If good artists are defined by innovation and daring, then the three recipients of this year's Cultural Medallion certainly deserve the top honour.

Fearless theatre practitioner Ivan Heng, 50, visionary conductor Tsung Yeh, 63, and prolific author Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, also 63, were bestowed the country's highest recognition for artistic excellence by President Tony Tan Keng Yam at the Istana last night.

Seven other artists aged 35 and below received the Young Artist Award from Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong. They are theatre practitioner Koh Hui Ling, musicians Bani Haykal, Ruth Ling and Chua Yew Kok, and visual artists Grace Tan, Zaki Razak and Zul Othman (ZERO).

Mr Heng, as the gutsy founder of theatre company W!ld Rice, has directed, produced and acted in provocative plays with hot-button themes such as politics and homosexuality.

In 2010, the government cut W!ld Rice's funding on the grounds that its plays ran contrary to the "core values promoted by the Government and society". The cuts were, however, restored in April this year; funding has gone up by $20,000.

Mr Heng told The Business Times: "This feels like a new beginning and a step in the right direction. . . It's part of (the artist's) job to question the easy assumptions and to challenge the status quo.

"Theatre provides us a safe place in which some of the most challenging and pressing issues can be debated and discussed. I do not take for granted the space that we have and the responsibility that we have as artists."

Like him, Mr Yeh has also weathered the storms that have come with pushing the envelope. As the music director and conductor of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, he has spent more than a decade helping to reform the orchestra.

Today, it plays not only classical Chinese music but also cross-cultural mash-ups that borrow from musical traditions such as jazz, pop and Western standards. He said: "There were doubts and resistance over the new directions. . . But the important task was to make the orchestra understand the reasons for the change and the outcomes of not changing.

"We have a small repertoire and audience. We need to diversify our repertoire to reach out to more people. We need a new image."

On his part, Malay-language writer Mohamed Latiff has played a pivotal role in fleshing out the psyche of Malays as a minority in Singapore, a Chinese-majority country in the heart of a Malay region.

His novel Confrontation, translated into English, explores the ambivalence of the Malay community about Singapore's merger with and subsequent separation from Malaya.

He described the award ceremony as "the most memorable day of my life, recognising my 40 years of work in creative writing". He hopes his novels will "educate the young from not just the Malay community, but also the larger Singapore society about Singapore's history".

The three Cultural Medallion winners received grants of $80,000 to be used to fund their continued creation of original works; the Young Artist Award recipients received $20,000 to undertake art projects or studies.

Mr Heng and Mr Yeh said they will use the money for their future productions; Mr Mohammed Latiff wants to translate some of his best works - including novels Dalam Keasingan (Isolation) and Ziarah Rindu (Visits To Reminisce) - into English.

Yvonne Tham, deputy chief executive of the National Arts Council, said: "The impact of their work in theatre, literary arts and music is clearly felt in the way each has inspired audiences and the next generation of art-makers alike."