War Correspondence – A Record Group of the Tan Chin Tuan Private Papers

Left to right: Malcolm MacDonald, SQ Wong and Tan Chin Tuan. c. 1955. Image SQW_23_99 from the SQ Wong Private Papers, ISEAS Library.

Tan Chin Tuan was a banker and philanthropist who started his banking career in 1925 with the Chinese Commercial Bank Ltd. The bank later merged with two other banks to become the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation Ltd (OCBC). At OCBC, Tan rose through the ranks and in 1966, he became the bank’s chairman, a position he held until his retirement in 1983.

Group photo with Mrs and Mr Tan Chin Tuan seated on the front row (third and fourth from the right), c. 1962. Image SQW_23_72 from the SQ Wong Private Papers, ISEAS Library.

Tan’s banking activities and his philanthropy are captured in his private papers which are deposited at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. The collection, known as the Tan Chin Tuan Private Papers, is a sizeable one with nearly 54,000 pages of documents in 727 folios. The folios are arranged into seven groups, covering various aspects of Tan Chin Tuan’s life from the 1940s to the 1990s. The description of each folio provides a wealth of information to the topics and subjects covered in these papers.

Here, we look at one group of papers titled, Wartime Correspondence. These materials consist of correspondence between Tan Chin Tuan and several people which include business and community leaders such as Lee Kong Chian and Tan Cheng Lock.

TCT_042_015_001 – Letter from Tan Chin Tuan to Lee Kong Chian, 11 January 1944. The Tan Chin Tuan Private Papers, ISEAS Library.

The main theme in this record group pertains to the operations and re-organisation of OCBC during the Japanese Occupation and in the immediate post-Second World War era from 1943 to 1952. Generally, these materials show the steps taken by Tan Chin Tuan to preserve the assets of the bank by moving the deposits, stocks and securities from Singapore to Britain prior to the Japanese Occupation and duplicating all records as a precaution against wartime damage. In 1942, Tan was entrusted with the responsibility to re-establish OCBC’s head office in China, traveling first to Batavia (Jakarta) where he boarded a plane to Rangoon (Yangon) and then via the overland route to Chungking (Chongqing).

The second major theme in this record group relates to Tan’s involvement in the war effort and welfare work during the post-war years. Tan’s correspondence provides information on his involvement in the civil defence of Singapore, the conditions of Malayans in evacuee camps, and his work with the Far Eastern Relief Fund in offering financial assistance to families rendered destitute after the Japanese Occupation in Singapore.

Of particular interest is a letter dated 12th November 1943 which Tan wrote to S.W. Jones, the Colonial Secretary, recounting his perilous journey from Singapore to India, and the difficult decision to leave his family in Australia. In the letter, he offered his service to the British Government “in the counter-offensive to recover Malaya and/or in planning the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Malaya.” He wrote that “…under the present circumstances, my conscience will not permit me to hide myself. I feel that as I am practically the only one amongst the Chinese Unofficial Representatives on the Governmental Organisations in Malaya, who is luckily out of the enemies’ hands, it may be my duty to place my services at the disposal of the British Government for what it may be worth.”

This record group also contains a set of correspondence that discussed the setting up of the Overseas-Chinese Association in India in 1943.  Presided by Tan Cheng Lock at its formation, the Association’s principal objectives were to help the Chinese evacuees in India, to consider the many issues of post-war settlement affecting them in the Japanese-occupied territories in Eastern Asia and to assist the United Nations in regaining the occupied territories.

TCT_671_022_001 – Notes of the First Ordinary Meeting of the Overseas Chinese Association, 19 October 1943. The Tan Chin Tuan Private Papers, ISEAS Library.

The Wartime Correspondence record group is available for viewing at the ISEAS Library and the detailed index to the papers are found here. Other record groups from this collection which are also available for viewing are the Personal Correspondence, Political Papers and Social Involvement.

To find out more about the Library’s collection of private papers, do check out the biographical notes and indexes to the various papers here.

Further Readings

Lee Su Yin, Rock solid: the corporate career of Tan Chin Tuan (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2006). ISEAS Library Call No: HG1552 T16L47

Lee Su Yin, British policy and the Chinese in Singapore, 1939 to 1955: the public career of Tan Chin Tuan (Singapore: Talisman Pub., 2011). ISEAS Library Call No: DS610.53 T162L47

Mike Macbeth, Quiet achiever: the life and times of Tan Sri Dr. Tan Chin Tuan (Singapore: Times Editions, 2003). ISEAS Library Call No: HG1552 T16M11

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