A well-attended seminar commemorating the 50th death anniversary of Tan Kah Kee (TKK), the indefatigable champion of education, was held recently at Singapore’s Hwa Chong Institution, one of several high schools founded by him. It has become one of its leading high schools. The guest of honour speaker was Mr Tharman Shamugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Singapore, who hoped that the spirit of giving enshrined by TKK would evolve in Singapore and eventually grow, ascend and flower as an integral part of its society. The keynote address was delivered by Prof. Wang Gungwu, one of the foremost experts on overseas Chinese. It also attracted other prominent speakers from Singapore, China and Malaysia. Students from this high school and alumni representatives from Xiamen University in Fujian also spoke at this event. All of them paid glowing tributes to TKK as a life long advocate of the importance of education in national development, as a successful entrepreneur, as a generous philanthropist and finally as a Chinese patriot. A grandson of TKK, Tan Koon Poh, gave a lively account of his grandfather as a frugal family man to his children. He said today there are more than 400 descendants of his who are scattered all over the world. Since 1998 Koon Poh has helped to organise biennial trips to China to give them a better insight of the educational achievements of their ancestor and for them to get to know each other better.
The writer’s wife is one of the granddaughters of TKK. She and I were just two of the many of his extended family members from Singapore and overseas who attended this memorable seminar. My wife was too young to remember much of her famous grandfather, but can still recall vividly her family’s post World War II annual visit on Chinese New Year Day to pay their respects to him at his favourite club, Ee Hoe Hean, where they would meet numerous relatives and an endless stream of other visitors who would also call on him on this auspicious day. This club had become his home where he would spend most of his time holding meetings and discussions with others on community work, often well past midnight. He had less and less time for his own large family and seeing them only on special occasions. I had never met TKK but had garnered my knowledge of him through my late mother-in-law who had lived with her father both in Singapore and in China for a period before her marriage, and through reading books and other publications about him. I was both amused and impressed by his business acumen to marry off her daughter to my father-in-law, who was one of his ablest staff, in order that he would not lose his services to others!
TKK emigrated from his native Jimei Village, near Xiamen City in China’s Fujian Province, to Singapore in 1891 at the age of 17 in order to seek his pot of gold there. Despite having had only eight years’ schooling, he was nevertheless highly literate. He joined his father’s sundry goods business as his assistant and book-keeper. He quickly proved his entrepreneurial flair in commercial matters. By 1906, he had already become a wealthy man through the widening of his initial business activities to include rubber trading and manufacturing, rice mills and pineapple canning. From then on his businesses expanded further to encompass enterprises like shipping, real estate, shoes manufacturing and newspaper publishing. By the time he was 45, he had become one of the richest men in Singapore and in this region. He also made his mark as the undisputed leader of the Singapore’s Chinese community and his views and support were often sought by the colonial government, especially on matters which affected Chinese Singaporeans. At the peak of his commercial career between 1918 and 1925, his business enterprises throughout Southeast Asia and China employed more than 10,000 people. He had amassed a colossal fortune exceeding $12 million Singapore dollars.
By this time, he had already founded and funded many schools and colleges in his native Fujian and in Singapore and had also generously supported other charitable causes too. The poor pupils in China enjoyed free of charge schooling. In 1920, he established the first private university in China, the Xiamen University. He had earlier sought funding support from among the many wealthy Chinese business tycoons both in Singapore and in the region.To his great disappointment, not much was forthcoming. He had no choice but to almost singlehandedly funded its annual operating expenses himself in order not to delay the launch of this ambitious but much needed project. He bore this heavy financial burden for several years until financial help emerged from others, especially from his wealthy close relatives and friends. TKK continued to help finance the university and other educational institutions in China with his vastly reduced fortune even after his businesses failed because of the severe worldwide depression of the late 1920s. Altogether, he had given away virtually all his wealth of more than 12 million dollars, leaving nothing for his large family. It is estimated what he had donated to support education would be equivalent to today’s several hundred million US dollars (based on present day purchase price parity computation).
