Song Ong Siang
Song Ong Siang (b. 14 June 1871, Singapore–d. 29 September 1941, Singapore) was a prominent member of the Straits Chinese community in Singapore and the first Chinese in Malaya to be knighted by the British.1 He distinguished himself as a community leader, lawyer, legislator, church elder, scholar and even a captain in the volunteer corps. Song was committed to raising the status of the Straits Chinese community, and contributed to the intellectual development and well-being of the people.2
Early life and education
Song was born on 14 June 1871 in Singapore. His father, Song Hoot Kiam, was a prominent leader of the Straits Chinese Church (renamed Prinsep Street Church, and later Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church). Song was the eldest son from his father’s second marriage, and he had two elder half-brothers. His father had married his mother, Phan Fung Lean, upon the death of his first wife.3
As a youth, Song distinguished himself as an outstanding scholar. He enrolled at the Raffles Institution in 1878, but his father transferred him to the Christian Brothers’ School (now called St Joseph’s Institution) a few months later. After two years, he returned to the Raffles Institution, where he was awarded the Guthrie Scholarship for five consecutive years from 1883 to 1887. His academic prowess later won him the Queen’s Scholarship (then called the Higher Scholarship) in 1888. He had sat for the scholarship examinations in the previous two years and came in first, but was disqualified because he was then under 16 years old, the age requirement.4
With the scholarship, Song left Singapore for England in 1888 to study law at Downing College of the University of Cambridge, and also became a member of Middle Temple.5 He excelled academically, winning prizes in constitutional and private international law, as well as a studentship in jurisprudence and Roman law. Song was called to the English Bar in 1893. Upon his return to Singapore in 1894, he became the first Chinese barrister admitted to the Singapore Bar. Following that, Song established the legal firm Aitken and Ong Siang with a former schoolmate, James Aitken. In 1900, Song was conferred master’s degrees in arts and laws, in absentia.6 By then, he had begun a lifelong endeavour to improve the welfare and status of the Straits Chinese community.
Contributions to the Straits Chinese community
The contributions that Song rendered to the Straits Chinese in Singapore covered a wide range of areas. One cause that he was particularly passionate about was education, and he worked hard to improve the intellectual level of the community. Song extended educational opportunities to Straits Chinese girls by helping to set up the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School in 1899 with Lim Boon Keng, a like-minded Straits Chinese. Three years earlier, in 1896, Song, together with other prominent Straits Chinese including Lim, had established the Chinese Philomathic Society, which was aimed at spurring discussion on social and political issues concerning their community.7
In an effort to raise the standard of Malay among the Straits Chinese while improving their general knowledge, he started the first Romanised Malay-language newspaper, Bintang Timor, in 1894. However, the paper ran for only one year. In 1897, Song produced the Straits Chinese Magazine with Lim. The magazine had more success and continued until 1907, providing a platform for literary expression and discussions on various issues ranging from education and politics to history and science.8
Besides education for women, Song advocated a fairer position for women in society. Through his influence as a member of the governor’s Straits Chinese Consultative Committee, Song played a key role in the enactment of the Civil Marriage Ordinance in 1941, which imposed monogamy on non-Muslim marriages registered under the law.9
Song was also instrumental in promoting the interests of the Straits Chinese in Singapore through the Straits Chinese British Association, which he helped to establish in 1900 and still exists today as The Peranakan Association. His appointment to the Legislative Council, which he served as a member from 1919 to 1927, also allowed him to articulate the interests of his community.10 Upon his retirement from politics, Song was honoured with the title of Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), conferred on him in June 1927 for his public service.11
Other public contributions
Widely known as a devout Christian, Song served as an elder of the Prinsep Street Church, where he preached regularly in English and Malay. As a respected leader in the Chinese Christian Association and the association’s Straits Chinese Reading Club, Song organised various activities to reach out to the people, including the underprivileged, and to educate them.12
Between his legal career, church work and other public activities, Song also found time to produce a comprehensive book that captured the contributions of the Chinese in Singapore from 1819 to 1919. The book, titled One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore, was first published in 1923 and remains an invaluable work of reference today.13
Beyond his academic, spiritual and community contributions, Song was also one of the first to enlist in the Chinese company of the Singapore Volunteer Infantry when it was formed in 1901. He was made a captain in 1915, becoming the first Chinese in Malaya to be promoted to the rank. During World War I, Song was a key promoter in the call for support for the British Empire.14 For his services, Song was awarded the Volunteer Long Service Medal in 1922 and the Volunteer Officer’s Decoration in 1924.15 He was conferred knighthood in January 1936 with the title of Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE), in recognition of his varied contributions as a legislator, community leader, church elder and scholar.16
Death and funeral
Song died on 29 September 1941 at his residence along East Coast Road.17 In honour of his services and contributions to Singapore, his funeral on 30 September was conducted with full military honours. His coffin was draped in a Union Jack and carried in a gun carriage from the Prinsep Street Church to Bidadari Cemetery, where a guard of honour stood at the gates. The pallbearers were officers of the Singapore Volunteer Infantry’s Chinese company, and members of the unit also fired the gun salute.18
Song married Helen Yeo Hee Neo on 29 September 1907 in a military wedding. They had no children of their own and adopted instead.19
1. “Knighthood for Song Ong Siang,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 1 January 1936, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Knighthood for Song Ong Siang”; “Babas Who Did Much for Education,” Straits Times, 13 November 1983, 21; L. C. L., “A Chinese Tribute to the First Straits-Born Chinese Knight,” Straits Times, 7 January 1936, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Knighthood for Song Ong Siang”; Singapore Days of Old: A Special Commemorative History of Singapore Published on the 10th Anniversary of Singapore Tatler (Hong Kong: Illustrated Magazine Publishing, 1992), 62. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
