Did an Obscure Asian Democratic Republic Precede the American Republic?

This article is dedicated to my son, CT Lam, for alerting me to the fascinating life and extraordinary achievements of Low Lan Pak and for urging me to share it with readers in my blog; and also to my good friend, Yuan Jian, for spontaneously and painstakingly providing me with Chinese sources of material on the unusual founding of the Lanfang Republic of Borneo.

The Lanfang Republic was established as early as 1777, 12 years before George Washington’s United States of America officially became a republic, followed by the Republic of France three years later, 135 years before the Chinese Republic and 140 years prior to Lenin overthrowing the Russian monarchy and set up the world’s first communist republic of Soviet Russia.

If you pose this question to any reasonably well-informed person in the West, in Asia and in anywhere else, it is most likely that the overwhelming majority of them would immediately pick the American Republic as having been founded earlier than any Asian republic. This is because we have been taught to believe that the American people were the first outside of Europe to opt for the democratic republic form of government, elected by the people, after this concept was first introduced by the ancient Greeks in Athens more than 25 centuries ago and was later spread to the ancient Roman Empire and then to some European countries before making its transatlantic journey to the British colonies in America before they became the American Republic. Most people in both East and West would be surprised, if not astounded, to learn that  an Asian republic, the Lanfang Republic, situated in underdeveloped Borneo island in the present day West Kalimantan of the Republic of Indonesia, preceded the American one. They would be even more amazed to learn that this obscure Asian republic, with a government duly elected by the people, was not founded by the natives there but by a poor migrant worker from a remote village in far away China who settled there in search of a better life. The Lanfang Republic was established as early as 1777, 12 years before George Washington’s United States of America officially became a republic, followed by the Republic of France three years later, 135 years before the Chinese Republic and 140 years prior to Lenin overthrowing the Russian monarchy and set up the world’s first communist republic of Soviet Russia. However, whereas these bigger countries’ republic births came about only after heavy loss of lives and blood-letting, not so with the much smoother and more peaceful birth of the tiny Lanfang Republic of Borneo, the third largest island in the world.This epic saga of the circumstances culminating in the founding of this Borneo republic by a Chinese migrant miner bears telling and should be made known to a wider public, as the likes of which are not likely to ever happen again.

The would-be founder of the Lanfang Republic was one Low Lan Pak, also known as Low Lanfang, hailed from a village in Meixian County of Guangdong Province in South China. This county was inhabited by Hakka dialect-speaking people, known throughout the country for their sturdiness, industry, adventurous trait and leadership qualities. But, unlike most Chinese villagers of that time, Low was both an educated man and also skilled in martial arts. His fellow villagers greatly admired him for his brain and brawn. Low was aiming to be a Confucian scholar and a career in the nation’s coveted civil service, for which he must pass three different levels of highly competitive Imperial Examinations before he could secure a suitable job in the civil service. He tried very hard to pass the lowest level of county examination which would then make him a Xuicai (a cultivated talent, like a holder of a Bachelor’s degree). Sadly, he failed repeatedly. Frustrated and despondent, he decided to forego this ambition and seek a worthwhile alternative mode of living. He came to know that far away Nanyang, Chinese term for Southeast Asia, was rich in natural resources and business opportunities for hardworking and enterprising people to accumulate wealth. He was determined to find his pot of gold there and dreamt of ultimately returning to his ancestral village in a blaze of glory. He managed to borrow enough money for his arduous and long journey to Nanyang and also succeeded in convincing a small group of ambitious fellow villagers to accompany him to this distant land to jointly seek a better life and potential riches. They chose to go to Borneo’s vast West Kalimantan with its newly discovered gold and tin mines and abundance of other relatively untapped mineral wealth as well as fertile agricultural lands awaiting exploitation by the adventurous and resourceful people with business acumen and determination to succeed.

