Chen Su Lan

Chen Su Lan, Dr (b. 1885, Fuzhou, Fujian, China - d. 5 May 1972, Singapore) was one of Singapore's first local medical graduates and is best remembered as a philanthropist and social reformer. In the 1920s and 1930s, he led a campaign against opium addiction, which was widespread among poor labourers at the time. After narrowly escaping death during World War II, he founded the Chinese Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) in 1945 and set up the Chen Su Lan Trust in 1947 to disburse funds and land for charitable causes.

Early Life
Chen was a third-generation Methodist, raised by his devout mother who was widowed when he was young. At 15, he enrolled at the Anglo-Chinese College in Fuzhou. Soon after, he left China for Singapore, where he became one of the first students at the newly opened Straits and Federated Malay States Government Medical School (later renamed King Edward VII Medical School, then King Edward VII College of Medicine) in 1905. He was among the school's first batch of seven graduates in 1910, not only obtaining a Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery but also topping his class.

After graduation, he focused on his medical practice while at the same time offering his expertise and time to various committees, including the Tan Tock Seng Hospital Management Committee, the Central Midwives Board and the Council of the King Edward VII College of Medicine. He also founded the alumni association of the medical college and served as president of the Malayan branch of the British Medical Association.

Anti-Opium Fight
One of Chen's primary concerns early in his career was the social and health conditions in Singapore. In particular, he had a deep-seated interest in suppressing the use of opium. He was the president of the Singapore Anti-Opium Society and the director of the Anti-Opium Clinic. He founded the clinic in 1933 to treat opium addicts, many of whom were poor labourers who had turned to opium to ease their suffering. In 1937, however, the clinic closed down after the outbreak of war in China led to donations being diverted to the China Relief Fund. Following World War II, the British government banned the use of opium in Malaya, which helped Chen's cause.

Wartime Brush with Death
After the Japanese began their invasion of Malaya in December 1941, Chen tried to flee Singapore. On 13 February 1942, he boarded one of the last ships leaving the island. Unfortunately, the ship was attacked and bombed and he found himself floating in the cold sea. With the help of a raft, he and a few other survivors managed to reach a mangrove forest. The following morning, a passing boatman heard their cries for help and brought a rescue party to their aid.

Upon returning to Singapore, he was detained by the Kempeitai (Japanese military police) as the Japanese believed that he and other Methodist church leaders were conspiring against them. However, he was freed when the Japanese could not prove their charges against him.

After the Japanese Occupation
Following the end of the Japanese Occupation, the British Military Administration invited Chen to join its Advisory Council. Chen used the council as a platform to speak out on the social problems prevailing in Malaya as a result of the Japanese Occupation. To help solve these problems, including increased crime and vice, he founded the Chinese YMCA (now called the Metropolitan YMCA) in 1945 with the aim of helping the demoralised youths of Singapore rehabilitate themselves.

He was president of the association until 1948, when he handed over his responsibilities to the board of directors. However in 1954, he was asked to return to save the association from bankruptcy. The association had incurred a debt of M$370,000 because of the construction of its new building. Chen raised a loan, completed the new building and handed over his presidency in 1964, leaving the association with a surplus of M$81,000.

Legacy of Philanthropy
Chen has left behind a legacy of philanthropy that continues to benefit the community today through the Chen Su Lan Trust which he set up in 1947. The trust started with mainly offering funds and land to Christian organisations such as the Scripture Union, but it has since extended assistance to various other organisations.

The Chen Su Lan Methodist Children's Home was opened in 1968 with the help of the trust, which had provided the land and contributed a substantial sum for the building of the home. More recently, during the centennial year of the National University of Singapore in 2005, the trust donated S$2.5 million to the university for the establishment of a professorship, called the Chen Su Lan Centennial Professorship of Medical Ethics to honour its benefactor. Another recent beneficiary was the Muslim Kidney Action Association, which received a gift of S$100,000 from the trust in 2007.

Writing About His Experiences
Chen recounted his childhood days and his experiences during the Japanese Occupation in a book he wrote titled Remember Pompong and Oxley Rise. This was an undertaking he had been planning since the Japanese Occupation, as a way to express his gratitude to God, but post-war developments kept him busy and the book was published only in March 1969.

Dinesh Sathisan

Award for selfless mum. (2007, April 28). The Straits Times. Retrieved March 2, 2009, from Factiva database.

Cheah, J. S., Ho, T. M., & Ng, B. Y. (2005). The first graduates in 1910. Annals of the Academy of Medicine, Singapore, 34(6), 19C-24C.
(Call no.: RSING 610.5 AMSAAM)

Chen, S. L. (1935). The opium problem in British Malaya [Microfilm: NL 7461]. Singapore: Singapore Anti-Opium Society.
(Call no.: RRARE 178.8 CHE)

Chen, S. L. (1969). Remember Pompong and Oxley Rise [Microfiche: NL 0036/120-122]. Singapore: Chen Su Lan Trust.
(Call no.: RCLOS 940.5481 CHE)

Chen Su Lan [Ephemera].
(Call no.: RCLOS EPHE P34 v. 1)

Death [Obituary] [Microfilm: NL 7053]. (1972, May 6). The Straits Times, p. 32.

Kratoska, P. H. (2002). Southeast Asian minorities in the wartime Japanese empire. London; New York, N.Y.: RoutledgeCurzon.
(Call no.: RSING 959.052 SOU)

National University of Singapore. (n.d.). Chen Su Lan Centennial Professorship in Medical Ethics. Retrieved January 5, 2009, from

New anti-opium clinic [Microfilm: NL 1497]. (1935, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 11.

Office of Alumni Relations, National University of Singapore. (2006). The Chen Su Lan Centennial Professorship - Serendipity at work! The Alumnus, January 2006. Retrieved March 2, 2009, from

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.

Social reformers--Singapore--Biography
Community leaders
Personalities>>Biographies>>Community Leaders
People and communities>>Social groups and communities
Chen, Su Lan, 1885-1972

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