New book sheds light on life and charitable legacy of Tan Tock Seng and his family

The book is the first comprehensive account of Tan Tock Seng and is published in both English and Chinese. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
A gallery of old photographs and memorabilia on display during the launch at the NUS Society’s Kent Ridge Guild House. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - When Tan Tock Seng came to Singapore from Malacca in 1819, the same year as Stamford Raffles, he started out selling vegetables.

Over time, he built up trading links with the Riau Archipelago, Siam, Burma and the rest of Indochina. He also helped establish the Thian Hock Keng Temple in Telok Ayer in 1839, and donated 7,000 Spanish dollars in 1844, a princely sum then, to set up a hospital for the poor on Pearl's Hill.

These and other contributions of the pioneer businessman, community leader and philanthropist are documented in a book launched on Tuesday (July 26) at the National University of Singapore Society's Kent Ridge Guild House.

Titled An Illustrious Heritage: The History Of Tan Tock Seng And Family, the book is the first comprehensive account of the pioneer, and is published in both English and Chinese.

Today, many Singaporeans remember Tan Tock Seng for the hospital that bears his name, and which played a key role in the mid-19th century.

"Without it, many of the sick would have been left dying in the streets. Importantly, he called for the hospital to care not only for the Chinese but all races," said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat at the launch.

Tan Tock Seng Hospital has served countless patients over the years, including Mr Heng, who said he would always be grateful for the care provided to him by its doctors and nurses when he suffered a stroke in 2016.

There is still much more that Singaporeans can learn about Tan Tock Seng, he added.

Today's Singapore was built on the backs of pioneers like him, many of whom were immigrants, added Mr Heng.

"They made this their home and developed deep roots here," he said.

"Our pioneers faced daunting challenges and dire conditions. But their sheer tenacity and a sense of solidarity forged the Singapore that we know today," he added.

"For Singapore to continue to thrive, it is critical that we continue to remain open to those who may not be born and bred here, but can contribute to the next chapter of the Singapore Story."

The book received a major project grant from the National Heritage Board in 2019, and is edited by Mr Roney Tan, a great-great-grandson of Tan Tock Seng, as well as historians Kua Bak Lim and Lim How Seng.

It aims to provide a wider understanding of the pioneer's contributions to Singapore, while correcting inaccuracies in existing publications.

Speaking at the launch, Mr Roney Tan recounted how at the hospital's 175th Founder's Day Heritage Walk in 2019, the tour guide was giving a lot of inaccurate information, and his cousin John and he had to correct him many times.

"Mr Heng Swee Keat turned to us, 'You should do a documentary!'" he recalled. "We are very grateful for his support, and for the support of many professors who have read our manuscripts and given us their endorsements."

The book also documents the contributions of successive generations of the Tan family in giving back to the community, including Tan Tock Seng's eldest son Tan Kim Ching, who donated towards the renovation of Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

    Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat viewing a portrait of Tan Tock Seng at the book's launch. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

    The family's donations also helped construct the Tan Teck Guan Building in 1911, which supported the growth of Singapore's first medical school.

    Tan Tock Seng's great-grandson Tan Boo Liat also furthered female education here by co-founding the Singapore Chinese Girls' School in 1889.

    Mr Heng said: "This book also reminds us that we must all do our part, and collectively own and shape our future together. So I urge everyone to step forward to contribute in our own ways to build a stronger and more cohesive Singapore.

    "And I hope this book will serve as inspiration for current generations of Singaporeans and beyond."

    • An Illustrious Heritage is published by World Scientific and costs $46 (softcover) and $98 (hardcover).

    Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.