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Tan's father is Chinese Teochew and her mother is Japanese. She completed her GCE 'A'-Level education at Anglo-Chinese Junior College in 1981, later describing her two years there as "very happy ones", and went on to attend the National University of Singapore. On graduating with a B.A., she joined The Straits Times as a reporter in 1985. Writing in The Sunday Times in 2013, Tan said that she had lived in the Kovan neighbourhood all her life, though the area was not popularly known as Kovan in her earliest years: "People called it the Hougang 6th Milestone in Teochew." 
Tan married her junior college school mate, Quek Suan Shiau, an electrician and chess teacher based in Wales, United Kingdom, in 2010. Referred to as "H", he has featured in a number of Tan's newspaper articles.
Sumiko Tan is the author of twelve non-fiction books, including some co-authored:
- 2013: 48 Values from the News: The Straits Times Guide to Building Character (co-author Serene Goh), Straits Times
- 2000: The Singapore Parliament: The House We Built Parliament of the Republic of Singapore
- 1999: Home, Work, Play Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore
- 1998: Lee Kuan Yew: the Man and His Ideas (with Han Fook Kwang and Warren Fernandez), Singapore Press Holdings
- 1996: Kim Seng: A Reflection of Singapore's Success Kim Seng Publication Committee, Singapore
- 1994: First and Foremost: training technologists for the nation - forty years of the Singapore Polytechnic Singapore Polytechnic
- 1993: Chai Chee Revisited (co-author Michael Liew) Kampong Chai Chee CCC, Singapore
- 1992: The Winning Connection: 150 Years of Racing in Singapore Bukit Turf Club, Singapore
- 1992: Sisters in Crime Times Books International, Singapore
- 1991: Hijack SQ117: the untold story Heinemann Asia
- 1990: Streets of Old Chinatown, Singapore Page Media, Singapore
- 1990: True Crime: Murder & Rape from the Police Files Times Books International, Singapore
- "Reshuffle in ST editorial". Straits Times.
- Tan, S. "Living in Kovan," The Sunday Times 23 July 2013, reproduced in http://news.asiaone.com/News/Latest+News/Singapore/Storu/AIS...
- "Sumiko is getting married". Straits Times.
- Tan, S. "The Joy of Work," The Straits Times, 19 March 2014, reproduced in http://asiaone.com/news/diva/joy-work
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