Influence and Leadership

Cultivating Relations with the Colonial Government

Tan Tock Seng Hospital




Although the Tan Tock Seng Hospital is chiefly associated with Tan Tock Seng himself, who gave the funds for the original building of the hospital in 1844, and whose son and widow also donated money for the subsequent enlargement of the hospital, its foundation and early history were also tied up with the activities of Seah Eu Chin. Furthermore, his charitable work with the Hospital could be said to be cultivating his position both in the Chinese community and with the British authorities, for while it was a charitable activity that mainly benefited the Chinese, it was also a public venture that sought participation and donations from the town establishment.

Prior to the foundation of the hospital, few charities catered to the needs of the poor and destitute Chinese inhabitants (or of any race, for that matter) in Singapore. In the 1840s, Seah Eu Chin rented a small house near the Watt Hai Cheng Beo (also called the Philip Street Chinese temple, or the Yueh Hai Ching temple) for the destitute to seek shelter in at night, although they had to find their own means of support during the day. However, the paupers resorted to begging in the vicinity of the building so he erected two sheds in the swamp near the Ellenborough Buildings, but the paupers were reluctant to move there until Eu Chin promised to supply them with food, independent of what they could obtain on their own. 103 “Report of the Committee of Management of Tan Tock Sing’s Hospital for the year ending 25th June 1852” (bound within SSR AA26, after p.163, hereafter cited as “Hospital Report 1852”), 1-2, National Archives of Singapore. Also quoted in Y.K. Lee, “Singapore's Pauper and Tan Tock Seng Hospitals (1819-1873). Part One,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 48 no. 2 (1975): 79-111. The Government, however, was unable to provide much assistance. At the time prior to the transfer in 1867, the Straits Settlements were still under the direct control of the Bengal Presidency of the Indian government, and so the Government in Singapore had to apply to Bengal for its expenditure. However, these requests were not always approved, in part because administrators in faraway Bengal often did not understand the local situation; the long delay in correspondence was also of no help.

Among the revenue farms had been the Pork Farm, which taxed the meat most commonly consumed by the Chinese. However, this was abolished in 1836-7. The Chinese merchants who were most involved in charity work, however, supported the reintroduction of the Pork tax as a means of paying for the upkeep of the destitute. The Governor in Singapore even forwarded a presentment of the Grand Jury to Bengal on 16 Mar 1846, proposing the re-establishment of the Pork Farm, the plan of the new Hospital, and a draft Act. The Senior Sworn Clerk was said to be drafting new proposed regulations for the Pork Farm with the aid of Eu Chin and Tan Tock Seng. 104 Y.K. Lee, “Hospitals,” part 1. Unfortunately, nothing came of this.

The press, however, did not adopt a very forgiving attitude to the Government and criticized it for its lack of support, asserting that

“we may soon expect to see most loathsome sights unless the Government comes forward to second the efforts of the Chinese Merchant [Seah Eu Chin] who has been the principal support of these unfortunate creatures for some time past. This he has been doing under the impression that the Pork Farm would be resumed and he will be repaid part of the outlay. The re-establishment of this Farm has been petitioned for by the Chinese population from a conviction that it is the only way of supporting their destitute countrymen….” 105 Letter from “An Old Inhabitant”, Singapore Free Press, 18 Nov 1847.

The Pork Farm petitions were eventually unsuccessful. Even in 1850, a group of Chinese headed by Tan Kim Seng and including Seah Eu Chin and other prominent merchants petitioned the Governor for the reintroduction of the Pork tax specifically to support destitute paupers, using the imminent visit of the Governor-General, the Marquis of Dalhousie, as an opportunity to raise this issue once again. 106 Transcribed in Chng, Xinjia huaren shi xinkao, 168. These merchants probably believed that social welfare could not carry on indefinitely in the form of private donations and subscriptions from wealthy individuals, and that the Pork Farm would more collectively establish responsibility for the upkeep of the poor. The authorities’ apparent indifference, which necessitated the merchants’ charitable activities, could have been an additional motivation for their appeal.

