Celestial Reasoning Association

The Celestial Reasoning Association (1882–1885) was considered the first debating society formed by the Straits Chinese, and the earliest literary society for educated Chinese. The association, which held its inaugural meeting on 27 May 1882, aimed to help members improve their English language skills as well as to “encourage learning and morality” through debates and the study of English and Chinese literary texts.1

Sometimes known as the Celestial Reasoning Society,2 the Celestial Reasoning Association was organised along similar lines to the Singapore Debating Society patronised by Europeans. It had Chinese Consul Tso Ping Lung as president, Chan Chun Fook as vice-president, Low Cheng Geok as honorary secretary, and Ho Yang Moh (shroff of the Chartered Bank) as councillor. The Chinese consul was appointed the association’s president due to his 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 solicitor Wee Theam Tew, merchant Tan Jiak Kim, Baba stalwart Chan Kim Boon and other Chinese merchants. Thus, both the association’s leaders and members constituted the educated elite and wealthy merchants among the local Chinese.3

Tso delivered his inaugural address  titled “Prosperity to the Association” during the opening meeting held at his residence, where he emphasised the value of higher education in advancing the community.4 Other topics debated over the years included:

-       “Has the hope of reward or the fear of punishment the greater influence on human conduct”?5

-       “Which is more beneficial to the public – a legal advisor or a money lender”?6

-       “Which exercises the greater influence on the civilisation and happiness of the human race, the male or the female mind”?7

-       “Upon which do great achievements mostly depend – intelligence or perseverance”?8

The association held fortnightly meetings on Saturday evenings. By June 1883, it was decided that afternoon meetings would alternate with evening gatherings, with the latter being held only on moonlit nights. The inconvenience of night travel might have accounted for the 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.9

During the association’s first anniversary, the annual report was read by the honorary secretary Low Cheng Geok.10 A tradition of specially hosted dinners was started during the second anniversary in 1884, The first of such dinner was held at Kew Villa, the home of Khoo Boon Lim.11

When William F. Oldham (who was later appointed Methodist bishop of Malaya and the region) first arrived in Singapore in 1885, he chanced upon the Celestial Reasoning Association. He gained an invitation to give a lecture at the association while seeking a platform for his ministry. Hosted by wealthy merchant Tan Keong Saik, Oldham presented on the subject of astronomy to 30 Chinese merchants. Oldham was then engaged by Tan to tutor him in English. Tan’s vast improvement in his English speeches made at the Legislative Council soon led to more Chinese merchants seeking Oldham’s help with improving their English. As a result, the merchants readily made donations when he required funding to establish an English school for Chinese boys. This marked the beginnings of the Anglo-Chinese School and the spread of Christian influence among the Straits Chinese.12

The Chinese Christian Association was established by October 1889. It sought to improve the moral and intellectual state of the local Chinese, an objective similar to that of the Celestial Reasoning Association. By this time, the Celestial Reasoning Association had ceased to exist.13

Bonny Tan

1. “Chinese Topics in Malaya,” Straits Times, 29 September 1932, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “The A. C. S. – a Story of Achievement,” Malaya Tribune, 29 September 1950, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 210, 250, 350. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
4.  Song, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese, 209.
5. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 23 October 1883, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 21 November 1883, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 31 March 1884, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 19 February 1883, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “The Celestial Reasoning Association,” Straits Times Weekly Issue, 7 June 1883, 3. (From NewspaperS).
10. “Chinese Topics in Malaya.”
11. Song, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese, 210.
12. Chan Chin Bock, “‘The Sentinel of Bukit Timah!’,” Straits Times, 26 February 1956, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Song, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese, 254, 354.

The information in this article is valid as at September 2020 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.


Heritage and Culture
Peranakan(Asian People)--Singapore
Associations, institutions, etc.--Singapore