Upon their arrival at their promised land in the coastal region of West Kalimantan around the middle of 18th century, Low and his followers found that their new home was situated in a huge and mostly underdeveloped landmass of wilderness but at its fringe there was already an established township with a sizable native population and there were also some 30 Chinese residents among them. The natives there were mainly farmers and the Chinese worked in tin and gold mines, and they warmly welcomed these new Chinese settlers. This region of Borneo was then under the jurisdictions of three sultans, not on very friendly terms with each other and their boundary lines were ill-defined and giving rise to frictions, while the vast interior was inhabited mainly by the  aborigines called the Dyaks. Sultan Abdul Rahman was based in his capital in Kuntian in Pontianak, already a thriving commercial centre because of the newly discovered gold and tin mines there, and it was closer to the land where Low and his followers had made their homes, near Kuntian, while Sultan Omar was in Menpawah some distance away and further apart from these two sultans was the remaining Sultan Pemenbahan who held sway in the Singkawang area. These three sultans were well aware of the industry and pioneering spirit of the Chinese migrants and were competing to offer them incentives by leasing them lands at attractive terms in order for them to explore and work the mines, mainly comprising gold or tin, which were much sought after in international markets. Thus, Low and his friends became miners and formed a kongsi (both as a business cooperative venture and for mutual protection against hostile outside forces including other rival Chinese kongsis in that area and in the surrounding districts) and operated a mining enterprise in Kuntian to exploit tin and gold mines with the help of their native workforce and other Chinese settlers. They all worked extremely hard to open up these mines and, under Low’s farsighted leadership,  the Lanfang Kongsi gradually became extremely prosperous, the Kuntan Sultan had become richer through concessions granted them and the Chinese and native employees too enjoyed a much better standard of living than ever before. Low then built a new township, near Kuntian, to facilitate commercial dealings with others and for the benefit of his employees and their families too. In less than two decades of Low’s arrival there, more and more Chinese migrants, both from his native Hakka Meixian area and elsewhere as well as from other parts of Nanyang, had come and settled in West Kalimantan and they swelled the ranks of the Chinese population there to more than 20,000. Many of these new Chinese arrivals were recruited into Low’s Lanfang kongsi, while others banded together to from their own kongsis as this vast territory offered enough mineral and agricultural wealth for all, migrants and natives, to have a share in this expanding pie, as it were.

With growing wealth filling his coffers through land concessions granted to the miners, the Mempawah Sultan decided to build a new grand palace in the interior so as to enhance his standing in relation to his fellow sultans. This greatly offended the Kuntian Sultan and fierce fighting between the armed forces of both sides ensued. The Kuntian Sultan then decided to seek the help of Low to defeat his rival. As the palace was being built nearer to Low’s Lanfang Kongsi, he agreed to be on the side of the Kuntian Sultan and declared war on the Mempawah Sultan. The combined forces of Low and the Kuntian Sultan easily defeated their joint enemy. Unhappy with this outcome, the Mempawah Sultan then joined forces with the Dyaks to launch a counter attack but they were again trounced by their opponents. As a result of this resounding victory, Low’s reputation and prestige grew by leaps and bounds and numerous natives in the neighbouring districts and the Chinese from other rival kongsis too decided to come under Low’s protection. At the same time the defeated sultan and the Singkawang Sultan agreed to sign a peace treaty on terms favourable to Low’s Kongsi. Low’s ally, the Kuntian Sultan also deemed it in his best interest to place his sultanate under the former’s protection. More lands and generous mining concessions, together with a vastly increased population, then came under the control of Low as a result  of the peace treaties and gratitude shown by the Kuntian Sultan to Low for defeating his rival sultan. In absolute terms, Low and his Kongsi now had an extensive territory and a population close to one million people within their jurisdiction. Hence, Low’s Lanfang Kongsi had, in reality, become a government unto itself providing and looking after the livelihood, welfare and the security of this significant population, as well as the well-being of the three sultanates under its protection too against the possible encroachments of their territorial integrity by Western colonial powers, like the Dutch, who had already colonised much of present day Indonesia and who would sooner or later cast their greedy eyes on the rich resources of West Kalimantan.

