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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 thirteen non-fiction books, including some co-authored:
- 2013: 48 Values from the News: The Straits Times Guide to Building Character (editor; co-editor Serene Goh), Straits Times ISBN 9789810739263
- 2005: Ngee Ann Kongsi: Into the Next Millennium Ngee Ann Kongsi ISBN 9810411405
- 2000: The Singapore Parliament: The House We Built Parliament of the Republic of Singapore ISBN 9812321446
- 1999: Home, Work, Play Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore ISBN 9810417063
- 1998: Lee Kuan Yew: the Man and His Ideas (with Han Fook Kwang and Warren Fernandez), Singapore Press Holdings ISBN 9812040498
- 1996: Kim Seng: A Reflection of Singapore's Success Kim Seng Publication Committee, Singapore ISBN 9810085761
- 1994: First and Foremost: training technologists for the nation - forty years of the Singapore Polytechnic Singapore Polytechnic ISBN 981005419X
- 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 ISBN 9810031777
- 1992: Sisters in Crime Times Books International, Singapore ISBN 9812043152
- 1991: Hijack! SQ117: the untold story Heinemann Asia ISBN 9971642476
- 1990: Streets of Old Chinatown, Singapore Page Media, Singapore ISBN 9810017693
- 1990: True Crime: Murder & Rape from the Police Files Times Books International, Singapore ISBN 9812041788
- "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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