Meet the man who designed S’pore’s longest-running currency series

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SINGAPORE — As the first and only Singaporean to date to design an entire series of the Republic’s currency notes, artist Eng Siak Loy, 76, beamed with pride as he spoke about the work spanning five years and some 530 sketches. 

While it was very hard work, it was well worth it, Mr Eng said in an interview last week with TODAY. “As an artist, what is most important is that we can do something for the country,” he said, noting that the notes which he designed would be seen the world over and recognised for generations to come. 


(Above: Portrait of artist Eng Siak Loy, 76, who designed the portrait banknote series. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY)

His creation, the potrait series bearing the image of Singapore’s first president Yusof Ishak, was introduced in 1999. Having been in circulation for the past 18 years and counting, it is the longest-running currency series here. 

“From around 1994, I had already begun the work. There were a total of seven denominations for the series from S$2 to S$10,000. I had to learn it all from the start,” he said. “There was a lot of editing and changes… as we had to think of details such as the security needs, the needs for the visually handicapped, the layout of the design. I had to think through carefully in every element of the design to ensure the political, racial and many other aspects were carefully thought out.”

There are a total of four series in Singapore’s currency history – the portrait series was preceded by the ship, bird and orchid series. This year marks the 50th year of circulation for the Singapore currency, with the first notes introduced on June 12, 1967. 

Prior to the portrait series, the printers for the previous note series were based in England. Bradbury, Wilkinson & Co printed the S$1, S$5 and S$100 notes for the orchid and bird series, while Thomas De La Rue & Co was commissioned for the S$10, S$25, S$50, S$500, S$1,000 and S$10,000 notes, as well as the entire ship series. 

(Above: Portrait of artist Eng Siak Loy, 76, who designed the portrait banknote series. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY)

Mr Eng was selected from a shortlist of artists from the Singapore Art Society following a competition. “I felt very honoured and excited when I was chosen back then to design the currency… After the shortlisting, we had to present our ideas. and subsequently I was selected and appointed as the designer.” 

Elaborating on his design, Mr Eng said the back of each note denomination features a unique theme – education, garden city, sports, arts, youth, government or economics – related to Mr Yusof’s biography, which was launched in conjunction with the potrait series. 

While Mr Eng had to adhere to the themes set by the design committee, he had free rein on the details and elements to include. For example, the S$5 green banknote featured the garden city theme, and Mr Eng incorporated in the design an image of a Tembusu tree from the Singapore Botanic Gardens. In the background, he included a waterfront and a skyline of buildings.

On the back of the S$2 violet banknote which had the education theme, he drew the old buildings of Victoria Bridge School (now known as Victoria School) and Raffles Institution which Mr Yusof had attended in his youth. 

Mr Eng’s art career began with his training at the Singapore Academy of Art in the 1960s. The award-winning artist, who has staged many art exhibitions at home and abroad, is also a prolific designer of Singapore stamps and coins.

In 2007, he received the President’s Designer of the Year Award. In the citation for the award, Dr Tan Wee Kiat, who was advisor to the National Parks Board and Project Director for Gardens by the Bay, said Mr Eng’s “passion for art and design has moulded a strong foundation and contributed enormously, not only to the growth of (NParks) in-house design team but also the entire organisation”. Dr Tan added: “His designs have played a key role in forging the branding and image of NParks.” 

Mr Eng has created sculptures and murals for the Gardens by the Bay and the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The botanic gardens’ Tanglin Gate, which features an intricate leaf motif design, was also his work.

He has three children, including a son who has followed in his footsteps and became a designer. Mr Eng hopes the potrait series will continue to be in circulation for years to come. “When it is good there’s no need to change it. Because… it may confuse foreigners as they may not know which are the new banknotes,” he said. “Also, to make a new series requires a lot of time and effort.”

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