4. Singapore Days of Old, 62.
5. The Straits Times Annual (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 1836), 41. (Call no. RRARE 959.5 STR; microfilm NL7746)
6. “Knighthood for Song Ong Siang”; Who’s Who in Malaya, 1925 (Singapore: Fishers Ltd in conjunction with Mass Printers Ltd, 1925), 166 (Call no. RRARE 920.9595 WHO; microfilm NL6705); Singapore Days of Old, 62; “Presbytery History,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 7 June 1924, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “Knighthood for Song Ong Siang”; “SCRC Celebrates Its Golden Jubilee,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 13 May 1935, 9; “Death of Sir Ong Siang Song in Singapore,” Straits Times, 29 September 1941, 8 (From NewspaperSG); C. F. Yong, Chinese Leadership and Power in Colonial Singapore (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1992), 52–53. (Call no. RSING 959.5702 YON)
8. “Death of Sir Ong Siang Song”; John R. Clammer, Straits Chinese Society: Studies in the Sociology of Baba Communities of Malaysia and Singapore (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1980), 62, 67 (Call no. RSING 301.45195105957 CLA); Singapore Days of Old, 64.
9. “‘One of Greatest Straits Chinese’: Mr A. B. Jordan’s Tribute to Sir Ong Siang Song,” Straits Times, 30 September 1941, 14 (From NewspaperSG); Saw Swee-Hock, The Population of Singapore (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2012), 103. (Call no. RSING 304.6095957 SAW)
10. L. C. L., “Tribute to the First Straits-Born Chinese”; “Proposed ‘Straits Chinese British Association’,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 19 June 1900, (From NewspaperSG); Who’s Who in Malaya, 1925, 166; “The Hon. Mr Song Ong Siang,” Straits Times, 21 March 1922, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Hon’ble Mr Song Ong Siang, CBE,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 29 June 1927, 10 (From NewspaperSG); Singapore Days of Old, 62.
12. L. C. L., “Tribute to the First Straits-Born Chinese”; “‘One of Greatest Straits Chinese’”; Singapore Days of Old, 64.
13. “Chinese of Singapore,” Straits Times, 7 January 1924, 8 (From NewspaperSG); Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (London: Murray, 1923). (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SON-[HIS])
14. L. C. L., “Tribute to the First Straits-Born Chinese”; “Death of Sir Ong Siang Song”; “Knighthood for Song Ong Siang.”
15. Who’s Who in Malaya, 1925, 166.
16. “Knighthood for Song Ong Siang”; “You Have Well and Honourably Won Knighthood”,” Straits Times, 25 August 1936, 13 (From NewspaperSG); Singapore Days of Old, 62.
17. “Death of Sir Ong Siang Song.”
18. “Funeral of Sir Ong Siang Song,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 1 October 1941, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Singapore Days of Old, 624; “Military Wedding,” Straits Times, 30 September 1907, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
Arnold Wright and H. A. Cartwright, eds., Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malay: Its History, People, Commerce, Industries and Resources (London: Lloyd's Greater Britain Publishing, 1908), 633. (Call no. RCLOS 959.51033 TWE)
Ong Eng Chuan, “Mr Song’s European Escapade,” BiblioAsia (Oct–Dec 2017)
Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), v–xiv, 78, 242–48. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
The City of Singapore: Charter Day Ssouvenir, 22nd Sept 1951 (Singapore: Straits Times [and] Singapore Free Press, 1951), 21. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 CIT)
The information in this article is valid as at 11 November 2014 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.