Seminar on “Two King’s-Chinese Knights: Sir Ong-siang Song and Sir Cheng-lock Tan”

Dr Ernest Chew spoke at a “Heritage of Malaysia and Singapore” seminar series on two prominent Straits Chinese leaders, Sir Song Ong Siang and Sir Tan Cheng Lock.


Heritage of Malaysia and Singapore Seminar Series

Tuesday, 3 September 2019 – Dr Ernest Chew spoke at a “Heritage of Malaysia and Singapore” seminar series on two prominent Straits Chinese leaders, Sir Song Ong Siang and Sir Tan Cheng Lock. The seminar was jointly organised by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and the Penang Institute, with support from Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng, Executive Director of Penang Institute, was the discussant at the event.

Dr Ernest Chew compares and contrasts the two Straits Chinese leaders, Song Ong Siang and Tan Cheng Lock, and how they were bridge-builders between the British, their Peranakan community, and the wider society. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Chew chose to speak about Sir Song Ong Siang and Sir Tan Cheng Lock as his contribution to the Singapore Bicentennial which covers the period from the founding of a British colonial emporium in Singapore to the formation of a self-governing city-state and nation-state. He also noted that the seminar is being held at ISEAS, which is the repository of one of the two main collections of Tan Cheng Lock papers, the other being the Arkib Negara Malaysia. He also informed the audience that he is related to both Sir Tan and Sir Song – his maternal grandfather, Oh Ghee Choo, was an orphan who was adopted by Song Hoot Kiam into his household, and followed him as an Elder of the Straits Chinese Presbyterian Church; his paternal grandmother, Tan Siok Kim, was a cousin of Tan Cheng Lock, and their fathers were brothers.

Both men lived at the height of British imperial rule. Dr Chew said that their lives, contributions and perspectives were shaped by their own times and circumstances in colonial Malaya, and both of them served as bridge-builders between their communities in Singapore, Malaya and other communities. They were also intermediaries between the Chinese and the colonial government, representing civic interests, and later (in Tan’s case) championing Malayan nationalism and independence.

Both Sir Song and Sir Tan received their education at Raffles Institution. While Sir Tan had a brief stint as a teacher in his alma mater, Sir Song went on to read law at Cambridge University as a Queen’s Scholar. Sir Song was among the first few British Chinese subjects to receive the prestigious scholarship. Dr Chew shared that Sir Song was deeply influenced by his Presbyterian faith; his legacy can still be found at the Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church where he laid the foundation stone for the new building in 1930. Sir Song was also pivotal to the establishment of the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, which provided a holistic education for Chinese girls during a time when their education was neglected. Sir Song and Sir Tan both sat on the Straits Settlements Legislative Council. Sir Song passed away in 1941, on the eve of the Japanese Occupation, while Sir Tan took a safe passage to India for the duration of the war.

Sir Tan’s founding of the Malayan Chinese Association was discussed by Dr Chew. After the Communist insurgency began in mid-1948, Sir Tan formed the Malayan Chinese Association in 1949 as an alternative vehicle for Chinese political expression to counteract the Malayan Communist Party. He was also a vital member of the Communities Liaison Committee formed by the British Commissioner-General Malcolm MacDonald. After abortive negotiations with Dato Onn bin Jaffar, ex-founder of UMNO, Sir Tan came to a successful agreement with Onn’s successor, Tunku Abdul Rahman, to form an alliance of three communal parties (UMNO-MCA-MIC) to contest and win the 1955 Malayan general elections.

On the various legacies left behind by both men, Dr Chew highlighted Sir Song’s contribution to the Chinese community and the world of scholarship, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (1923; twice re-issued in 1967 and 1984) which was meant to commemorate the centenary of the founding of Singapore in 1819. Dr Chew said that Sir Tan’s greatest political contributions were to rally the Malayan Chinese against the Communist threat, to distance the Malayan Chinese from the Communists who had taken over China, and to ally his party with UMNO and MIC to fight for Malayan independence.

Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng, who was the discussant, talked about the importance and paradox of ethnic identities in light of empire-building and the nation-state. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

As the seminar discussant, Dato Dr Ooi shared that biographies were often regarded as alternative histories that sometimes challenged the political narrative of the day. He noted that biographies can never fully capture the person under study; this was because sources used to describe the individual are often subject to personal bias and judgement. Dato Dr Ooi then briefly discussed the importance and paradox of ethnic identities in light of empire-building and the nation-state. According to him, empires valued hybridity and variety of identity and ethnicities, while the nation state, despite promoting unity, only emphasized homogeneity of identity. The Straits Chinese, of which both men claimed their ethnicities from, were all but absent after the creation of Malaysia and Indonesia. Today, they identify themselves under the broad but vague category of ‘Peranakan’. Dato Dr Ooi also discussed the role of religion amongst the Straits Chinese then and present-day Peranakans, referencing Sir Song’s role as an Elder in the Presbyterian Church.

During the question and answer session, the audience engaged with the Dr Chew and Dato Dr Ooi on a range of topics, including their perspectives on the development of Peranakan identity over time, interactions between the two men in their life time, and the political roles and participation of the Peranakan community during Malayan Emergency. Over 57 people from various industries attended the event, from members of the academia to cultural activists.

The talk attracted more than 50 participants from members of the academia to cultural activists. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)