Tan Keong Choon



Tan Keong Choon (b. 29 October 1918,1 Amoy, Fukien, China–d. 27 October 2015, Singapore 2), nephew of the late Tan Kah Kee,3 was a prominent Chinese businessman who made his wealth from rubber trading4 between the 1950s and 70s. Among his many contributions to the local rubber industry, he was known for introducing innovative rubber processing methods, which met the requirements of Standard Malaya Rubber.

Together with Tan Eng Joo, he also led a successful campaign against the monopolistic practices of shipping conferences.6 Tan undertook a number of leadership positions in Singapore including the presidency and vice-presidency of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry7 (SCCCI); chairmanship of the National Parks Board,8 and Chinese High School and Hwa Chong Junior College Management Committees;9 and directorship of Chung Khiaw Bank,10 the United Overseas Bank11 and Wheelock Properties;12 as well as being a council member of the Hokkien Huay Kuan.13 He was awarded the Public Service Star (Bar) twice at the National Day Awards in 1978 and 1989 for his role as chairman of the Singapore Science Centre.14

Early life
During his early years, Tan would follow his father, Tan Keng Hian (also spelt as Tan Keng Hean) – the younger brother of rubber magnate and philanthropist, Tan Kah Kee —15 on his work trips. Tan Keng Hian travelled to many places to help Tan Kah Kee with his rubber business, as well as to build and manage schools in China.16 Following his father on his frequent work trips resulted in Tan having a rather chequered primary school education. He went to school in Chip Bee (Jimei); Japan; Hangzhou and Shanghai, China;17 after which, he was admitted into Amoy (Xiamen) University in 1935.18


During his varsity vacation in 1937, Tan decided to visit his relatives in Singapore.19 However, with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war (1937–1945), he remained in Singapore and learnt English from 1937 to 1939. When the situation improved in 1939, Tan returned to China to continue his university education. However, the wartime unrest in China forced him to switch schools from Kunming to Hong Kong, and then to Jinan University, Shanghai. Continued turmoil eventually led Tan to forego his studies and venture into business.20

First business
While in Shanghai, he began a trading enterprise named the Nanyang Import and Export Company. The company exported Chinese tea leaves, talcum powder (used to coat rubber), calcium carbonate and canvases from Shanghai to Singapore. His office in Singapore was located along North Canal Road.21

The Japanese Occupation
During the Japanese Occupation, Tan and his family’s lives were in danger because of his uncle’s, Tan Kah Kee, pro-China activities during the Sino-Japanese war. To evade the Japanese, Tan lived in various parts of Singapore, including Paya Lebar, Changi and Thomson Road.22 He eventually fled to Vietnam through Penang, Malaysia and Thailand. Though he had originally planned to escape to China, the danger of being caught at border crossings deterred him.23 In Vietnam, he started a small business exporting Chinese medicine to Malaya, where they were in short supply.24 When the Japanese forces fell, he travelled north and made his way back to Shanghai.25

Growth in business
Tan returned to Singapore in 1946 and rebuilt his business, exporting timber and rubber from Malaya to Shanghai, operating out of an office located in the OCBC Building.26 His business thrived and caught the attention of rubber magnate, Lee Kong Chian, who suggested that Tan set up a private limited company. Hence, the South Seas Corporation (Nan Ya) was established in 1948, in which Lee Rubber Co. Pte. Ltd (Nan Yi) acquired a 60 percent stake. The company became the largest exporter of rubber and timber to Shanghai. When trade with China came to a halt due to the civil war there in 1949, Tan branched out to trade with Japan, Korea and Hong Kong.27

Around 1950, China approached Tan to supply them with rubber. As the quantity of rubber requested was too large for South Seas to handle, the project was contracted out to Lee Rubber, with South Seas acting as an agent. South Seas reaped handsome profits from the commissions until the British placed an embargo on rubber trade with China from 1951 to 1955.28 To get around the ban, Tan took his business to Japan and Indonesia.29 In 1957, Tan entered into another business relationship with the Lee family with the setting up of Tropical Produce Co. (Yan Fang), where he was managing director. The company started off by buying rubber from Indonesia then re-exporting it to other countries. A rubber mill was later added to their business.30

Contributions to the local rubber industry
In those days, the quality of rubber was determined with the naked eye, and not assessed according to technical standards. This often led to disputes between buyer and seller. Malayan rubber was also often rejected on grounds that it was of inferior quality. In 1962, the Rubber Research Institute (RRI) was formed to study and control the quality of rubber, and the outcome was the introduction of Standard Malaya Rubber. Tan was one of the few businessmen in the rubber trade industry who complied with its specified superior grade of rubber. He even sent his employees to the RRI to learn rubber processing techniques, while he read up on ways to improve the mechanical aspect of rubber production. Eventually, Tan designed machinery that could process more rubber in a shorter time.31