In the circumstances, the need to transform Lanfang Kongsi into an effective government body began to be felt acutely and urgently by Low and the community leaders within his jurisdiction. What form should such a government take – a sultanate like the other three there or a more democratic regime elected by the people? Low, through his wide reading and contacts with some knowledgeable Westerners, was already familiar with the concept of a democratic government chosen by the people and answerable to them as an alternative to a monarchy and this had already gained growing support with thinkers and other intellectuals in Europe. He held serious discussions with these community leaders on the need to form a government to administer their newly gained expanded territory and they unanimously urged Low to run Lanfang Kongsi as a state with himself crowned as its sultan. Low rejected their suggestion outright and decided that the new government should be a democratic republic and that he would deem it a great honour if the community leaders and other elites would elect him as its founding president and help him to form his administration. They had no choice but to accept his proposal and Low was subsequently elected to be the first president of the Lanfang Republic by popular votes. This new republic’s constitution states that, as the majority of the community leaders and Chinese there were Hakkas from the Meixian and Dabu counties in China, the incumbent president and vice president must be of such Hakka descent.

It remains to this day an unresolved historical puzzle why Low did not accede to the popular wish of his people that he should rightfully and deservedly accept their request that he should assume the title of sultan, instead of an elected president, which would have been the crowning glory of his glorious career. The jury is still out on this question. Nonetheless, according to the Chinese experts, there are two explanations for Low’s choice, which seemed plausible, but are not supported by official records. The first version is that, under the then Chinese laws, Low would still be a Chinese subject even though he was residing abroad. If he were to assume the tittle of sultan without the prior sanction of the Chinese Emperor, he would have committed treason, which was a capital offense. His crime would be visited on his family members and other relatives in China who would vicariously pay for his crime with their lives. This consideration alone would have prevented him from accepting the title of sultan even if he had wanted to. The second version claims that Low did send a special envoy to the Chinese Court to seek the Emperor’s consent to receive his new state as a subordinate state of the Chinese Empire and, in return, the Emperor might wish to graciously bestow a kingship on Low. His petition was rejected by the Emperor outright as he had no desire to create an outpost in far away Borneo as part of his already extensive empire, much less would he confer a kingship on Low in return. Be that as it may, neither the Chinese nor the republic official records made any mention on this matter. On the other hand, there are records on both sides that regular commercial dealings existed between China’s southern ports and the Republic until it was conquered by the Dutch.

My own view is that there are other factors why Low opted for a republic. The Chinese experts appeared to have overlooked the fact that Low could have genuinely believed that a democratic form of government would suit his new state better, with its multi-racial population. Furthermore, to make himself a sultan would certainly have resulted in serious frictions between him and the three sultans and this would have adverse ramifications for both sides. Being a realist and a dynamic leader, Low would have concluded that the best way forward for his people and for himself would be the formation of a republic for his new state.

The Lanfang Republic, named after Low’s Kongsi, came into being in 1777 and the town where the Kongsi was sited, Ceh-Wan-Li, became its official capital. In keeping with the essence and practice of democracy, the state was divided into provinces, counties and towns and villages. They local residents would elect their own local governments or councils, depending on their size and population, and they had autonomy in running their own local affairs subject only to the observance of the overall policies laid down by the central government headed by the President and his government colleagues. At the state level, Low’s government also set up judiciary and legislative bodies as well as departments in charge of finance, defence and education among others. In education, the Chinese system was favoured in order to inculcate Chinese culture in the young. However, non-Chinese pupils could choose to attend their own language schools as before. There was no standing army and in the event of armed conflicts with hostile outside forces, all able-bodied men would be expected to defend their Republic. From all accounts, the Republic managed its affairs efficiently and treated all its citizens fairly and squarely and that Low and his government colleagues were well respected and highly popular with the citizenry as well as with the sultanates. The Lanfang Republic had attracted the attention of the elites of Europe. In 1793, during the 16th year of the founding of this Asian Republic, several western international affairs experts made a special visit to West Kalimantan to see for themselves what made the Lanfang Republic tick in a relatively underdeveloped part of Asia. One of them wrote a front page article about his favourable impressions of it in the authoritative Times of London, founded in 1785, which all decision makers in Britain would read. The writer heaped lavish praises upon its founding father Low’s remarkable contributions to this fledgling republic. In particular, he singled out his harmonious relationships with the sultans for mutual benefit, uniting the different races there into a cohesive group and, above all, in successfully implementing the original Athenian style of a democratic republic and for his able leadership abilities in bringing his people to economic prosperity. The writer further observed that while the republic’s economic and military prowess were behind that of the Western countries, the essence and integrity that Low had brought to his administration was comparable to what Washington had propounded and  accomplished for his beloved United States.

