Private papers that give rare insight into 'Mr OCBC' to be showcased online for public soon

Private papers belonging to the late banker and philanthropist Tan Chin Tuan being displayed. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
(From left) Iseas board of trustees chairman Wang Gungwu, Tan Chin Tuan Foundation council members Chew Gek Hiang and Chew Kwee San and Iseas director Tan Chin Tiong at the signing ceremony on March 8, 2016. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Tan Chin Tuan Foundation council members Chew Gek Hiang (left) and Chew Kwee San looking at the boxes of papers that were handed over to Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute, on March 8, 2016. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
More than 31,000 documents spanning close to 54,000 pages worth of private papers were handed over from the Tan Chin Tuan Foundation to Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - In 1942, the late banker and philanthropist Tan Chin Tuan - who was then the managing director of Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) - was instructed to re-establish the bank outside of Japanese control in Rangoon, Burma, to look after the interests of the bank in Allied occupied territories.

Mr Tan, also fondly known as "Mr OCBC", succeeded but only three years later and in Bombay, India.

He first arrived in Batavia (modern day Jakarta) and tried to travel to India by boat. However, after a hazardous journey, Mr Tan found himself in Perth, Australia.

Four other ships set sail but his was the only one that made it safely. Mr Tan finally crossed to India in 1943 but due to missing documents, the bank was only re-registered in 1945.

This was revealed in Mr Tan's private papers, handed over to the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute from the Tan Chin Tuan Foundation on Tuesday. And the papers will be be made available to the public - in digital form - soon.

The papers give a sneak peek into Mr Tan's personal life. While several books about Mr Tan have been published, they have focused largely on the corporate career on the banker, who was known to be a private person.

In total, more than 31,000 documents spanning close to 54,000 pages were handed over. These documents have been digitised over the span of six months and at a cost of $32,500. According to Mr Pitt Kuan Wah, head of the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute library, the public will be able to access all of these documents online within the next three months.

Mr Tan was commonly known as a serious banker who joined OCBC as a clerk at 17 after his studies at Anglo-Chinese School. He eventually held the position of chairman of OCBC from 1966 to 1983.

His private papers showed him to be a man deeply concerned about other people and a man with a wide range of hobbies, from growing and sending orchids to friends to rearing race horses

The papers also revealed his little known philanthropic actions. For instance, in 1962, he paid the university fees of $700 for a student called Miss Chong, whom he knew only from her letters. He had, at the time, requested that this be kept confidential fearing that it "may well embarrass the young lady".

Mr Tan also went out of his way to fight for Mr Wong Lai Fatt, whom he believed was unfairly wronged. In 1972, Mr Wong was trying to defend his wife from being raped but was instead sentenced to a four-year prison term.

"The apparent injustice in this case has so troubled me that I feel I should try to help this poor man, although he is a complete stranger to me. I would be prepared to pay for counsel to appeal on his behalf," he wrote.

Thanks to his help, Mr Wong's appeal was successful and was released.

Over the years, Mr Tan also gained a reputation for sending orchids that he personally cultivated to his friends and business associates. Numerous notable men, including Mr Kan Tong Po, founder of the Bank of East Asia, and Sir Run Run Shaw, a Hong Kong entertainment mogul, sent him thank you notes for the orchids received.

His private papers also gave insight into his many hobbies. Sunday was the day he reserved strictly for family and friends and for mahjong. He also enjoyed spending his time tending to his beloved orchids, fishes and birds as well as his race horses.

Ms Chew Gek Hiang, Mr Tan's 52-year-old granddaughter, said: "My grandfather always felt there was a duty to educate everybody and if these papers can be of some use then it could be a part of his legacy."

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