Alumni: Dr TAN It Koon


Most successful people achieve recognition in one field of endeavour. Fewer achieve it in two. Rare, however, is the individual who has received success and recognition in four. Such a person is alumnus Dr TAN It Koon who is bilingual and graduated with B.Sc. (Hons) in Biochemistry in 1963 and a Doctorate degree in 1968 from the then University of Singapore. He obtained the Mastership in Clinical Biochemistry (MCB) professional qualification during his post-doctoral studies in the United Kingdom and also became a Fellow of the UK Royal College of Pathologists and the Academy of Clinical Biochemistry, United States.  


He then embarked on a long career at the Ministry of Health, the Pathology Department of the Singapore General Hospital and NUS that spanned over 40 years. He taught in both the Science and Medical faculties of NUS and served as an examiner for M.Sc., Ph.D. and MD candidates. He contributed to the planning of the clinical laboratory in the early 1980s for the new National University Hospital (NUH). More than 150 of his scientific papers on different aspects of clinical biochemistry have been published in medical scientific journals and book chapters. Publishers of some of the profession’s more renowned international journals, annual updates and newsletters have invited him to serve on their editorial boards.


He is the founder of both the Singapore Association of Clinical Biochemists (SACB) and the Asian & Pacific Federation of Clinical Biochemistry and Laboratory Medicine (APFCB) and served as the President of both for many years. Dr Tan was the first Asian to be elected to the International Federation of Clinical Chemistry & Laboratory Medicine (IFCC) Executive Board and was appointed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a Member of its Expert Panel on Health Laboratory, and Committee on Biological Standardisation. He also served on the council of Singapore Society of Pathology (SSP), Federation of Asian & Oceanian Biochemistry (FAOB), the Singapore National Institute of Chemistry, and as the Chairman of the Singapore Professional Centre. During his time as a Board Member of the Singapore Science Council he was asked by the late Dr GOH Keng Swee to prepare a paper on the current status of biotechnology and the feasibility and value of its introduction in Singapore. This led to the organisation of the first international conference on Biotechnology by the Science Council in the early 1980s, with Dr Tan as chairman of the organising committee. The result of this fruitful conference was the establishment of the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology (IMCB).


Besides his pioneering contribution to the advancement of the practice of clinical biochemistry in Singapore and the Asia-Pacific region, Dr Tan is an accomplished musician and a painter who has contributed significantly to Singapore’s artistic development. He can truly be described as a renaissance man without any sense of hyperbole.


At the invitation of the chief editor of the renowned medical scientific journal, Clinical Chemistry, Dr Tan has been publishing his paintings in one or more monthly issues of the journal, since a new section was added to the journal in 2010 to showcase the artistic talents of clinical biochemists and pathologists. A ball-pen sketch painting of the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at the Hammersmith Hospital in London was published in the February 2016 issue. Another water-colour painting of an English countryside in spring has been accepted for publication in the July 2016 issue. These artworks were painted in 1968 when Dr Tan was on a post-doctoral Commonwealth Fellowship to acquire the newly introduced professional qualifications for Clinical Biochemistry. Dr Tan’s artworks have also served as the front cover of the annual publication of the Asian & Pacific Federation of Clinical Biochemistry and Laboratory Medicine, APFCB News, for many years.


Dr Tan’s journey in visual art began with his studies under first generation pioneering artists of Singapore, Mr LIU Kang and Dr CHEN Wen Hsi, at the Chinese High School (1952 to 1956). During his days at the university and early working life, heavy study and work schedules left him with little time for painting. When he was in the UK on a Commonwealth Fellowship, he was able to paint scenes of England and Scotland with ball-pen and watercolours during weekends and longer holiday periods. On his return to Singapore, he studied Chinese ink and colour brush painting of the birds and flowers genre with Dr Chen Wen Hsi and Mr CHAI Hwan Ching. Subsequently, he studied Chinese landscape painting and calligraphy using different writing scripts for 22 years with Mr WU Mo Lin, a highly respected artist from Beijing.


Dr Tan won top prizes in annual art exhibitions held by the Chinese High School. From 1971 to 1975, his works were shown in Singapore National Day Art Exhibitions organised annually by the Ministry responsible for cultural activities. Since 1993 he has been organising and participating in art exhibitions overseas and in Singapore. He has exhibited his works at Beijing’s Palace Museum, and museums in Suzhou, Shanghai, Luoyang, Hangzhou, Nanning and Colombo, Sri Lanka. From April to August 2015, his works were shown in the “Scholars and Ink” Art Exhibition organised by the NUS Museum. His most recent exhibition was the SG50 and National Day Exhibition held at the Ngee Ann Cultural Centre in August 2015. Art books and/or DVDs were produced for these exhibitions. He also promoted other local artists through art exhibitions held in conjunction with the regional and international scientific medical congresses organised by him. At the invitation of the Ngee Ann Cultural Centre, he has been a member of its Cultural Advisory Committee and has been an adjudicator for its art exhibitions and annual calligraphy competition for schools and junior colleges for several years.