President Low was in office for 18 years and died in 1795 at the age of 57. It was a blow to his people. Low’s successors continued his splendid work and the firm foundation laid for the Republic and it continued to prosper. In the latter half of the 19th century, the Dutch began to conquer many parts of West Kalimantan and threatened the republic’s own territories and that of the sultanates. The invaders’ initial military adventures against the Republic and its allies were successfully repulsed by the defending forces. Undaunted by these initial setbacks, the Dutch increased the strength of their military in West Kalimantan and four years of fierce fighting followed between the two sides. Sadly, despite having a numerically bigger army than that of the invading Dutch, Lanfang Republic was finally destroyed by their enemy in 1884, after having existed for 107 years and had 10 presidents, because they were vastly superior in their fire-power and battle techniques. Many of the community leaders of the defeated republic and their ardent followers managed to flee to Medan in Sumatra and from there some moved to Malaya and Singapore. It is said that among them was an ancestor of Lee Kuan Yew, the world famous founding father of Singapore and its first Prime Minister, who, like Low Lan Pak, is also of Hakka descent.

In commemoration of Low’s significant contributions to the developement of West Kalimantan, the Indonesian Government and the people there had named a high school in Kuntian after him. At his park-like cemetary site, a memorial hall was built to showcase his life and achievements in this part of the Indonesian Republic. In Low’s hometown in Meixian County in China too, a high school and a memorial hall bear his name in remembrance of one of this county’s most illustrious sons.

Lam Pin Foo

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6 thoughts on “Did an Obscure Asian Democratic Republic Precede the American Republic?

  1. Dear Pin Foo,
    Your latest article on the Republic founded by a Hakka and that it predates the American Republic of Washington, is a great “Gem”!
    I believe that this research of yours must go into the annals of China and the world especially now that China is destined to be the greatest Superpower on earth soon within the 21st century. It will add to the many ‘reasons’ why the dragon that went to sleep for so many hundreds of centuries would inevitably be expected to rise again and hopefully contribute to a better world shooting for the conquest of the cosmos!.

    I hope that some capable Singapore historian will also do more digging to uncover the ancestors of Mr Lee Kuan Yew who founded a great Republic too, ‘Singapore’. Were they from that Republic in Kalimantan and perhaps leaders there too? If the thread is there, it will make inspiring history!.

    It is pathetic that the Chinese who largely built the great railway in the infant American Republic were not even mentioned in American museums even today! ‘The Truth will set us free!’. All races are part of the Human Race!. Passing through the Straits of Malacca from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean is the aircraft carrier ‘New Delhi’ and the battleship, ‘Vectra’, supported by 10 destroyers!. These words were mentioned in a novel I read 20 years ago. India is close behind China to lead the world too this 21st century!.

    Best regards,
    Philip

  2. Dear sir/mam,

    recently im doing sea diving in indonesian sea, and i find this ship wreakage and salvage some of ancient ceramic tools, after a long search someone told me you are a person expert in ancient china pottery and ceramic, im interested to talk on further info about this antiques, please do contact me through my email, best regards

    erick lu

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