Tan Cheng Lock: “A discriminating mind, a charitable heart”

[Editor’s note: This 1947 biographical sketch is part of the Tan Cheng Lock Private Papers Collection. It is dated 21 November 1947 and reflects his deep roots/interests in business and the Malayan Chinese community. He died in 1960 at the age of 77.

The sketch and a brief timeline of Tan Cheng Lock’s activities from 1947 to 1949 were included in the 1989 edition of a finding aid for his private papers held at ISEAS Library: Tan Cheng Lock papers: a descriptive list, compiled by and edited by P. Lim Pui Huen with the assistance of Mercedes Cheong. The text of the sketch is reproduced here in full, followed by an abstract from the same book about his activities from 1949 to 1959. The images are from Folio 33 of the Tan Cheng Lock papers and have been added to this post for illustrative purposes only.]


*Reprint of a biographical sketch found among the Tan Cheng Lock Papers, see TCL.8.7.

Tan Cheng Lock, rubber estate and landed proprietor, Chairman of Directors and Managing Director of Malaka Pinda Rubber Estates, Ltd., and of United Malacca Rubber Estates, Ltd., was born in Malacca, Straits Settlements, 5 April 1883; son of Tan Keong An and Lee Seek Bin; descended from Tan Hay of Fukien Province, China, who was a navigator and owner of a junk trading between Macassar (Celebes Islands) and Malacca and who settled at Malacca and married a Chinese woman born at Malacca about 200 years ago.

His grandfather, Tan Choon Bock, was a pioneer tapioca and gambier (proprietary) planter, and was the founder and Managing Partner of the first line of steamships to open regular communication between the ports of Malaya in the sixties of the last century, which afterwards was converted into the Straits Steamship Co., Ltd., of Singapore.

Image 1: TCL.33.27, c. 1910s. Group photo of Tan Cheng Lock (seated second from right) and his friends.

Tan Cheng Lock was educated at the Malacca High School and at Raffles Institution, Singapore; married on 20 June 1913, Yeo Yeok Neo, daughter of Yeo Tin Hye, President of the Malacca Chinese Hokien Community; they have one son and four daughters viz. Tan Siew Sin, Tan Kim Tin (Mrs S.K. Chan), Wee Geok Kim, Tan Kim Yoke and Tan Kim Lwi.

Tan Cheng Lock began his career as a schoolmaster at Raffles Institution, Singapore, in 1902; became Assistant-Manager of the Bukit Kajang Rubber Estates, Ltd. in 1908; in 1909 and 1910 floated the Ayer Molek Rubber Co., Ltd., the Malaka Pinda Rubber Estates, Ltd., and the United Malacca Rubber Estates, Ltd.; was Visiting Agent of the Nyalas Rubber Estates, Ltd., from 1912 to 1935, since which he has been its Resident Director and its Chairman of Directors.

In 1935 he travelled with his family to Europe where they remained till 1939 and lived in India from 1942 to 1946.

Image 2: TCL.33.37, c. 1950s. Tan Cheng Lock with his son Siew Sin’s family. Front row (left to right): Lady Tan, Tan Cheng Lock. Back row (left to right): Catherine; Siew Sin; foster daughter, Kuah Beng Choon holding eldest grand-daughter, Siok Eng in her arms.

Tan Cheng Lock is a Director of the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation, Ltd.; Overseas Assurance Corporation, Ltd.; Sime, Darby & Co., Ltd.; Cycle & Carriage Co., Ltd.; Estate & Trust Agencies (1927) Ltd.; Malaya Tribune Press, Ltd.; Atlas Ice Co., Ltd.; Chin Keng Lee& Co., Ltd.; Malacca Guardian, Ltd.; Kew (Machap) Estate of Malacca, Ltd.; Tong Watt Rubber Estate; Bukit Bulat Estate, Ltd.; Leong Hin San, Ltd.; and Trustee of the large Reserved Trust Estate of his grandfather, Tan Choon Bock deceased.

Tan Cheng Lock was also engaged in tapioca and gambier planting; active in public life, in which he has taken part for over 30 years since 1912; served as a Justice of the Peace of Malacca since 1912 and on many Government Committees including the Rice Cultivation Committee the Technical Education Committee, Trade Commission, Housing Committee, Committee on Destitution, Rubber Restriction Committee and the Chinese Marriage Committee; was Malacca Municipal Commissioner from 1912 to 1922 (inclusive); was from 1923 to 1934 (inclusive) Unofficial Member of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements, and from 1933 to 1935 (inclusive) was Unofficial Member of the Governor’s Executive Council, Straits Settlements; President of the Malacca Chinese Chamber of Commerce and of the Malacca Hokien Community Association; and served for a number of years as Vice-President & President of the Malacca Chinese Chamber of Commerce and as President of the Straits Chinese British Association, Malacca, and of the Malayan Estate Owners’ Association of which he was one of the founders; Patron of the Malacca “Chiang Chew Hoo” Association, the ancestors of whose members were the Chinese pioneers who first emigrated from China to Malaya some 500 years ago; a Trustee of the 300-year-old and well-endowed “Cheng Hoon Teng” Temple dedicated to “Kuan­ shih-yin”, Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.

