While Sue Tan may not be a household name to many, she has carved an illustrious acting career both in Malaysia and Singapore for 20 years now.

Born and raised in Sungai Petani, Kedah, Tan initially read law at a college in Penang but had her heart set on showbiz all the while.

After earning her degree, she left for Kuala Lumpur and took up a job at an artiste management company. She helped manage the careers of TV personality Asha Gill and radio deejay Fly Guy.

“One day, Asha Gill told me I’m going to do a pilot for a sitcom with Susan Lankester. They were looking for a Chinese girl (for the role),” the 44-year-old actress said. While the show never took off, Tan got her foot in the door.

“I was then introduced to Datuk Nancie Foo who was looking for a Chinese actress who could speak Bahasa Malaysia. From then on, I did a lot of Malay dramas as there weren’t many Chinese actresses in their 20s who spoke BM at the time.”

Between 1997 and 2001, Tan acted in over 40 dramas including Athirah and Idaman and the Senario film series. She also began venturing into scriptwriting and penned eight episodes of the hit sitcom, Kopitiam.

In 2001, Tan auditioned for popular Singaporean drama Growing Up. She landed a lead role, marking her foray into Singapore’s entertainment scene.

“I’ve always been based in KL. I just go to Singapore whenever I have projects,” the actress said. She has been shuttling between the two countries for the past 16 years.

Throughout the years, she has landed lead and supporting roles in shows such as the 2007 sitcom 80’s Rewind, 2009 coming-of-age drama Fighting Spiders and 2014 comedy Spouse For House. 

Currently, Tan writes and stars in Lion Moms, a drama capturing the parenting styles of Singaporeans.

A number of Tan’s projects see her playing a mother. Asked if she feels stereotyped, the actress said, “I’m fine with playing a mother, it’s just sometimes I wish they were meatier mother roles instead of being the mum who scolds the daughter for not going out with the right person or for not wanting to study. I want something more challenging. As long as it’s meaty, I’m all for playing older roles.”

Tan recently starred KL24: Zombies – a feature film released online in January. She currently stars in Saw Teong Hin’s You Mean The World To Me, and will also be in the upcoming horror miniseries Gantung. 

What was it like speaking Hokkien for the first time on camera in You Mean The World To Me?

In my family, we spoke a mixture of Hokkien and English, so my knowledge of Hokkien words may not be as extensive. There were certain words that I actually had to learn.

For example, I had no idea how to say “kitchen”. I always said “au buey” which just means “behind”. It’s actually “cau kha”.

Is it difficult playing a mother on TV when you’re not a mum in real life?

I did my first mum role for Growing Up in 2001. I was 27 years old then and I had to play a 40-year-old mum to a 16-year-old daughter. I don’t remember finding it challenging.

Personally, I’ve always been very maternal, being the eldest of three siblings. And as actors, you always observe the people around you. I remember observing my mum and asking her a few questions.

After my sister had a kid six years ago, I understood mothers even more. I feel that sort of affection and unconditional love to my nephew.

You’re quite active on Instagram (@mssuetan). As an actress, how important is having a strong social media following?

Just a few weeks ago in Singapore, I went for a casting, and in the casting form, I was asked to list out the number of followers I have on Instagram and Facebook.

To be honest, it’s hard. The demographic on Instagram is not the people in my age group; it’s for younger people.

But I wonder does this translate to viewership and ratings? You might have a lot of followers but they may just want to look at the photos; it doesn’t necessarily mean they will want to follow your (acting) career.

Don’t get me wrong, I admire these young people, they are so good at marketing and making money just by posting photos.

At the end of the day, that’s how it is right now, I have to embrace it. This is one of my struggles – to keep up with the times.

What are some of the things you must do every time you’re in Singapore?

I like discovering new places to eat. In fact, because I always post food photos on Instagram, my friends would ask me, “Are you here to shoot or eat?”

I must have chicken rice, prawn mee and Japanese beef teriyaki.

I also watch plays and concerts. I like going to the National Gallery by myself to see exhibits and unwind because when you’re on set you’re surrounded by people all the time.