Tan Jiak Kim

Tan Jiak Kim (陈若锦) (b. 29 April 1859, Singapore - d. 22 October 1917, Singapore) was a prominent Straits-born Chinese merchant and political activist during the early 19th century. Tan was an outstanding community leader who contributed significantly to the Straits Settlements community. He invested his wealth in generous donations to the less fortunate in society.  Tan co-founded the Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA) to facilitate the interests of the Straits-born Chinese and to unite the elite in a pledge of undivided loyalty to the British. He was also a successful businessman in the banking and insurance industries.

Early life
Tan Jiak Kim was the grandson of Tan Kim Seng and eldest son of Tan Beng Swee. He was home-schooled in English and was conversant in Malay. In 1877, at the age of 18, Tan was apprenticed to the family business, Kim Seng & Co. When his father passed away, he became a partner with his uncle Tan Beng Gum in 1888.

Community leadership
He continued the family tradition of serving the Chinese community whole-heartedly, holding several key roles during his lifetime. He was the head of the Tan Clan Association (Po Chek Kiong) and Chinese temples in Malacca and Singapore. He was also the longest serving Chinese member on the Legislative Council, and fervently fought for the rights of the poor and the Chinese community. He was remembered for his passionate discourse on six themes - trade and economic issues, administration and constitutional reforms, social measures, education, public health and defence. Of these, his priority was, firstly, the advancement of the colony's economic growth and, secondly, the promotion of education.

Although he was a businessman by profession, Tan did not allow the pursuit of profit to dominate his public duties. Instead, he took it upon himself to protect the labouring classes in society. Furthermore, he fought for the retention of the Queen's Scholarship from 1905 to 1909, recognising the importance of scholarships as a stepping stone to higher education at overseas tertiary institutions.

With the passing of the Municipal Ordinance Act in 1887, Tan was elected Municipal Commissioner from 1888 to 1892 and from 1894 to1897. During his seven-year stint, Tan actively helped to protect the livelihood of rickshaw pullers and street hawkers. In 1896, he made a proposition to re-supply water to coolie and rickshaw depots, thereby improving their work conditions and hygiene levels. 

Philanthropic contributions
Tan contributed significantly to the formation of the King Edward VII College of Medicine in Singapore in 1905. A total sum of $87,000 was collected from the Chinese community, with Tan making a personal contribution of $12,000. In 1912, Tan and Seah Liang Seah, also a prominent businessman, went on to collect another $120,000 from the Chinese community in an effort to expand the medical school. Tan also decided to give out medical scholarships worth $1,500 each, thus giving poorer students an opportunity to study abroad while pursuing their academic career.

During World War I, Tan demonstrated utmost patriotism by donating the substantial sum of $37,000 to the Prince of Wales Relief Fund. The money was used to buttress Britain's war efforts in its costly endeavour of buying battle planes against the German enemy.

Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA)
On 17 August 1900, Tan, Seah and two other Straits Chinese - Lim Boon Keng and Song Ong Siang - formed the SCBA. This coincided with the Baba Awakening that had taken place in 1894, which called for the Straits Chinese community to fortify their social, political and economic interests within the Straits Settlements.

Lim and Song had returned from their studies at British universities and championed new perceptions of their identity, describing themselves as men of reason who behaved differently from the traditional Chinese. The SCBA recruited as many as 800 members, many of whom were members in the Chinese Philomatic Society of Singapore. Their loyalty to the British, which became even more pronounced during World War I, earned the respect and recognition of the colonial masters. It was also during this time that Tan, Lim and Song prepared a handbook on the duties of citizenship in times of war. This book was titled
Duty to the British Empire: Being a Guide for Straits Chinese during the Great War. As a result, the SCBA was well-received and later became a seedbed for English-educated leaders from the Straits-born Chinese community. As a consequence of Singapore's merger with Malaysia in 1964, the SCBA changed its name to the Singapore Chinese Peranakan Association. In February 1966, with the independence of Singapore, the association adopted the name, Peranakan Association.

Achievements in banking and insurance
It was also during this era that banking and insurance institutions began to flourish in Singapore. Scholars have noted the peculiarity with which the Straits Chinese were exceptionally successful in their entrepreneurial banking efforts. Most Straits Chinese who were active in the Straits Settlements Association (formed in 1868 to protect the interests of the Straits Settlements) and the SCBA played a pertinent role in helping to kickstart the development of the banking industry. In 1932, the three largest banks, namely Chinese Commercial Bank Limited, Ho Hong Bank Limited and Oversea-Chinese Bank Limited, merged to form the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) group. Tan Cheng Lock, a pioneer of OCBC and a close friend of Tan, invited Tan to join the OCBC group where he played an influential role as a main director.