What motivated TKK to give away all his wealth to advance education in China and elsewhere? In a nutshell, he believed with unwavering conviction that it was only through education that a nation could become economically and technologically advanced. In the context of the then China, the bulk of its massive population were illiterate as they could not afford basic schooling. His own native Fujian Province was no exception. With a population of more than 10 million, it had a paucity of schools and no university until he established the Xiamen University there in 1920.
Besides being a philanthropist extraordinary, TKK was a passionate believer in social justice for Singapore’s Chinese Singaporeans. Whenever they were unfairly treated by the colonial government. he would fearlessly speak up for them or take firm action to protect their interests. As a Chinese national living overseas, he remained patriotic to his motherland. For instance, when Japan invaded China in 1937 and an eight-year war ensued between them, TKK took immediate decisive action to raise large sums of money from the Chinese community in Singapore to support China’s war efforts against the Japanese invaders. He also organised a contingent of Chinese Singaporean volunteers to participate in the war. In view of his unflinching anti-Japan stand, the Japanese military regime would have had him killed when they conquered Singapore in 1941. He managed to escape to Indonesia, which also fell to the Japanese, and succeeded to survive there, largely because he was loyally shielded by the Chinese community during his four years’ stay. I learnt that he always had with him a packet of poison substance so that he could swallow it and die as a patriot if needs be, rather than falling into the enemy’s hands and be executed by them. TKK returned to Singapore after the war and was accorded a rousing welcome by its Chinese community.
TKK continued his active public work in Singapore and kept in close touch with the progress of his educational institutions in China. He finally decided to return to China for good in 1950 so that he could devote his time there to more closely supervising those institutions established by him. He died in 1961 at the age of 87 at a Beijing hospital. He was accorded a state funeral presided over by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and attended by many top Chinese political elites and other prominent Chinese from other walks of life. Even Chairman Mao praised him as an outstanding overseas Chinese leader and a glory to the Chinese race. A rare honour indeed for TKK who had lived in Singapore for more than 60 years of his life and his passing was deeply mourned in his adopted country. He was buried in his beloved native Jimei Village, very close to some of the educational institutions founded by him. His entire asset exceeding one million RMB, a considerable sum then, was given to the educational bodies there, and none to his family.
TKK has often been compared with the legendary American multi-millionaires Dale Carnegie and Henry Ford, both of whom had richly endowed educational institutions in America and had also set up trust foundations to do so to this day. However, there is a fine distinction between him and them and the rich anywhere else. In TKK’s case he gave away virtually his entire fortune leaving practically nothing at all for his large family; his counterparts in other countries would always preserve a significant portion of their enormous wealth for their own family members, before giving the remainder away. It is quite unlikely that Singapore or any other country can produce someone as selfless as TKK for a long time to come. Another hallmark of his greatness was that he eschewed self-glorification for what he had done and had firmly declined repeated attempts by educational institutions founded by him to name some of the important buildings or other facilities in his honour.
Long after TKK’s death, another feather in his cap came from an unexpected source. In order to further enhance his international reputation as a life long staunch supporter of education, Prof. Y.T Lee, of the University of California’s world-renowned Berkeley Campus, who is a chemistry Nobel price winner and an ardent admirer of TKK, spearheaded a fund raising campaign in 1990 to have the new US$ 40 million 7-storey new postgraduate chemical engineering building named after him provided he succeeded in raising US$ 8.5 million by a certain deadline. The professor, who had never met TKK, believed that this would be a concrete recognition of TKK’s achievements and unwavering belief in the importance of education in national development, which has a universal value, and Berkeley would be the suitable place to do it. He then traveled to many cities in the States and to Southeast Asia and Hong Kong at his own expense to persuade would be donors to support this worthy project. His hard work over several years finally paid off and he managed to obtain the 8.5 million needed to name the structure after TKK. The bulk of the money came from donors in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand and United States. The Tan Kah Kee Hall is commonly called the Tan (pronounced as Ten) Hall by Berkeley staff and students for ease of remembering it.
This brings to mind an article that I wrote in 1997 on TKK’s contributions to education and his achievements in business and in other fields, and the naming of the chemical engineering building at Berkeley in his honour . An edited version appeared as the Cover Story in Singapore’s leading newspaper The Straits Times’ Life! Supplement on September 11, 1997. I would like to share the original version of it with my readers and it is posted immediately after the above article.
Lam Pin Foo