Tan Jiak Kim

Tan Jiak Kim (陈若锦) (b. 29 April 1859, Singapore–d. 22 October 1917, Singapore)1 was a prominent Straits-born Chinese (Peranakan) merchant and political activist in the early 19th century. He was an outstanding community leader who contributed significantly to the Straits Settlements community and donated generously to the less fortunate. 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.2

Early life
Tan Jiak Kim was the grandson of Tan Kim Seng and eldest son of Tan Beng Swee. He was conversant in Malay and homeschooled in English. 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 1888.3

Community leadership
Tan continued the family tradition of serving the Chinese community, holding several key roles during his lifetime. Besides being 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 Straits Settlements Legislative Council, fighting for the rights of the poor and the Chinese community. Tan 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.4

With the passing of the Municipal Ordinance Act in 1887, Tan was elected municipal commissioner from 1888 to 1892 and then from 1894 to1897. During his seven-year stint, Tan helped to protect the livelihood of rickshaw pullers and street hawkers. In 1896, he proposed to resupply water to coolie and rickshaw depots, thereby improving their work conditions and hygiene levels.5

Tan fought for the retention of the Queen’s Scholarship, recognising the importance of scholarships as a stepping stone to higher education at overseas tertiary institutions.

Philanthropic contributions
Tan’s contribution to the formation of the King Edward VII College of Medicine in Singapore was significant. 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, another prominent businessman, went on to collect a further $120,000 from the Chinese community in an effort to expand the medical school. Tan also decided to disburse medical scholarships worth $1,500 each, thus giving poorer students an opportunity to study abroad while pursuing their academic career.7

During World War I, Tan donated $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 to fight against the Germans.8

Straits Chinese British Association
On 17 August 1900, Tan, Seah and two other eminent Straits Chinese – Lim Boon Keng and Song Ong Siang – formed the SCBA. This coincided with the so-called “Baba awakening” in the late 19th century, which called for the Straits Chinese community to fortify their social, political and economic interests within the Straits Settlements.9

Lim and Song had returned from their studies at British universities and championed new perceptions of their identities, 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, titled Duty to the British Empire: Being an Elementary Guide for Straits Chinese During the Great War.10

As a result, the SCBA was well received by the British colonial authorities11 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.12

Professional career
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 – 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 close friend of Tan’s, invited Tan to join the OCBC group where he played an influential role as a main director.13

Besides his banking career, Tan was also a director of the Straits Steamship Company and a pioneer in the insurance industry.14

Political and honorary appointments
1888–1897: Municipal commissioner, Singapore Municipal Board

1890–1893: Unofficial member, Straits Settlements Legislative Council
1890–1916: Hokkien representative, Chinese Advisory Board
1890–1906: Committee member, Society for the Protection of Women and Children
1891–1917: Honorary justice of peace
1896–1916: Committee member, board of Tan Tock Seng Hospital
1912: Awarded the Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (C.M.G.)

Association appointments
1885–1915: Member, Straits Chinese Recreation Club

1891–1916: Committee member, Straits Settlements Association
1900–1904: President, SCBA
1904–1915: Committee member, SCBA
1910–1915: Member, Royal Asiatic Society (Straits Branch)

Key appointments to schools
1884–1917: Trustee, board of Ghi Ok Chinese Free School

1890–1896: Trustee, Anglo-Chinese School
1895 – 1902 : Trustee, board of Raffles Institution

A marriage with Ang Geok Hoe was arranged for Tan in 1878 when he was 19 years old. Unfortunately, Ang died at childbirth and Tan remarried twice subsequently: 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.16

On 22 October 1917, two years after his retirement from public life, Tan suffered from 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.17

In view of Tan’s significant contributions to society, Jiak Kim Street was named after him.18 In 1999, Jiak Kim Bridge was constructed as one of three new pedestrian bridges along Robertson Quay.19

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

1. Ching Fatt Yong, Chinese Leadership and Power in Colonial Singapore (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1992), 52. (Call no. RSING 959.5702 YON-HIS])
2. Phyllis Chew Ghim Lian, Tan Jiak Kim (1859–1917): Straits Chinese Leader (Singapore: University of Singapore, 1975), 6–9. (Call no. RSING 959.57092 CHE-[HIS])
3. Chew, Tan Jiak Kim (1859–1917), 6–9.
4. Chew, Tan Jiak Kim (1859–1917), 12–13.
5. Chew, Tan Jiak Kim (1859–1917), 21.
6. Chew, Tan Jiak Kim (1859–1917), 21.
7. Yong, Chinese Leadership and Power, 59.
8. Yong, Chinese Leadership and Power, 58.
9. Yong, Chinese Leadership and Power, 52.
10. Catherine G. S. Lim, Gateway to Peranakan Culture (Singapore: Asiapac, 2003), 20. (Call no. RSING 305.8951 LIM); “Thursday, January 13, 1916,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 13 January 1916, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Yong, Chinese Leadership and Power, 56.
12. Lim, Gateway to Peranakan Culture, 20.
13. Ethnic Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia: A Dialogue Between Tradition and Modernity, ed. Leo Suryadinata (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 2002), 232. (Call no. RSING 305.895105957 ETH)
14. Leo, ed. Ethnic Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia, 232.
15. Yong, Chinese Leadership and Power, 60.
16. Chew, Tan Jiak Kim (1859–1917), 10.
17. Choon-san Wong, A Gallery of Chinese Kapitans (Singapore: Dewan Bahasa dan Kebudayaan Kebangsaan, 1963), 34. (Call no. RSING 325.25109595 WON)
18. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Toponymics: A Study of Singapore Street Names (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 2004), 203. (Call no. RSING 915.970014 SAV-[TRA])
19. “URA to Spend $10m on S’pore River Bridges,” Business Times, 18 December 1997, 2; “Boon Leong Will Meet The Wizard,” Singapore Free Press, 29 September 1954, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Chew, Tan Jiak Kim (1859–1917), 67.

The information in this article is valid as at 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. 

Tan, Jiak Kim, 1859-1917
Political activists--Singapore--Biography