The Celestial Reasoning Association


The Celestial Reasoning Association (1882 - 1885) is considered the first debating society formed by the Straits Chinese, and the earliest literary society for the educated Chinese. Its first meeting was held on 27 May 1882. The society sought to help educated Chinese develop skills in English, as well as improve their morality through debates and the study of both English and Chinese literary texts.

Sometimes known as the Celestial Reasoning Society, the Celestial Reasoning Association was organised along similar lines to the Singapore Debating Society that was patronised by the Europeans. The Association had the Chinese Consul, Tso Ping Lung as its President, Chan Chun Fook as Vice-President, Low Cheng Geok as the Honorary Secretary and Ho Yang Moh, shroff of the Chartered Bank, as Councillor. It was not unusual then to have the Chinese Consul to preside over the Association as the Chinese Consul had established its presence in Singapore since 1877 as part of the Qing Emperor’s strategy to maintain links with immigrant Chinese in Southeast Asia. Other prominent members of the society included Wee Theam Tew, a solicitor, Tan Jiak Kim, an important merchant, Baba stalwart Chan Kim Boon and other Chinese merchants. Thus, both its leaders and members constituted the educated elite and wealthy merchants among the local Chinese.

In Tso’s inaugural address at the Association in 1882 titled “Prosperity to the Association”, he emphasised the value of higher education in advancing the community. Other topics debated over the years include: "Has the hope of reward or the fear of punishment the greater influence on human conduct?", "Which is more beneficial to the public - a legal advisor or a money lender?", "Which exercises the greater influence on the civilization and happiness of the human race, the male or the female mind?" and "Upon which do great achievements mostly depend - intelligence or perseverance?".

The fortnightly meetings were held on Saturday evenings, though by June 1883, it was decided that afternoon meetings would alternate with the evening gatherings, the latter being held only on moonlit nights. It is believed the inconvenience of night travel may have accounted for this change. The debates were often hearty and animated. At the close of each meeting, the President would summarise the arguments and then give his judgment on the better argument, often favouring the majority.

During their first anniversary, the annual report was read by Low Cheng Geok, son of Low Thuan Locke, and Honorary Secretary of the society. The Association’s second anniversary in 1884 began a tradition of specially hosted dinners. The first such dinner was held at Khoo Boon Lim’s home, the Kew Villa. For the event, he had the dining room specially decorated with orchids and other potted flowers. The following year, the President returned the grace by hosting the dinner at his own home. Even though many members were English-educated, the Association maintained loyalties towards Great Britain and the motherland. Thus on these occasions, toasts were given to both the royal heads of China and Great Britain. This was followed by toasts to the host and to the Association. Although members could invite visitors, only men attended the meetings.

When William Oldham, who was later appointed Methodist Bishop of Malaya and the region, first arrived in Singapore in 1885, he chanced upon the Association. Seeking a platform for his ministry, Oldham gained an invitation to give a lecture at the Association. Hosted by Tan Keong Saik, Oldham presented on the subject of Astronomy to 30 Chinese merchants. The following morning, he was invited by his host to tutor him in English. Tan’s vast improvement in his English speeches at the Legislative Council soon led more Chinese merchants to seek Oldham’s help with improving their English.

Thus when it came that Oldham required funding to establish an English school for Chinese boys, he had a ready pool of supporters from the merchants whom he met at the Association. This was the beginnings of the Anglo-Chinese School, and the spread of Christian influence among the Straits Chinese.

By October 1889, the Chinese Christian Association had been established. It sought to improve the moral and intellectual state of the local Chinese, similar to what the Celestial Reasoning Association had being doing. By this time, the Celestial Reasoning Association had ceased, having survived no more than three years. Even so, parallel-debating societies such as the Mutual Improvement Society did not last as long.

Bonny Tan

Chan, C. B. (1956, February 26). The sentinel of Bukit Timah [Microfilm: NL 1814]. The Straits Times, p. 17.

Chinese topics in Malaya [Microfilm: NL1455]. (1932, September 29). The Straits Times, p. 15.

Doraisamy, T. R. (1979). Oldham - called of God: Profile of a pioneer: Bishop William Fitzjames Oldham (pp. 34-35). Singapore: Methodist Book Room.
(Call no.: RSING 287.15900994 OLD)

Song, O. S. (1984). One hundred years history of the Chinese in Singapore (pp. 209-210, 250). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON)

The information in this article is valid as at 2008 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.

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