.

Madam Lim: I didn't mind as long as he liked what he did. But my late husband was more traditional. He said Alan's work (in hairdressing and make-up) was women's work. He also wanted him to have a nine-to-five job.

Alan: Eventually my dad accepted what I did. They allowed me to find my own way.

What was your parenting style like?

Madam Lim: We let him have his freedom; he had a happy childhood. We pressured him in his studies though, which may have led to him not studying.

Alan: They enrolled me for tuition in four subjects from Primary 4 to 6 and seven subjects in secondary school.

Looking back, I feel it's love. They wanted me to excel in studies, but I felt it was a lot of work. It contributed to my rebelliousness at that time.

Which parent were you closer to when you were growing up?

Alan: My mother, because she gave in to me. She would support me in my purchases, when I wanted to buy jeans, for instance. I also talked a lot to my mum. My dad was stricter.

She was the bridge between my dad and me. She would say, for example, your dad thinks you should not wear black during Chinese New Year or he thinks you should not drink soda.

Madam Lim: I wanted them to have a good relationship. I would tell Alan not to come home late, for instance.

Alan: One of my fondest childhood memories was of going out for supper with my parents - I remember they loved soya milk and dough fritters.

How was Alan disciplined as a child?

Madam Lim: We would explain things to him, for example, if he was too playful. Maybe I raised my voice slightly.

Alan: She sometimes smacked me on the hand with the cane. It was just to scare me. Once, it was because I flunked Chinese in upper primary. She said: "How could you have failed? We speak Chinese and Hokkien at home."

My dad wouldn't use the cane. My mum was my dad's messenger also when it came to punishing me. I don't think caning is necessary, but kids should also learn their manners and respect their elders.

Madam Lim: There's a need to explain to children why something they did was wrong. Sometimes lightly caning him on the palm reinforced this and helped him understand it.

If the parent-child roles were reversed, what would you do differently?

Alan: If I were a parent, I would be careful not to push the kid over the line and watch for signs of stress, of being overloaded with too much homework or co- curricular activities. I had to work so hard in school.

That pushed my buttons in my teenage phase, when I was rude to my parents.

Madam Lim: It was a difficult time. It gave us a lot of pressure. But he came back to the right path. He's a good boy. I wouldn't change anything because we are united and have a strong mother-son connection.

venessal@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on March 29, 2015.
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