To promote his quality rubber, Tan approached leading rubber-consuming companies such as Marumeni, Bridgestone32 and Goodyear33 in Japan and America, and sold them limited quantities of his rubber at cheap prices. He believed that the companies would return to him for more once the rubber was found to be of good quality.34

Along with Tan Eng Joo, Tan also made significant contributions towards better freight rates for rubber traders. At that time, shipping conferences, such as the Far East Freight Conference (FEFC) and the Straits New York Conference, helped shippers control freight rates, establishing a monopoly of the business. Both men worked tirelessly to convince rubber traders to use non-conference shippers. The successful boycott of conference shippers broke these exploitative practices for the first time and paved the way for traders to negotiate for fairer freight rates.35

Introduction of incentive wage scheme at the National Iron and Steel Mills
Besides his many business concerns, Tan was also made managing director of National Iron and Steel Mills Limited in 1961.36 During his term, he pioneered a new wage scheme where workers were paid a basic wage, and would receive extra wages for additional work done. While the workers’ union vehemently protested against such changes, they relented when it became known that the unionists themselves collected extra wages. Tan also made other improvements such as announcing the results of each worker’s productivity and arranging for them to work in teams in order to stir up a competitive spirit among his workers.37

Other business achievements and community involvements
In the mid-1970s, Tan set up Nassim Mansions, a property development firm.38 Tan also held directorships at the Chung Khiaw Bank, United Overseas Bank and Wheelock Properties (formerly known as Marco Polo Developments), and was also president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry,39 founder and vice-chairman of the Singapore Shippers’ Council,40 vice-chairman of the Singapore Rubber Packers Association,41 member of the Rubber Association of Singapore, chairman of the National Parks Board, chairman of the Chinese High School and Hwa Chong Junior College Management Committees,42 council member of the Hokkien Huay Kuan,43 and chairman of the Singapore Science Centre.44 He was awarded the Public Service Star (Bar) twice at the National Day Awards in 1978 and 1989 for his role as chairman of the Singapore Science Centre.45


Family
Father: Tan Keng Hian46
Mother: Ong Peck Lian47
Wife: Tan Iwen (Ueda Seiko)48
Children: A son and a daughter49



Authors
Isabel Ong & Sharen Chua



References
1. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who's who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who's Who Pub, p. 472. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO); Obituaries. (2015, November 3). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
2. Obituaries. (2015, November 3). The Straits Times; Leong, W. K. (2015, November 4). Prominent Chinese community leader Tan Keong Choon dies. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/

3. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who's who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who's Who Pub, p. 472. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO); My big mistake: Clever people learn from advice. (1993, January 28). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. My big mistake: Clever people learn from advice. (1993, January 28). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Loh, G., & Lee, S. L. (1998). Beyond silken robes: Profiles of selected Chinese entrepreneurs in Singapore. Singapore: Times Academic Press, pp. 66–67. (Call no.: RSING 338.0409225957 LOH)
6. Loh, G., & Lee, S. L. (1998). Beyond silken robes: Profiles of selected Chinese entrepreneurs in Singapore. Singapore: Times Academic Press, pp. 75–76. (Call no.: RSING 338.0409225957 LOH); Visscher, S. (2007). The business of politics and ethnicity: A history of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Singapore: NUS Press: International Institute for Asian Studies, pp. 203–206. (Call no.: RSING 381.0605957 VIS)
7. My big mistake: Clever people learn from advice. (1993, January 28). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Visscher, S. (2007). The business of politics and ethnicity: A history of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Singapore: NUS Press: International Institute for Asian Studies, p. 318. (Call no.: RSING 381.0605957 VIS)
8. NParks head retires. (1998, June 10). The Straits Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who's who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who's Who Pub, p. 472. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO)
10. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who's who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who's Who Pub, p. 472. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO)
11. My big mistake: Clever people learn from advice. (1993, January 28). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who's who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who's Who Pub, p. 472. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO)
13. Leong, W. K. (2015, November 4). Prominent Chinese community leader Tan Keong Choon dies. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who's who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who's Who Pub, p. 472. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO)
14. Singapore. Government gazette. (1978, August 9). Singapore: [s.n.], p. 3582. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.57 SGG); Singapore. Government gazette. (1989, August 9). Singapore: [s.n.], p. 6000. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.57 SGG)
15. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who's who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who's Who Pub, p. 472. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO); Leong, W.K. (2015, November 3). Prominent Chinese community leader Tan Keong Choon dies. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
16. Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, October 11). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/14, p. 130]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

17. Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, August 30). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/01, p. 6]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
18. Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, August 30). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/01, p. 7]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
19. Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, August 30). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/01, p. 7]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/.; Visscher, S. (2007). The business of politics and ethnicity: A history of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Singapore: NUS Press: International Institute for Asian Studies, pp. 200–201. (Call no.: RSING 381.0605957 VIS)
20. Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, August 30). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/01, p. 8]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
21. Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, August 30). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/02, pp. 17—21]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

22. Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, August 30). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/03, pp. 26—32]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/.
23. Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, August 30). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/03, pp. 34—35]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
24. Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, August 30). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/04, p. 37]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

25. Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, August 30). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/04, p. 43]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

26. Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, August 30). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/04, pp. 44—45]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

27. Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, August 30). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/05, pp. 46–48]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

28. Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, August 30). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/05, pp. 49–52]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

29. Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, September 20). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/06, p. 57]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

30. Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, September 20). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/06, pp. 61—63]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

31. Loh, G., & Lee, S. L. (1998). Beyond silken robes: Profiles of selected Chinese entrepreneurs in Singapore. Singapore: Times Academic Press, pp. 66–67. (Call no.: RSING 338.0409225957 LOH)
32. Loh, G. & Lee, S. L. (1998). Beyond silken robes: Profiles of selected Chinese entrepreneurs in Singapore. Singapore: Times Academic Press, p. 68. (Call no.: RSING 338.0409225957 LOH)
33. Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, September 20). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/08, p. 82]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
34. Loh, G. & Lee, S. L. (1998). Beyond silken robes: Profiles of selected Chinese entrepreneurs in Singapore. Singapore: Times Academic Press, p. 68. (Call no.: RSING 338.0409225957 LOH)
35. Loh, G. & Lee, S. L. (1998). Beyond silken robes: Profiles of selected Chinese entrepreneurs in Singapore. Singapore: Times Academic Press, pp. 75–76. (Call no.: RSING 338.0409225957 LOH); Visscher, S. (2007). The business of politics and ethnicity: A history of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Singapore: NUS Press: International Institute for Asian Studies, pp. 203–206. (Call no.: RSING 381.0605957 VIS)
36. Loh, G. & Lee, S. L. (1998). Beyond silken robes: Profiles of selected Chinese entrepreneurs in Singapore. Singapore: Times Academic Press, p. 68. (Call no.: RSING 338.0409225957 LOH)
37. Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, September 20). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/09, pp. 85–88]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/; Loh, G., & Lee, S. L. (1998). Beyond silken robes: Profiles of selected Chinese entrepreneurs in Singapore. Singapore: Times Academic Press, pp. 68–70. (Call no.: RSING 338.0409225957 LOH)
38. Visscher, S. (2007). The business of politics and ethnicity: A history of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Singapore: NUS Press: International Institute for Asian Studies, p. 201. (Call no.: RSING 381.0605957 VIS)
39. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who's who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who's Who Pub, p. 472. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO)
40. Cheng, L. P. (2015). 50 years of the Chinese community in Singapore. Singapore; New Jersey: World Scientific, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 959.57004951009045 FIF–[HIS]); Lim, H. S. (Interviewer). (1981, August 30). Oral history interview with Tan Keong Choon [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000052/24/01, Bibliographical information, p. 2]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
41. Re-elected chairman. (1972, March 9). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who's who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who's Who Pub, p. 472. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO)
43. Leong, W. K.  (2015, November 4). Prominent Chinese community leader Tan Keong Choon dies. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who's who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who's Who Pub, p. 472. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO)
44. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who's who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who's Who Pub, p. 472. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO)
45. Singapore. Government gazette. (1978, August 9). Singapore: [s.n.], p. 3582. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.57 SGG); Singapore. Government gazette. (1989, August 9). Singapore: [s.n.], p. 6000. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SGG)
46. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who's who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who's Who Pub, p. 472. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO)
47. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who's who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who's Who Pub, p. 472. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO)
48. Shimizu, H. (1999).Japan and Singapore in the world economy: Japan's economic advance into Singapore, 1870–1965. London; New York: Routledge, p. 169. (Call no.: RSING 337.5205957 SHI)
49. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who's who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who's Who Pub, p. 472. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO)



Further resources
Menon, J. (1989, November 1). Tan Eng Joo elected new SCCI president. The Business Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Pang, C. L. (2015). 50 years of the Chinese community in Singapore. Singapore; New Jersey: World Scientific, pp. 6–7.

(Call no.: RSING 959.57004951009045 FIF–[HIS])

Please, I am not a tycoon. (1999, January 1). The Straits Times, p. 43. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan. (2016, January). Fondly remembered. Newsletter, 65, p. 7. Retrieved from Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan website: http://12686-presscdn-0-49.pagely.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/SHHK-Newsletter-65-Final.pdf

Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan. (2005). Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan 39th Term of Council. Retrieved 2009, February 10 from Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan website: http://www.shhk.com.sg/aboutus/members.html



The information in this article is valid as at 20 September 2016 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.

 

Subject
Community leaders
Business, finance and industry>>Industry>>Agriculture, fishing and forestry
Rubber industry and trade--Singapore
Personalities>>Biographies>>Community Leaders
People and communities>>Social groups and communities
Businessmen--Singapore--Biography
Tan, Keong Choon, 1918-