Tan Lark Sye
by Tan, Bonny
Tan Lark Sye (陈六使) (b. 1897, Tong An County, Fujian, China–d. 1972, Singapore)1 was the founder of Aik Hoe Rubber Company, a rubber exporting firm. He was also chairman of the Hokkien Huay Kuan and the founder of the former Nanyang University (Nantah).2
Tan was born in 1897 in Tong An County in Fujian Province, China. He came to Singapore in 1916 and worked for “Rubber King”, Tan Kah Kee, before founding his own rubber exporting firm, Aik Hoe Rubber Company, together with his brothers in 1924. By 1928, the firm was doing well and had its headquarters in Market Street as well as two rubber factories. The Great Depression in the 1930s benefited emerging enterprises like Aik Hoe. By 1938, Aik Hoe had become the largest rubber exporting firm in Singapore and Malaya, with the capability to export directly to the United States and Europe. It was restructured into a private limited company with a registered and paid-up capital of $1 million in the same year. This was increased to $2 million in 1940. It also set up sales offices in New York and London. The firm ceased operations during World War II but resumed operations in September 1945 after the war ended. Aik Hoe earned huge profits when rubber prices shot up in 1950 due to the Korean War, and became one of the leading rubber traders in the world during the 1950s and 1960s.3
However, Indonesia’s objection to the formation of the Federation of Malaya in 1963 affected Singapore’s entrepôt trade with Indonesia. As a result, Aik Hoe lost the important Indonesian market and had to stop its operations in Indonesia which affected the company. In 1963, Tan was also caught in the crossfire between the People’s Action Party (PAP) and Barisan Sosialis when he appealed to voters to support the Nantah graduates who were contesting in the general election (10 of the Nantah graduates were Barisan Sosialis candidates, two were PAP candidates, two were United People’s Party candidates and one was an independent candidate). Shortly after, he scaled down his business operations in Singapore and shifted major investments to Malaysia. A subsidiary company, Heap Hoe Pte Ltd, was appointed to be Aik Hoe’s agent for the import and export of rubber in Singapore and Malaysia for three years.4 Tan’s Singapore citizenship was revoked in 1964 on the basis that he had “engaged in activities prejudicial to the security and public order of Malaya and Singapore, in particular, in advancing the communist cause”. Tan remained in Singapore but his citizenship was never reinstated.5
Tan was renowned as a vocal Chinese community leader in the early 1950s. As chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, he campaigned actively for mass citizenship of more than 220,000 Chinese residents living in Singapore.6 Later, as chairman of the Hokkien Huay Kuan (a clan association), he proposed setting up a Chinese university and eventually founded Nantah, which began classes on 30 March 1956.7 He gave S$5 million to get Nantah started, while the Hokkien Huay Kuan donated a 500-acre plot of land in Jurong to house the campus of the proposed university.8 On 30 March 1958, the university celebrated the completion of its campus building project.9 Nantah merged with the University of Singapore in 1980 to become the National University of Singapore (NUS).10
Apart from his core rubber business, Tan and his brothers also diversified into the banking and insurance sectors. Tan served as a director of the Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation, board chairman of Hong Kong Chiyu Bank, board chairman of Nanyang Siang Pau, board chairman of Asia Insurance Co. Ltd, board chairman of Asia Life Insurance Co. Ltd, as well as chairman of Singapore Tung Ann District Guild.11
On 30 March 1998, the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) announced that it had received S$1.8 million to set up a professorship in honour of Tan Lark Sye. This was exactly 40 years after the late Chinese community leader and philanthropist founded the former Nantah on the very same Jurong campus on which NTU now stands. The money was raised by the Association of Nantah Graduates and was to be used to appoint international scholars in Chinese language and culture to conduct lectures and carry out research.12 In October 2019, a street on NTU’s campus, Nanyang Valley, was renamed Tan Lark Sye Walk in further recognition of Tan’s contributions.13
1897: Born in Tong An County in Fujian Province, China.14
1916: Arrived in Singapore and worked in rubber factory owned by Tan Kah Kee.15
1924: Founded Aik Hoe Rubber Company.16
1950: Elected chairman of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Also elected chairman of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.17
1954: Elected chairman of the executive committee of Nantah.18
1958: Officiated the opening of Nantah with then Singapore Governor Sir William Goode.19
1962: Elected chairman of the Nanyang University Council.20
1963: Accused of supporting communist activities, citizenship revoked in 1964.21
1972: Died of a heart attack in Singapore.22
1. Ong Chu Meng, Lim Hoon Yong and Ng Lai Yang, eds., Tan Lark Sye: Advocator and Founder of Nanyang University (Singapore: World Scientific, 2015), 87, 140. (Call no. RSING 378.5957 TAN)
2. Nellie Har, “Rags to Riches Rubber Tycoon Lark Sye Dies,” Straits Times, 12 September 1972, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Ong, Lim and Ng, Tan Lark Sye, 87, 91, 94, 100; Hong Liu and Sin-Kiong Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition: Business, Politics, & Society (New York: Peter Lang Pub., 2004), 216–18. (Call no. RSING 959.5704 LIU-[HIS])
4. Hong and Si-Kiong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition, 217–18; “Tan: Vote for Nanyang Grads,” Straits Times, 15 September 1963, 4; “Nanyang daxue shi yu biye sheng canjia gedang jingxuan,” 南洋大学十余毕业生参加各党竞选 [More than 10 Nanyang graduates participating in election], Sin Chew Jit Poh 星洲日報, 14 September 1963, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Citizenship Move against Magnate,” Straits Times, 23 September 1963, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Ministry of Home Affairs, “Written Reply to Parliamentary Question on Singapore Citizenship of Late Mr Tan Lark Sye by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law,” media release, 11 September 2017; Jackie Sam, “Lark Sye Verdict,” Straits Times, 18 July 1964, 1. (From NewpaperSG)
6. Ong, Lim and Ng, Tan Lark Sye, 17.
7. Ong, Lim and Ng, Tan Lark Sye, 111, 115, 123.
8. Ong, Lim and Ng, Tan Lark Sye, 111, 113.
9. Ong, Lim and Ng, Tan Lark Sye, 129.
10. Ong, Lim and Ng, Tan Lark Sye, 136.
11. Ong, Lim and Ng, Tan Lark Sye, 130.
12. Leong Weng Kam, “NTU Gets $1.8M to Set Up Professorship,” Straits Times, 31 March 1998, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Felicia Choo, “NTU Building and Road Renamed in Honour of Pioneers,” Straits Times, 20 October 2019, A6. (Microfilm NL34842)
14. Ong, Lim and Ng, Tan Lark Sye, 87.
15. Ong, Lim and Ng, Tan Lark Sye, 91–92.
16. Ong, Lim and Ng, Tan Lark Sye, 94.
17. Ong, Lim and Ng, Tan Lark Sye, 106–07.
18. Ong, Lim and Ng, Tan Lark Sye, 115.
19. Ong, Lim and Ng, Tan Lark Sye, 129; Leong, “NTU Gets $1.8M to Set Up Professorship.”
20. Ong, Lim and Ng, Tan Lark Sye, 134.
21. Ong, Lim and Ng, Tan Lark Sye, 134.
22. Har, “Rags to Riches Rubber Tycoon Lark Sye Dies”; Ong, Lim and Ng, Tan Lark Sye, 140.
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.