Read the Pork Farm petition of 1850

In Nov 1845, Thomas Dunman, then Superintendent of Police, assisted by the Police Magistrate and Seah Eu Chin, collected $111.45 from 324 mostly Chinese subscribers to build an attap shed at the foot of Pearl’s Hill, to lodge and feed between 100 to 120 paupers, which presumably replaced the earlier buildings. 107 “Hospital Report 1852,” 2, quoted in Y.K. Lee, “Hospitals,” part 1. In late 1849, though, the shed was finally blown down in a storm, and the paupers had to be transferred to the Tan Tock Seng Hospital, then known as the Pauper’s Hospital. 108 Straits Times, 30 Oct 1849, quoted in Y.K. Lee, “Singapore's Pauper and Tan Tock Seng Hospitals (1819-1873). Part Two.” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 49 no. 1 (1976): 113-133. By that time, Eu Chin had already been involved in raising funds and in the management of the hospital for some years. He managed the charity until the foundation of its management committee in 1851. From Apr 1845 to Jun 1851, he raised $8090.22 in donations and subscriptions, while the expenditure recorded was $8103.02. Included in that amount were 1000 Company Rupees given by the Marquis of Dalhousie during his visit in 1850, 109 “Hospital Report 1852,” 2, and Y.K. Lee, “Hospitals,” part 1. though the sum is also recorded as 100 sovereigns. 110 Obituary, Straits Times, 24 Sep 1883.

After the death of Tan Tock Seng in 1850, the charity’s management was reorganized in the form of a Committee of Management, and Seah Eu Chin was appointed Treasurer in the first committee in 24 Jun 1851, 111 Y.K. Lee, “Hospitals,” part 2, 126. carrying out much the same roles he had in the past. It was no sinecure post, for according to the Rules and Regulations,

“the Treasurer shall be requested to attend all the monthly meetings, furnish a statement of the interim expenses, and the current account of the Hospital; he will collect every 6 months, that is, in July and January of each year, the subscriptions in advance, pay all accounts previously audited by the Medical Officer in charge, furnish a yearly statement of the finances, and be accountable for the monies in his possession.” 112 “Hospital Report 1852,” 12-13.


“the Treasurer [is] requested to obtain estimates of the clothing and bedding of the inmates sufficient for a period of 6 months for the approval of the Committee.” 113 “Hospital Report 1852,” 14.

We also know that Eu Chin was in charge of the food supply, because

“it was resolved that the diet of the inmates should consist of one catty of ordinary rice, for each person per diem, and that $1.50 should be allowed for every 100 for ‘chow chow’ per diem, and that the details be left to the management of Seah Eu Chin, Esquire, who has for some time ably managed them.” 114 “Hospital Report 1852,” 15.

The same Hospital Report for 1852 (p. 6) gave a statement of accounts as kept by Seah Eu Chin, and for that year the sum was not inconsiderable: $2 693.61 leaving a balance of $863.93½ after deducting expenses. It was a substantial amount, given that the monthly wages of the average labourer was a few dollars, therefore it was only natural that one of the richest men in the settlement should be entrusted with its management, since he would have the least temptation to abscond with the sum!

The “List of Donors and Subscribers” for 1852 names both Chinese and European donors, with the sums contributed annually. 115 “Hospital Report 1852,” 7-9. Among the individual Chinese subscribers, Tan Tock Sing’s widow, his son Kim Ching, and Seah Eu Chin gave the most – $60 annually – while Tan Kim Seng subscribed $36. The majority of the names recorded are the trading “chops” of Chinese merchants, most of whom gave more modest amounts under $10, but notable among them are the “Red headed Junks” collectively giving $100 a year. The Arrack Farm and Opium Farm also gave $12 each year, though that was only a small percentage of their annual income. Among the Europeans, Governor Butterworth also subscribed for $60 a year. In addition, there were bequests and one-time donations, such as a legacy left by a Chinese named Chan Seng Chan, from which $444.16 in interest was earned. Eu Chin also gave interest on the money that he kept for the Hospital. His early experience as a clerk and book-keeper in the 1820s must have come in useful!

