Tan Kim Seng Portrait

People often mistake family trusts to be a relatively new concept in Asia and Singapore. After all, family trusts were 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 organized by the National Archival Board (NAB). The NAB posted Mr Tan Kim Seng’s 8-page long will and invited people to transcribe its contents. Thanks to Mr Vandana Aggarwal’s efforts, the will has been fully transcribed. Offering our generation not just a glimpse into the values and beliefs of a great man, it also shows us what makes a successful, multi-generation family trust.

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 named after him. He left behind a legacy of great wealth and values and had notable descendants like his grandson, Mr Tan Jiak Kim, and great-grandson, Mr Tony Tan, who was our former president.

After knowing more about Mr Tan Kim Seng, let’s look that the 5 lessons we can learn from his will.

Lesson #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. 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 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 (or men, in this case) for the job.

Lesson #2: Distribute the fruits but preserve the tree

Out to defeat the ‘wealth not passing three generations’ curse, Mr Tan intentionally 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, which is similar to an endowment fund concept.

In addition, he made sure the trust income went towards repairing and maintaining his trust properties and repayment of interest and debts first before going to the beneficiaries. He also had the foresight to include a ‘free from marital control’ clause for properties left to his two daughters to ensure the family assets do not get eroded through marital dissolution.

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Lesson #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 cared for his family and friends. Towards his wife, Mdm Lim Tew Neo, he continued to provide for her 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.

Lesson #4: Distribution rules that reflect social norms

Mr Tan’s will would most likely result in family feuds 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 changes in societal values when it comes to value-driven inheritance 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?

Lesson #5: Intentional multi-generation giving

One may say Mr Tan enjoyed such a long legacy because he was considered wealthy back in those days. After all, Sallim Talib (another wealthy Arab trader in Singapore) had also created a family trust back in 1933 that would last the maximum allowable trust tenure of 100 years.

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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, Mr Tan’s value and wealth inheritance as well as trustee appointment rule created a lasting legacy that survived well into the 21st century.

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  • Chia, J. Y., & Chew, V. (2016). Tan Kim Seng. Retrieved from Singapore Infopedia: https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1119_2010-05-07.html
  • National Archives of Singapore. (2019, September 20). Collection – TKS1: Will of Tan Kim Seng. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore: https://www.nas.gov.sg/citizenarchivist/Documents/Collection/108?status=completed
  • Supreme Court of Singapore. (2010, March 18). Shafeeg bin Salim Talib and another v Fatimah bte Abud bin Talib and others. Retrieved from Case Summaries: https://www.supremecourt.gov.sg/news/case-summaries/shafeeg-bin-salim-talib-and-another-v-fatimah-bte-abud-bin-talib-and-others
  • Tay, C. (2016). Tan Jiak Kim. Retrieved from Singapore Infopedia: https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1136_2009-06-29.html