At a meeting of the Straits Settlements Legislative Council on the 18th February 1935 the Colonial Secretary when making reference to the retirement of Mr Tan Cheng Lock from the Council said:-

”The Hon. Mr Tan Cheng Lock served as an Unofficial Member of this Council from the 1st January 1923 to the 1st January 1935, and for those twelve years he has represented current opinion and also his own personal views with a frankness, a fullness and a fairness that has compelled universal admiration. (Applause). He brought, in fact, and devoted to the public service of this country, those attributes which differentiate the true statesman from the mere politician, a discriminating mind, a charitable heart, a patient ear and an eloquent but sober tongue. The Colony, Sir, stands deeply beholden to him”.

Tan Cheng Lock was an Official Representative of the Straits Settlements at the Coronation of King George VI in London in 1937; awarded the C.B.E. in 1933 for public services.

Tan Cheng Lock is a member of the Chinese Weekly Entertainment Club, Singapore; his hobbies are reading and literature; served as a Volunteer in the Chinese Volunteer Company, Malacca, from 1915 to 1919, after he had helped to revive it on the out-break of the Great War in 1914. Since its liberation in 1945 from the Japanese, Tan Cheng Lock has taken an active part in the popular movement in Malaya to attain self-government; elected first Chairman of the All-Malaya Council of Joint Action at its inauguration in December 1946 (a political organization espousing the cause of Malayan self-government based on the principles of unity, liberty and equality); author of book entitled Malayan Problems published in 1947.

Residences:- 111, Heeren Street [1], and 1771, Klebang Besar, Malacca;

Office:- 96, First Cross Street, Malacca, Malaya.

Malacca, 21st November 1947

Tan Cheng Lock was a member of the Anglo-Chinese College Council formed in 1918 by the Methodist Mission to establish an institution to give higher education in Malaya, which led to the founding of Raffles College in Singapore in 1928.

1. (One son, Tan Siew Sin, Member, Legislative Council, Federation of Malaya).

2. Elected President of the newly-formed Malayan Chinese political organization viz. the Malayan Chinese Association on 27th February 1949.

3. Member of the Malayan Communities Liaison Committee which he helped to create at an informal meeting of Chinese and Malay leaders in Johore Bahru on 29.12.1948.

4. Member, Emergency Chinese Advisory Committee and the Council of the University of Malaya 1949.

5. As he was addressing a public meeting at Ipoh, Perak, on the 10th April 1949, as President of the newly formed Malayan Chinese Association, Tan Cheng Lock was wounded in the right shoulder as a result of a hand-grenade thrown at him when [sic] making the address in the Perak Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

6. Conferred by His Highness the Sultan of Johore on September 16th, 1949, when awarding the customary honours on the birthday of His Highness, the rank of Dato Paduka Mahkota Johore (D.P.M.J.) for rendering conspicuous services to Malaya.

[Editor’s note: The introduction to Tan Cheng Lock papers: a descriptive list (1989) also provides a brief overview of his life after this period, as follows.]

Most of the documents pertain to the 1949-59 decade and cover all aspects of Sir Cheng Lock’s full and active public life […] The most important files are those relating to his leadership of the Malayan Chinese Association during its formative period, the early years of the UMNO-MCA Alliance and the part he played in the struggle for Malaya’s independence. There is a small but interesting number of papers relating to his stay in India during the war when he contributed to the war effort, continued his political activities, and founded the Oversea-Chinese Association. The papers show his involvement in the nationalist movement after the war such as the hartal of 1947, the activities of the Pan-Malayan Council of Joint Action, and the agitation surrounding the establishment of the Malayan Union. In the light of his speeches and writings, the foundation of the MCA in 1949 can be seen as the natural culmination of his ideas and endeavours over the years. While he was President of the MCA, he chaired the inaugural meeting of the Independence of Malaya Party and addressed the inaugural meeting of the People’s Action Party.

Image 3: TCL.33.5-5a, c. 1950s. Tan Cheng Lock standing in front of a car and holding a hat.

For more information about the Tan Cheng Lock private papers, visit its hub page on SEALionPLUS, the Library’s digital archives.

[1] This street is now known as Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock.

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