People often mistake the family trust to be a relative new concept in Asia and Singapore. After all, the family trust was first popularized by Western private banks with a dramatic rise of family offices in recent years. 


I was captivated by a social media post by the Citizen Archivist project organised by the National Archival Board (“NAB”). The NAB posted 8 pages of the photos from Mr Tan Kim Seng’s will, inviting citizens to transcribe its full content. Thanks to Mr Vandana Aggarwal’s efforts, the will (more than 5300 words) has been transcribed. Even after 150 years, the will provides our generation a glimpse into the values and beliefs of a great man, as well as many features of a successful multi-generation family trust that hold the keys to many family inheritance feuds.

Before we take a look at the will, let us find out who is Mr Tan Kim Seng was. Mr Tan Kim Seng (1805-1864) was a prominent Peranakan merchant and philanthropist in the 18th century. Kim Seng Road, Kim Seng Bridge, and Tan Kim Seng Fountain at Esplanade Park were all attributed to him. He left a legacy of great wealth, values and also notable descendants including his grandson Mr Tan Jiak Kim and great-grandson, the former President of Singapore, Mr Tony Tan.

These are five lessons we can learnt from Tan Kim Seng’s Will


1. It’s not about being equal – it’s about finding the best man for the job

It is notable that Mr Tan set up a trust 60 years before the first corporate trustee, British Malayan Trustee, started operations in 1924. Hence, he had to appoint some out of his seven children as trustees to his vast empires. Instead of entrusting all four sons to run his business Kim Seng & Co, he chose only his first, Beng Swee, and third son, Beng Gum, as trustees with wide-ranging investment power and discretion. Although history shows us that Beng Gwee and Beng Guat were also very competent business and family leaders, Mr Tan probably considered their individual personalities, at the risk of the other two sons’ displeasure, to pick the best man for the job.


2. Distribute the fruit but preserve the tree

Out to defeat the “three generation” curse, Mr Tan was intentional to put his entire estate under trusteeship, with only income, rental or dividends distributed to his beneficiaries. None of his beneficiaries were allowed to sell any of his properties. It’s the classic “preserve the tree and distribute the fruits” strategy, similar to an endowment fund concept. In addition, he made sure the trust income went towards repairing and makeover of the trust properties and repayment of interest and debts, before going to the beneficiaries. He even had the foresight to include a clause “free from marital control” for the real properties left for his two daughters to ensure the family assets do not get eroded through marital dissolution.


3. Values-driven and Values Inheritance

A well-thought legacy plan is a window to a man’s values and beliefs. Mr Tan made adequate provisions for his daughters, his nephew, his brother and friends, before bequesting his remaining business to his four sons. We can reasonably assume he was caring to his family and friends. Towards his wife, Mdm Lim Tew Neo, he provided for her lavishly as long as she was widowed and unmarried. He even provided a substantial sum to her should she remarry after his death.

One of the notable objectives of his “Sinchew Funds” was for the “performance of the rites and ceremonies styled ‘Sinchew’ according to Chinese custom” in memory of him and his wife, his parents and of any of his sons who may die during the trust duration.


4. Distribution rules that reflect social norms

As much as he drew up his will with love, Mr Tan’s will would most likely suffer from family feud if it was executed in the 21st century. Reflecting the patriarchal society of his times, he decreed that his sons were to be given double portions and only male descendants of the sons were entitled to the family inheritance. In a codicil – or will amendment made one year later – he added a restraint that his sons and male descendants shall not forsake or renounce the religion and practices of the Chinese, or they shall be disinherited.

Likewise, it is important to consider societal value changes when it comes to values-driven heritance planning. Does your will adapt to or cater for societal changes and trends, for example increased family and marriage dissolution, heightened sense of entitlement and materialism?


5. Intentional multi-generation giving

One may say Mr Tan stretched his legacy because he was extremely wealthy by the standard of his days. After all, another extremely wealth Arab trader in Singapore, Sallim Talib, had created a family trust back in 19332 that would last the maximum allowable trust tenure of 100 years. However, Mr Tan even bested the prevailing maximum tenure of his days by inventing a “renewal clause” at the end of 64 years. As a result, his trust could be continually renewed every 64 years, subjected to any law against perpetuities.

Mr Tan also inserted a succession rule that goes into the Office of the Trustee. Each generation of trustee is to nominate their successors kept under the male descendants of male lineage.

Put together, the values inheritance, wealth inheritance and trustee appointment rule created a lasting legacy that survived well into the 21st century.