Dr Tan could have added another dimension to his life as a politician. He was invited by Cabinet Ministers to join them in politics. He declined in favour of contributing to the development of Clinical Biochemistry as a pioneer in his chosen field of practice. He accepted an alternative invitation to lead a Statutory Board to promote culture, the National Theatre Trust, as he was known to be an active practitioner of art and music. He chose to become the Deputy-Chairman of the National Theatre Trust (1982 to 1991) whose responsibilities included chairing the Theatre’s Cultural Committee to look after several semi-professional cultural groups under its wings. In the 1980s and 1990s, Dr Tan also served as a member of the steering committee for the Singapore Festival of Arts and the Singapore Cultural Foundation’s committee for selection of applicants for grants and sponsorship. The late President of Singapore Mr ONG Teng Cheong invited him to serve on the Steering Committee for the establishment of the new National Arts Council. He was a founding board member of the Singapore Dance Theatre and a Past-President of the Forum of Fine Art. He also served as President and Chairman of Exhibition Committee of the South-East Asia Art Association.


Dr Tan has been a practitioner and advocate of the arts since his school days.He says, “The study of visual and performing arts need not just be for the sole purpose of preparing for a life-long career in these fields.  One can be a part-time painter, musician, actor, dancer or writer, even up to the professional level throughout life while engaged in other professions. Life will be richer, more interesting, more balanced and fulfilling.” 


Dr Tan began his journey in music by taking formal piano and music theory lessons with Australia-trained music teacher, Mrs Josephine TEO at age seven. In 1952, he was recommended by Mrs Teo to continue music lessons with renowned piano teacher and music critic, Mr Victor DOGGETT. He passed all his ABRSM examinations with distinction and obtained 92% for his LRSM (Diploma in piano performance) examination. After having successfully auditioned for a scholarship to study music at the Academy of Music in London, he decided instead to study science at the University in Singapore in 1959. He won both Senior and Open Divisions of the National Piano competition as well as national competitions for music compositions, and played in concerts featuring music for one or two pianos in concerts or for radio and television broadcasts. For many years, he has also performed with vocalists, violinists, cellists, oboists, clarinetists, chamber ensemble, choirs and for ballet classes. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he performed J S BACH's Concerto for Three Pianos & Orchestra in C Major, BWV 1064 with one concert pianist from Australia and another from the Philippines, Joseph HAYDN’s Piano Concerto No 11 in D major with a chamber orchestra conducted by Mr Paul ABISHEGANADEN, and BEETHOVEN’s Piano Concerto No 3 in C major Op 37 with the Singapore Musical Society Orchestra conducted by Mr Edwin SMITH. BEETHOVEN’s 9th choral Symphony was performed on stage and for Television Singapura for the first time in Singapore, by Dr Tan and concert pianist, the late Ms CHEONG Mun Chit, on two grand pianos and a choir established and conducted by first generation music educator, choir master and music composer, the late Mr LEONG Yoon Pin. For the first time, George GERSHWIN’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was performed on two 9-ft grand pianos for the first time in Singapore by Dr Tan and American concert pianist, Seymour BERNSTEIN, in a special concert to celebrate the grand opening of the 3,000-seat National Theatre. Dr LING Ai Ee, a colleague at work and microbiologist specialising in virology and infection control, who was closely involved with investigation of SARS, has been a frequent collaborator in performance of piano duets and two-piano music at concerts, medical congresses and other events.    


Dr Tan was conferred two distinguished National Day Awards by the Singapore Government, one for excellence in public administration and provision of a highly proficient clinical laboratory service, and another for very significant contributions to cultural and community development in Singapore. He received the SACB-Boehringer Mannheim and SSP-Becton Dickinson awards for outstanding contributions to the advancement of clinical biochemistry and pathology respectively. For initiating the series of APFCB Congresses, the APFCB News, education and collaborative research programmes for more than 20 years, he received the APFCB inaugural Distinguished Service Award. A special award was conferred by Becton Dickinson for his pioneering and continued efforts in raising awareness of pre-analytical problems affecting the quality of patient testing results, through lectures and publications in the Asian-Pacific region.


In early 2015, the faculty organised a talk by Dr Tan who shared his experiences and gave a piano recital. The recordings are available at (Lecture “A Balanced & Fulfilling Life”) and (Piano recital).


Riding on Bamboo Rafts at the 9-Bend Stream at Wuyi Mountain in China's Fujian Province


Bamboo and Sparrows in the Snow

Deer at Forest Stream

  TIK 4
Japan in Cherry Blossoms Time
Mountain Village at a Waterfall

Autumn in White Birch Forest

  TIK 6
Written in ancient zhuan script, or “seal script” (the form used for the carving of
this poem is by a poet well known in ancient times