The Singapore and Straits Directory lists Eu Chin in the Committee of Management of the hospital for its issues from 1853 to 1871. He was Treasurer for eight years until resigning on 28 Feb 1861, being replaced by Whampoa (Hoo Ah Kay). 116 Straits Times, 2 Mar 1861, and Y.K. Lee, “Singapore's Pauper and Tan Tock Seng Hospitals (1819-1873). Part Four,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 50 no. 2 (1977): 111-135. During his tenure he was known for his careful management of money:

“That Mr. Euchin [sic] … has paid the strictest attention to economy may be inferred from the fact that in the Penang Poor House where inmates are merely fed and not clothed or supplied with medical comforts, each inmate costs $19/- per annum. In Singapore, where $500/- have been expended in clothing an medical comforts, each inmate costs $18.67.” 117 Straits Times, 1 Jul 1856, reporting on the 5th annual meeting of subscribers on 27 Jun 1856, also quoted in Y.K. Lee, “Singapore's Pauper and Tan Tock Seng Hospitals (1819-1873). Part Three,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 49 no. 2 (1976): 164-183.

In November 1851, Governor Butterworth, in replying to an address from Chinese merchants on his departure to holiday in Australia, took the chance to “notice the obligation [that] the Chinese community, and the public generally, [was] under to Seah Eu Chin for his management of the Pauper Hospital, which involved great responsibility, pecuniary and otherwise, prior to the establishment of the present very efficient Committee….” 118 Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 84. Again in 1852 his “economy, and active supervision of the inmates and their interests” were acknowledged by the subscribers to the Hospital. 119 “Hospital Report 1852,” 4. Coincidentally, inmates’ uniforms were dyed with gambier. He remained on the Committee after stepping down as Treasurer, 120 Singapore and Straits Directory 1853-1871. and was thanked by the Honorary Secretary, R.C. Woods, “for the active aid [he had] always afforded in procuring large additions to the funds of the charity and thereby enabling the Committee to afford assistance to the numerous paupers in the Hospital.” 121 Singapore Daily Times, 8 Aug 1867.

[Picture of old Pauper's Hospital?]

After the Government took over the hospital in Sep 1873, it appointed a new management committee. Of the Chinese members on the committee, two of four were family of Seah Eu Chin: Seah Chio Seah, his eldest son, and Tan Seng Poh, his brother-in-law. 122 Straits Settlements Government Gazette (26 Sep 1873): 2096, series CO 276, Public Record Office, U.K. The remaining two were Whampoa and Cheang Hong Lim: Whampoa’s inclusion was not surprising, given that he was an Unofficial Member of the Legislative Council and perhaps the best-regarded Chinese among the establishment, while Cheang Hong Lim was a business associate of Tan Seng Poh and a fellow member of the Great Opium Syndicate. This illustrates both the influence that the Seah family had at the time, and that the wealthy elite of Chinese society then comprised only a small core of rich merchants and their families, from whom the same individuals would time and again be called upon by the British as representatives of their community (though they were arguably hardly representative of the Chinese community as a whole).

Overall, Seah Eu Chin’s involvement with the Tan Tock Seng Hospital has been relatively overlooked compared with the largesse of Tan Tock Seng and his family in endowing the institution. While Eu Chin’s financial contribution was not as great (though still significant), he played an important role in its success by recruiting and maintaining a pool of donors and subscribers from which the hospital drew its running expenses, seeing it through its early stages prior to the assumption of management by the Government. Existing accounts show that expenditure cut quite close to income, so Eu Chin’s much-reputed economy must have been critical. His position was also ideal for fund-raising, given his own personal wealth and his business connections with much of the Chinese merchant class and European population in Singapore. Although he was not entirely altruistic – he did after all petition for the reintroduction of the Pork Farm in the hope of recovering some of his spending on the pauper shed – it is hard not to attribute his involvement in this charity to some sense of public-spiritedness or desire to alleviate the suffering of the poor and destitute.

Previous | Back to Influence | Next (Negotiating positions)

Original content and web presentation Copyright (c) 2007-2016 Brandon Seah