The Legacy of Tan Kah Kee
Xiamen University is dubbed as one of the most beautiful and romantic universities in China. Indeed, in my 4-month exchange programme to Xiamen University in 2016, a steady stream of tourists would come through the South Gate every day to admire and tour the campus.
Upon entering the university, one would invariably walk past the Tan Kah Kee Memorial Hall. Tan Kah Kee, the beloved founder of Xiamen University, stands regal and tall, welcoming all to partake in the pursuit of education and knowledge.
Singapore has much to be grateful for towards the ‘Henry Ford of Malaysia’. Born in Jimei village in Fujian Province, China in 1874, Tan Kah Kee travelled to Singapore at the tender age of 16 to join his father in the family’s rice trading business. A hard and talented worker, Tan Kah Kee took over the business when he was 18. He made countless trips between China and Singapore, juggling family and business. When the rice trading business failed in 1903, it marked the start of his entrepreneurship dream.
In 1904, Tan Kah Kee established his own pineapple canning factory in Singapore. Subsequently, he acquired a large pineapple cannery factory and a 500-acre undeveloped forested land to start a plantation. From the profits, he revived his family’s old rice trade and set up a rice mill.
Despite this growing success, new players entered the market and profits from his pineapple business soon dwindled. In 1906, Tan Kah Kee diversified his business by dabbling in rubber which became the mainstay of his business.
Beyond being an avid entrepreneur, Tan Kah Kee was also passionate about education and the furtherance of the Chinese culture. Using his wealth, Tan Kah Kee founded 5 primary and secondary schools in Singapore and made various donations to other schools.
In 1918, he established a teachers training school in Fujian Province to raise the quality of educators. He then founded Xiamen University in 1921. 20 years later, he established a teachers training for Chinese schools in Singapore.
Tan Kah Kee weathered countless storms having lived through the World War 1 and 2. Yet, he was never stingy with his wealth or wisdom. A strong advocate for social reformation and politics, he was hailed as a community leader and philanthropist. Some of his notable contributions include:
- Being elected as the president of the Hokkien Huay Kuan in Singapore in 1929
- Setting up the China Relief Fund to support China’s effort against the Japanese invasion in 1937
- Being elected as president of the Southeast Asia Federation of the China Relief Fund in 1938
- Publishing the Nan Chiao Jit Poh in 1946, a newspaper disparaging the ruling Kuomintang in Chia
Interestingly, Tan Kah Kee never passed on his material wealth to any of his descendants. His philosophy towards wealth was that it should be “treated like fertilizer, spread around as much as possible for better effect.” In short, wealth should not be accumulated within the family, but used extensively for the good of society.
His frugality, work ethic and heart for society has transcended his lifetime to his descendants. In the 1980s, his descendants started the Tan Kah Kee Foundation with the aim to foster his spirit in entrepreneurship and dedication to education. They are also working to publish a book on Tan Kah Kee descendants. To date, he has over 300 descendants spanning five generations living all over the world. Some of his reputable sons-in-law are Lee Kong Chian, Oon Khye Hong and Tan Lark Sye, to name a few.
Through the life of this legend, we see that it is possible for one to leave a meaningful legacy to future generations through value transfer alone.
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- Liang, D. (2019). Next generation legacy builder : uncover the building blocks for your lasting legacy. Singapore: Liang Aik Kwan. Retrieved from https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/printheritage/image.aspx?id=33bb7375-5c14-4017-b22d-0a5c8909b3f2
- roots.sg. (n.d.). Tan Kah Kee | The champion of education. Retrieved from roots.sg: https://www.roots.gov.sg/stories-landing/stories/tan-kah-kee/story
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- Tan Kah Kee Foundation. (n.d.). Biography. Retrieved from Tan Kah Kee Foundation: https://www.tkkfoundation.org.sg/biography
- Tan Kah Kee Foundation. (n.d.). Home. Retrieved from Tan Kah Kee Foundation: https://www.tkkfoundation.org.sg/home
- Xiamen University. (n.d.). Founder. Retrieved from Xiamen University: https://en.xmu.edu.cn/11101/list.htm
- Xiamen University Malaysia. (2017, May 25). Founder: Tan Kah Kee (1874-1961). Retrieved from Xiamen University Malaysia: http://www.xmu.edu.my/2017/0525/c14682a320795/page.htm
- Xinhua. (2020, September 1). Spotlight: Keeping the legacy of Tan Kah Kee alive. Retrieved from xinhuanet.com: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-09/01/c_139334737.htm