The edited version of this article was first published by Singapore’s The Straits Times as the cover story in its Life! Supplement on September 11, 1997.
Among the prominent ethnic Chinese business leaders in Southeast Asia, one man stands apart from the rest of the pack and achieved a stature and acclaim not accorded to others. His name is Tan Kah Kee (1874-1961), who became a legend in his life time. A man of great vision, drive and unflinching convictions, he was an indefatigable champion of education and social justice, and a philanthropist par excellence and patriot.
Throughout his long life, he utilised his considerable financial resources and personal influence for the maximum benefit of the communities in China, Singapore and the region. Tan Kah Kee’s greatest and most enduring contributions, for which posterity will remember him affectionately, are in the field of education.
He was the first Chinese to have founded a major university, the Xiamen University, single-handedly. He also founded colleges and schools in his native Jimei, near Xiamen in Fujian province, and provided the pupils there with free education at a time when this was inaccessible. His colleges in Jimei came of age in recent years and were upgraded to a full-fledge university in 1996, a dream envisaged by him long ago.
In Singapore, many schools and tertiary institutions had benefited from his farsighted leadership and munificence. The Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce set up the Tan Kah Kee Foundation and also endowed a chair in history at the Nanyang Technological University to promote scholarship and innovations in his memory.
Thirty-five years after his death, his fame has now spread beyond the shores of Asia, to far away United States. The world-renowned University of California, Berkeley, which has produced more Nobel prize winners than any other universities, recently commissioned a US$ 40 million major science building and named it Tan Kah Kee Hall, in recognition of his distinguished service to education.
How the Berkeley accolade came about makes interesting reading. In the 1980s, the University was planning to construct a major chemical engineering building to cater to its growing needs. It would consider naming it after a deserving benefactor who would donate a substantial sum towards the building cost.
Professor Y T Lee, then teaching chemistry at Berkeley and who was the fourth ethnic Chinese to have won a Nobel prize in chemistry in 1986, is an ardent admirer of Tan Kah Kee for his selfless and unwavering commitment to education for its own sake. He believed that Tan ought to have international recognition, such as extended to Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford, for his unprecedented efforts and exceptional achievements and that Berkeley would be an eminently suitable forum for it. This would also raise the level of American awareness of Chinese culture and civilisation, and their profound love and respect for scholarship, which most Americans were blissfully ignorant of.
With the active support of Prof. Tien Chang-Lin, the first Chinese-American to be appointed Chancellor of Berkeley in 1990 and himself an admirer of Tan Kah Kee, Prof. Lee spearheaded the unenviable and daunting task to raise the targeted sum of US$ 8.5 million in order to secure the naming right in honour of the famous educationalist. He then travelled around the United States, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and other ASEAN countries at his own expense in order to seek support and donations for this worthy cause. Everywhere he went he received an enthusiastic response from many quarters, including Dr K K Phua of the Tan Kah Kee Foundation here, who immediately grasped the significance of his quest.
The aim was not to confine the fund-raising campaign to only the rich and powerful and those who knew Tan Kah Kee or were related to him. From the outset, the organisers felt that it would be more meaningful for those who simply admired his greatness but had nothing at all to do with him to also come forward spontaneously to support the project.
Through the untiring efforts of Prof. Lee and the numerous co-campaigners who shared his vision, widespread public donations from both continents poured in and the mission was thus successfully accomplished, several years after the idea was first mooted. The bulk of the donations came from Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand and the United States.
The seven-storey Tan Kah Kee Hall is primarily used for postgraduate teaching and research, and houses a number of laboratories, a large lecture hall, a state-of-the-art computer facility, conference rooms and administrative offices. It is part of the College of Chemistry and has enhanced the needs of its School of Chemical Engineering.
The Berkeley project led to the formation of the Tan Kah Kee International Society, with Prof. Lee as its first chairman and Singaporean Dr K K Phua as Secretary, to further Tan’s aims to propagate education and culture including the raising of funds to expand the Overseas Chinese Museum in Xiamen and the conversion of the Jimei colleges into a university.
What propelled Tan Kah Kee to persevere in his abiding labour of love with education? What makes his achievements so unique, in view that many prominent business tycoons everywhere also actively support education and charitable projects? With only eight years’ schooling, he emigrated to Singapore at the age of 17 to help his father run his sundry goods business. He quickly showed his mettle in business. By 1906, he had become a wealthy businessman, with interests which included rubber trading and manufacturing, rice mills and pineapple canning.
