Remembering Tan Lark Sye

An important historical fact for the Chinese community was finally settled last week - bringing back to view a longstanding discussion over how to remember a past leader of the community.

This leader is the late Tan Lark Sye, founder of the former Nanyang University - also known as Nantah - and a prominent leader of the Chinese community from the 1940s until his death in 1972.

Tan's citizenship had been cancelled by the authorities after the 1963 General Election, a well-known fact.

But was it ever reinstated?

That ought to be a fairly straightforward issue, one would think. Strangely enough, it was a hotly debated matter on the Internet, which led Workers' Party Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang to file a parliamentary question at this month's sitting, to shed light on the issue.

The Government's answer was short and straight to the point: "The late Mr Tan Lark Sye was deprived of his Singapore citizenship in 1964. He had engaged in activities prejudicial to the security and public order of Malaya and Singapore, in particular, in advancing the Communist cause.

"There has been no change in his Singapore citizenship status since then."

The discussion stems from an article published in 2003. Veteran Lianhe Zaobao journalist Au Yue Pak wrote in the Chinese daily that Mr Tan Eng Joo, nephew of Tan Lark Sye, had once gone to the Home Affairs Ministry to collect the elder Tan's restored citizenship.

It created a buzz among the Chinese-educated, but people did not quite know what to make of it.

Nanyang University Council chairman Tan Lark Sye addressing students at the university's convocation ceremony in 1963. ST FILE PHOTO

On the one hand, there was scepticism as it was the only known instance of such a claim being made. On the other hand, nobody refuted it.

Online forums were also far less active in 2003. The issue hummed in the background for years until a month ago, when it went viral, with Nantah alumni calling on Madam Au to clarify the issue.

This prompted Mr Low, the only Nantah alumnus in Parliament, to file his question, which in turn drew the definitive answer from the authorities.

Madam Au, who has retired, told The Straits Times she got the information from interviewing Mr Tan Eng Joo, a prominent businessman who was at the time honorary president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

It will remain unclear what Mr Tan Eng Joo was referring to - on collecting Tan Lark Sye's restored citizenship - as he died in 2011.

But one thing is clear: Tan Lark Sye remains an important figure to some Chinese-educated Singaporeans. His place in history and how he is remembered is still of significance to them.

Tan was born in 1897 in Fujian province, China, in Jimei town, which was also the birthplace of philanthropist Tan Kah Kee.

Tan Lark Sye left China in 1916 to seek a better life and, shortly after arriving in Singapore, he began working for Tan Kah Kee, who was 23 years his senior and already an established rubber tycoon.

A few years later, the entrepreneurial Tan Lark Sye left Tan Kah Kee's employ to start his own firm with his brothers, trading rubber. Before long, he became a millionaire rubber merchant himself. The two men were close, with the younger Tan looking up to his kinsman as a mentor and fatherly figure.

After the Communists took power in China in 1949, Tan Kah Kee decided to return to help develop a "New China".

He anointed Tan Lark Sye his successor as chairman of the powerful Hokkien Huay Kuan - the association of the largest Chinese dialect group in Singapore.

In the same year, Tan Lark Sye was also elected president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce, making him "the undisputed leader of the Chinese in Singapore", wrote one historian.

In the 1950s, he was among those leading the fight for citizenship for Chinese who, like himself, were born in China but had lived in Singapore for many years.

He also represented Chinese businesses in negotiating with the British for more equal trading rights vis-a-vis British firms.

He is, however, best remembered among the Chinese-educated for founding Nanyang University.

He rallied the community around Nantah's cause and made a personal donation of $5 million to its building fund. The Hokkien Huay Kuan, led by him, donated 212ha of land in Jurong as the university's campus.

He famously said during the Nantah campaign: "When the tide rises, channel it for irrigation to nourish the farmland, and it will reward you with rich gains. But hurry, because it will soon recede. Similarly, why not help poor students study while you are still capable of doing so?"

As Nantah's chairman, he steered it in its early years and did what he could to support Nantah graduates when they started working.

Madam Au, 76, who graduated from Nantah in 1963, said that thousands of Chinese-educated students like herself would never have gone to university if not for Tan Lark Sye.

At the fateful 1963 General Election, he supported several Nantah alumni running as candidates under the banner of Barisan Sosialis, the main opposition party to the People's Action Party (PAP). The PAP won that election.

The Government said Tan had taken part in activities that "jeopardise the peace and prosperity of Singapore" and issued a statement accusing him of playing "stooge to the Communists". By 1964, it had cancelled his citizenship - which, as we now know, remains cancelled. He continued to live in Singapore, and remained leader of the Hokkien Huay Kuan until he died of a heart attack in 1972.

In many interviews with Chinese-educated Singaporeans over the years, I have found in the community a deep gratitude towards Tan. This is especially true among those who are older and remember the 1950s, when the campaign to build Nantah succeeded against all odds. It was Tan's "finest hour", as one historian wrote.

It is unlikely that last week's revelation about his cancelled citizenship will end calls from the Chinese-educated for the man to be further rehabilitated.

Madam Au said to me over the phone that, in her view, the best way to do right by Tan is to posthumously restore his citizenship. This seems unlikely, given what he has been accused of (although it is also not impossible, and would likely go down well with the Chinese ground).

But there are other ways to honour his memory. In 1998, a professorship in Chinese language and culture at Nanyang Technological University was named after him. It was established through donations from Chinese groups and Nantah alumni.

Those wishing to eulogise him can also set up scholarships or bursaries in his memory, or donate to name other institutions after him.

But the strongest tribute that can be paid to any person is for people today to identify his positive contributions and to try to do the same in this generation.

This surely outweighs putting his name on more labels.

Singaporeans who wish to pay homage to Tan can, and should, emulate the values he held dear: entrepreneurship, philanthropy and a devotion to education.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2017, with the headline 'Remembering Tan Lark Sye'. Subscribe