Tan's keen sense of judgement and foresight also helped him to become a successful pioneer in the insurance industry. He became a director of the Straits Steamship Company where he invested 25 years of his life. This proved to be a strategic move as the involvement of the Straits Chinese in the insurance industry helped to forge closer ties between the Straits Chinese and British merchants.

Political and honorary appointments
1888 - 1897: Elected Municipal Commissioner on the Singapore Municipal Board.

1890 - 1893: Unofficial Member of the Straits Settlements Legislative Council.
1890 - 1916: Hokkien Representative on the Chinese Advisory Board.
1890 - 1906: Committee Member in the Society for the Protection of Women and Children.
1891 - 1917: Honorary Justice of Peace Singapore.
1896 - 1916: Committee Member on the Tan Tock Seng Hospital Board.
1912: Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (C.M.G.).

Association appointments
1885 - 1915: Member of the Straits Chinese Recreation Club.

1891 - 1916: Committee Member in the Straits Settlements Association.
1900 - 1904: President of the Straits Chinese British Association.
1904 - 1915: Committee Member in the Straits Chinese British Association.
1910 - 1915: Member of the Royal Asiatic Society (Straits Branch).

Key appointments to schools
1884 - 1917: Trustee on the Ghi Ok Chinese Free School Board.

1890 - 1896: Trustee on the Anglo-Chinese School Board.
1894 - 1901: Trustee on the Raffles Institution Board.

In 1878, a marriage with Ang Geok Hoe was arranged for Tan when he was 19 years old. Unfortunately, Ang died at childbirth and Tan remarried twice - first to Ang Geok Hean, who passed away on her maiden visit to England in 1911, and then to Ang Geok Lan, the youngest sister in the Ang family who eventually outlived Tan. During the initial 30 years of his life, Tan devoted himself to managing his father's firm and building his own family.

On 22 October 1917, two years after his retirement from public life, Tan suffered heart failure in his Singapore residence and passed away. At a Legislative Council meeting on the same day, tribute was paid to Tan for his outstanding contributions to society. The Governor, members of the Legislative Council and representatives of the various communities who attended Tan's funeral remembered him as a man with a kind and charitable disposition.

In view of his significant contributions to society, Jiak Kim Street was named after the influential businessman. In 1999, Jiak Kim Bridge was constructed as one of three new pedestrian bridges along Robertson Quay.

Grandfather: Tan Kim Seng (1805-1864).

Grandmother: Lim Chye Neo.
Father: Tan Beng Swee (1828-1884).
Mother: Seet Kenh Neo.
Stepmothers: Tham Hoe Neo, Yeo Guat Neo.
Uncle: Tan Beng Gum (1831-1893).
Brother: Tan Jiak Kum (1865-1885).
Wives: Ang Geok Hoe Neo, Ang Geok Hean Neo, Ang Geok Lan Neo.
Son: Tan Soo Bin (1882-1939).

Charmaine Tay

Chandradas, G. & Tien C. P. Bridging the Gap. The Straits Times, Retrieved on 25 June, 2009, from, http://www.straitstimes.com/STI/STIMEDIA/pdf/20080820/Bridges_art_Latest.pdf

Chew, P. (1976). Tan Jiak Kim (1859-1917): Straits Chinese Leader. Singapore: University of Singapore Library.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57092 CHE -[HIS])

Savage, V. R. & Yeoh, B. S. A. (2004).
Toponymics: A Study of Singapore Street Names. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.
(Call no.: RSING 915.9570014 SAV -[TRA])

Song, O. S. (1984).
One Hundred Years History of the Chinese in Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON -[HIS])

Suryadinata, L. (2002).
Ethnic Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore: Times Academic Press.
(Call no.: RSING 305.895105957 ETH)

Turnbull, C.M. (1972).
The Straits Settlements 1826-67: Indian Presidency to Crown Colony. London: Athlone Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR -[HIS])

Yong, C.F. (1994).
Chinese Leadership and Power in Colonial Singapore. Singapore: Times Academic Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5702 YON -[HIS])

Further readings
Lim, H. S.,
et al. (1986). History of the Chinese Clan Associations in Singapore. Singapore: National Archives: Singapore News & Publications Ltd.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 HIS -[HIS])

Lim, L. C., & Chan. S. O. (2004).
Pioneers of Singapore: Builders of Our Land. Singapore: ASIAPAC Publication.
(Call no.: RSING 959.570099 LIM -[HIS])

The information in this article is valid as at 2009 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Business, finance and industry>>Finance>>Banking
People and communities>>Social groups and communities
Political activists--Singapore--Biography
Tan, Jiak Kim, 1859-1917

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