Xiamen University is dubbed one of the most beautiful and romantic university campuses in China. Indeed, in my four-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 too has much to be grateful to the ‘Henry Ford of Malaysia’. Born in Jimei village in Fujian Province, China in 1874, Tan Kah Kee travelled to Singapore at the 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 at the age of 18.

Tan Kah Kee made various trips to and from China and Singapore, juggling family and business. Despite the rice trading business failing in 1903, his entrepreneurship dream had just begun.

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 made from his business, he revived his family’s old rice trade and set up a rice mill.

Despite his growing success, new players entered the market and profits from the pineapple business soon dwindled. In 1906, Tan Kah Kee diversified his business to the rubber trade. Eventually, rubber became the mainstay of his business.

Beyond being an avid entrepreneur, Tan Kah Kee was deeply passionate about education and the furtherance of the Chinese culture. Through the wealth accumulated from his businesses, Tan Kah Kee founded five primary and secondary Chinese 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 teachers. In 1921, he founded Xiamen University. In 1941, he established a teachers training for Chinese schools in Singapore.

Having lived through the first and the second world wars, Tan Kah Kee weathered countless storms. Yet, he never hoarded his wealth or wisdom. Tan Kah Kee was vocal about social reform, politics and 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; and
  • Publishing the Nan Chiao Jit Poh in 1946, a newspaper disparaging the ruling Kuomintang in China.

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 should be used extensively for the good of society.

Tan Kah Kee’s frugality, work ethic and heart for society has transcended his lifetime to his descendants. In the 1980s, around two decades after his passing, Tan Kah Kee’s descendants started the Tan Kah Kee Foundation with an aim to foster his spirit in entrepreneurship and dedication to education.

The family is also working to publish a book about the various Tan Kah Kee descendants of the second and third generations.

To date, Tan Kah Kee has over 300 descendants spanning five generations that live 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 values transfer alone.

 

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