THERE is a Chinese saying: "When a leopard dies, it leaves its skin behind; when a man dies, he leaves behind his name.'' Among Malaysians, the name of the late Tun Sir Cheng Lock Tan is well-remembered not only because of the institutions he founded but also because of the values he espoused in business and in politics.
Tan founded two institutions that are remarkable for their longevity. In 1910, he established a rubber plantation company, The United Malacca Rubber Estate Bhd. In 1949, he founded a political party, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA).
Malacca Rubber's establishment is notable for several reasons.
First, it is one of the oldest companies listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange.
Second, it is one of the few listed companies whose core activity the planting of rubber and oil palm remains unchanged.
Third, the company can claim to have survived two world wars, the Japanese Occupation, the Great Depression in 1932, the Communist Insurgency in 1948, the Indonesian Confrontation, the May 1969 riots as well as the recessions of 1985 and 1998.
Fourth, Malacca Rubber's success coupled with Tan's fluency in English attracted the attention, initially, of the Malacca municipal authorities and later of the British colonial government.
When Tan was only 29 years old, he was appointed a member of the Malacca Municipal Council. This appointment in 1912 was his first public appointment. Eleven years later, at the age of 40, he became an unofficial member of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements.
In a paper entitled Tan Cheng Lock: A Malayan Nationalist, an academic K. Tregonning notes that Tan served an unprecedented four terms in the Legislative Council: from 1923 to 1934. Tregonning also notes that Tan was the first albeit unofficial and sole Asian to be appointed to the Straits Settlements' Executive Council from 1933 to 1935. can you be on both councils at the same time?
In 1926, in a speech to the Legislative Council, Tan laid out a road map for this country and its people.
"Our ultimate political goal should be a united self-governing British Malaya, with a Federal Government and a Parliament for the whole of it, functioning at a convenient centre, say at Kuala Lumpur, and with as much autonomy in purely local affairs as possible for each of its constituent parts.
"I think it is high time that we commence to take action towards forging the surest and strongest link of that united Malaya by fostering and creating a true Malayan spirit and consciousness among its people to the complete elimination of racial or communal feeling.''
By any yardstick, this was a highly visionary objective. All three major ethnic groups thought of themselves as Malays, Chinese and Indians, rather than Malayans. Furthermore, at that time, Malaya comprised a patchwork quilt of three political entities: the Straits Settlements of Malacca and Penang; the Federated Malay States of Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang; and the Unfederated Malay States of Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, Terengganu and Johor.
Serving on the legislative and executive councils undoubtedly helped nurture Tan's political consciousness. However, his stay in India from 1942 to 1946 when the Indian Congress Party was fighting for independence for the country made him even more aware of the need for a political platform.
On his return to Malaya in June 1946, Tan became involved with the Pan-Malayan Council for Joint Action. He became its president after its member organisations agreed to accept his three main objectives: "political unification of all Malaya, including Singapore; self-government by stages, and equality of status to all.''
The Pan-Malayan Council later teamed up with a Malay-based organisation, Pusat Tenaga Rakyat or Putera. However, in May 1947, Tan realised the need for a new political institution. In a letter to his good friend, Singapore banker Lee Kong Chian, Tan wrote: "We must have an all-Malaya Chinese organisation to look after our general interests. We must have a strong and permanent political body. When we have such an organisation, then we can try to promote Sino-Malay friendship and co-operation.''
Such an organisation was the Malayan Chinese Association he founded in February 1949. In his inaugural speech, he said: "One of the basic aims of the Malayan Chinese Association is to help, in co-operation with the Malays and other communities, the development of the process of making the whole of Malaya one country, one people and one government ....''
This speech is remarkable because in 1949 there was comparatively little social interaction between the Malays, Chinese and Indians. The speech was a reflection of Tan's consistently multi-ethnic approach in politics. He saw himself as a spokesman for all Malayans, regardless of race or gender.
For example, in the Legislative Council he appealed successfully on behalf of poor Malay fishermen for a reduction in licensing fees. He also sought the assistance of colonial authorities in helping the Portuguese Eurasian community and he spoke up for chettiars (english ?). He criticised the proposed Moneylenders Bill details?as "one-sided, unfair, unjust and unworkable'' and forced a reconsideration.
He also lobbied successfully for the abolition of the system of mui tsai (Cantonese for young girls sold as domestic slaves): "Every right-minded person who has any knowledge of its actual working must consider that the mui tsai system is objectionable,'' he said.
Tan also sharply criticised the official view that saw little or no benefit in educating Malayans.
"Some people are opposed to free education because they say it leads to discontent. But might I ask whether without discontent there could ever be any improvement in the human race? ... I for one am more apprehensive of the deadly and real perils of ignorance than fearful of the phantom dangers supposed to arise from universal education, and have absolute faith in the Socratic doctrine `virtue is knowledge, vice is ignorance.' ''
As Tregonning notes, "in a thorough study of the records of this period, I can find no other Legislative Council representative who spoke for other than his own race.''
As a political leader, Tan forged close personal relationships with his Malay and Indian counterparts. Umno leaders like Datuk Onn Jaafar and Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra were close friends and often visited him at his home in Malacca.
Tan's multi-cultural outlook may have been due to the fact that he was a Baba whose ancestors came to Malacca in the 1770s. As a Baba, Tan spoke a Malay-based Baba patois and was educated in English. Although he could not speak any Chinese dialect, he was particularly proud of his Chinese-ness.
When questioned whether his sharp facial features suggested a Caucasian origin, he replied: "All the waters of the four seas would not be able to wash (out) the Chinese blood in my veins.''
Tan was a staunch adherent of Confucius and impressed upon his children the importance of observing the rituals of ancestral worship. Furthermore, he cautioned his children "never to bring dishonour to their ancestors'' and made them memorise a Chinese poem whose concluding stanza ran as follows:
If wrong you do,
If false you play
In summer among the flowers,
You will atone,
You shall repay,
In winter among the showers.
Although Tan did not hold high office, he lived to see his son, Tun Tan Siew Sin become MCA president. Thereafter, Siew Sin assumed the post of Commerce and Industry Minister in 1957 and Finance Minister in 1959. Apart from a short hiccup in 1969, Siew Sin was Finance Minister for a record-breaking 13 years, until his resignation in April 1974.
When Tan died on Dec 13, 1960, then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman accorded him the honour of a state funeral. Furthermore, the road on which his ancestral home was located in Malacca was also renamed Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock.
But Malaysians don't really need roads to remember him by. The longevity of the two institutions he founded as well as the values he espoused and promoted through example and leadership will ensure his is a name renowned through this new millennium.
Tan Siok Choo is the daughter of Tun Tan Siew Sin and granddaughter of Tun Sir Cheng Lock Tan.
Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Ling check spelling of Universiti Malaya.Notes: STF-In this week's Millennium Markers TAN SIOK CHOO profiles a man who made a deep impression on Malaysian business as well as politics.
- The times they were a-changin (P. Ramlee)
- For the workers (V.T. Sambanthan)
- A leader and a gentleman (Tunku Abdul Rahman)
- My Tok, the Bapa Malaysia (Tunku Abdul Rahman)
- A benchmark for integrity (Tan Siew Sin)
- Plague fighter extraordinaire (Wu Lien-Teh)
- A man well remembered (Tun Mohamed Suffian Hashim)
- An education advocate (Tun Mohamed Suffian Hashim)
- Symbol of a new generation (Raja Zainal Raja Sulaiman)
- Modern Malay literature arrives (Munshi Abdullah)