His businesses continued to expand and prosper by leaps and bounds, and he ventured into new fields such as shipping, sawmills, real estate and shoe manufacturing. By the time he was 45, he had become one of the richest men in Singapore and Malaya. Tan Kah Kee believed passionately that, for any nation to be strong and economically affluent, its people must first become literate and well-educated. He often lamented that, while China is a country with 5000 years of continuous civilisation, a vast number of Chinese were too poor to attend school, and that education was a luxury that only the well off could afford to indulge in.
His own native Fujian province was a case in point. It was then one of the poorer parts of China. With a population of more than 10 millions, there was a paucity of schools and no university to speak of. His simple philosophy was that, as one derives one’s wealth from the community in which one operates in, it is imperative that this should be extended to the advantage of the community and not for personal glorification. He began to practise what he firmly believed in by initiating and establishing a succession of schools in Jimei from 1913 onwards, and providing the funds needed to uplift the children of poor homes in Fujian. This was followed by the founding of a teachers’ training college and colleges for agriculture and forestry, fisheries and marine navigation, also in Jimei.
His generosity extended to schools elsewhere in the province, where such support was most acutely felt. Not content with merely endowing these infant institutions, he took a continuing interest in their management through regular correspondence and by making periodic prolonged visits there in order to keep abreast with their progress and development. Tan Kah Kee’s enterprises reached their zenith between 1919 and 1925. He was now one of the richest entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia, with a net worth of more than $12 millions, a colossal fortune in those distant days. His business empire became even more diversified and spread out in China and throughout the region, employing a combined workforce exceeding 10,000.
Tan Kah Kee was most fortunate to have had good people working for him. Two of his most able and trusted employees, Lee Kong Chian, the would be rubber magnate and founder of Lee Foundation and Oon Khye Hong, a chemical engineer from MIT, became his sons-in-law; while the third, the legendary and inimitable Tan Lark Sye, who also made his fortunes in rubber, co-founded the Nanyang University in 1955 and donated $5 millions to it.
In 1919, he launched his most ambitious project, the setting up of the Xiamen University. An initial funding of $1 million was needed, together with an operating budget of $3 millions for the next 12 years. With his characteristic decisiveness and resolve, he decided to shoulder the above financial burden himself, in order not to delay the launch of this momentous scheme.
He later described vividly his repeated futile attempts to raise the urgently needed endowment fund, from amongst the richest Chinese in the region for the long term viability of the fledgling University, as one of the most disappointing episodes of his life. Simultaneous with supporting education in China, Tan Kah Kee did not forget the needs of his adopted country. He led the establishment and funding of several Chinese language schools in Singapore from 1918 onwards, which were then grossly neglected by the colonial government.
Among the schools that owe their existence to his pioneering efforts are the Chinese High School and Nanyang Girls’ High School, both of which have become leading schools here. He also made substantial donations to the local English language institutions including the Anglo Chinese School and Raffles College, one of the predecessor institutions of the National University of Singapore. The dark clouds of the Great Depression of the late 1920s started to cast its sinister impact on his extensive business ventures, as the Malayan and Singapore economies took a precipitous plunge which resulted in drastic declines in rubber and tin prices, the two territories’ biggest revenue earners.
Even while Tan Kah Kee was trying desperately, to keep his businesses afloat and to cope with the mounting cash-flow problems, he continued to finance his educational projects in China, rather than let them flounder due to lack of funds. Even after the inevitable winding up of his business conglomerate in 1934, he still managed to remit monies to China, relying on his now greatly reduced personal resources and generous financial assistance of his loyal friends and relatives. It must have been a tremendous relief to him that the Chinese Government was finally prevailed upon to take over the financing and running of Xiamen University in 1940. He retired to Jimei in 1950, and devoted much of his time to overseeing the direction and development of the schools and colleges he founded there.
What makes Tan Kah Kee’s contributions to education so unique was his all-consuming belief in its importance and role in nation building, to the extent that, instead of giving only a portion of his wealth as other benefactors the world over would have done, he gave practically all he had for the advancement of education, leaving virtually nothing to his own large family. Moreover, it is a hallmark of his greatness that he eschewed personal publicity and recognition for what he had done and had consistently and tenaciously declined repeated attempts by his well-wishers to have some of the important edifices named after him.
He died in 1961 at the age of 87 and was buried in his beloved native Jimei. He left his entire fortune of more than ¥1 million RMB to the schools there, which he first founded almost 50 years earlier. Today, his birthplace has become one of the top attractions in Xiamen as visitors, both from China and overseas, flock there to pay fitting tributes to a visionary who was well ahead of his time.
Lam Pin Foo