More than a century ago, a young man from China arrived in Singapore, worked hard and achieved success in commerce. But above and beyond the world of business, Tan Kah Kee became a name synonymous with the cause of education in both Singapore and China.
In a time when many were affected by poverty, Kah Kee was dedicated to uplifting his community and society. While he had little formal education, the development of education was his life-long passion.
The wealth that Kah Kee earned through business – Tan Kah Kee & Co. was estimated to employ around 32,000 people in Southeast Asia and China at its peak in 1925 – would be returned to society. After his death, his estate was pledged towards education, just like his wealth was ploughed into education in his lifetime.
Kah Kee’s grandson, Danny Tan, laughs at the surprise people show when they learn that his grandfather did not leave an inheritance to his family. “Reporters would ask: ‘he never left any money to you, are you angry?’
“Tan Kah Kee did a great job with his money, he really put the money to good use, rather than squandering it on women, song, wine or sports cars … he did something with his money, and we are very proud of that,” says Danny.
Danny’s cousin Peggy Tan adds: “He felt education was the only way of bettering the lot of society. The majority of the population were just eking out a living, hand to mouth, a lot of them were illiterate, children were running around in the streets half naked, playing chap ji kee and other gambling games. There was poor hygiene, it was really appalling and he felt he really had to do something.”
While Danny never met his grandfather, the impact of Kah Kee’s work echoed long beyond his lifetime. He recalls meeting graduates of the schools Kah Kee founded in Xiamen in the late 1980s: “When they spoke of him, they cried. They said ‘without Tan Kah Kee, I am not here’. Old men in their seventies and eighties, they were crying. I then realised the deep sense of gratitude these people had for him. Because he set up the schools, many people had the opportunity to learn knowledge, to study, and therefore the ability to better themselves … and in future, to contribute back to society.
“He had many students who went to his schools, who learnt from him and his ideas that you must give back to society. I think that was his success,” says Danny.
Kah Kee arrived in Singapore in 1890, and made his fortune in the pineapple and rubber industries. He expanded his company’s reach into many other industries, earning him the nickname ‘Henry Ford of Southeast Asia’.
His interest in education developed early. Between 1907 and 1947, Kah Kee helped found seven schools in Singapore, including Tao Nan School and Ai Tong School. Kah Kee also donated to Anglo-Chinese School and Raffles College, the predecessor of the National University of Singapore today.
As the leader of the Hokkien Huay Kuan, Kah Kee was against segregating schools by dialect and brought together the leaders of various dialect communities to found Singapore Nanyang Overseas Chinese School (later known as Chinese High) in 1919. Kah Kee also established an education department within the Hokkien Huay Kuan to administer the schools and produce a unified curriculum.
In 1921, Kah Kee founded Amoy University (also known as Xiamen University), the first privately-established university in China. Kah Kee helped found an estimated 118 schools in China and Singapore in his lifetime. His efforts were not limited to financing schools. He provided uniforms, textbooks and even allowances to students from rural families, to persuade them to go to school.
He often went above and beyond financial assistance; Kah Kee understood and deeply cared for the poor, who often went hungry. “At one period, when you had good results, you would be rewarded with one kati of pork. Tan Kah Kee went to the nitty gritty details, it’s not just giving money,” says Danny.
Kah Kee’s business fortunes declined after the Great Depression in the late 1920s. Kah Kee refused to stop funding schools, saying: “Enterprises can be closed down, but schools can never be closed down.” When the banks brought the pressure of commercial interests to bear upon him, Kah Kee resigned from his own company. To prevent a shareholder and staff revolt, the banks brought him back as managing director, and the bulk of his salary went to the schools.
His ambitions to educate and uplift society extended past the establishment of schools. Kah Kee published pictorial books on personal hygiene and health for the illiterate, and worked to abolish social ills such as gambling, opium and overspending on weddings and funerals.
Besides education, Kah Kee was a tireless worker in raising funds for disaster and war relief, helping to rally his community to provide relief efforts during periods such as the Nanhai Revolution in 1911, the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and World War II. More than 50 years after this death, the Tan Kah Kee Foundation continues his legacy by contributing to education and other causes.
Such was his focus on improving the lot of his people that Danny and Peggy recall stories of their grandmother having to ask for rice from one of her own husband’s rice mills, given that Kah Kee was too caught up with his societal work. The furniture in his household, his grandchildren say, was mismatched, ageing and spartan, the result of Kah Kee’s thriftiness and determination to channel every available cent to social causes.
The message of Tan Kah Kee’s work remains vital today: wealth is derived from society, and should be returned to society.
By Alvin Chua
A comprehensive documentation of Tan Kah Kee's life can be found in the Tan Kah Kee Memorial Park in Jimei, Fujian, China.
Video filmed by Alvin Chua and edited by Tok Swee Geok