Influence and Leadership
This analysis of Seah Eu Chin’s leadership activities shows how he carefully negotiated between British and Chinese power structures. He gained influence and position within the Chinese community through his private wealth, his control of the pepper and gambier trade, his support of various causes, and his position in the Ngee Ann Kongsi. At the same time, he also worked within the structure of the colonial system. This was not simply about ambition or seeking recognition for good works. His activities also safeguarded his business interests. He took out titles on land, joined the Chamber of Commerce, took up official appointments, and acted as a “native informant”. He was not a passive partner but also actively negotiated and bargained with the British, when he made petitions and memorials to the government on behalf of his commercial interests. Nonetheless, he was ultimately playing by their rules, by hiring European lawyers to draft formal documents, and by following the procedures of colonial law and bureaucracy.
Eu Chin’s strategies to position himself as a leading figure both within the Chinese community and to the colonial government worked for only that short half-century window in which he thrived. By the early decades of the 20th century, the Chinese community was more politically aware. Chinese nationalism was growing in overseas communities, who were also better informed, through the newly-thriving Chinese-language newspapers. Demographically, the community was transforming from a society of transient migrant workers to one of settled immigrants with a growing proportion being locally-born. 123 Yen, Social History. Their political interests were often in conflict with colonial or business interests. The British also put less direct power than before in the hands of semiofficial leaders like Seah Eu Chin and Whampoa, as the colonial administration became better staffed and bureaucratized.
After Seah Eu Chin's death, his political position in the Teochew community and the Ngee Ann Kongsi was maintained by his second son, Liang Seah, and grandson Eng Tong, but they were eventually displaced by a faction led by Lim Nee Soon in the 1930s (as discussed above). One contributing cause was that the Seah family was seen as having aligned themselves more closely with British and colonial interests, thereby alienating themselves from Chinese community interests. For example, the Seah sons chose not to support the new Tuan Mong School organized by the Teochew community in 1906, but instead supported English-medium schools like the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and St Joseph's Institution. This is not to say that the Seahs completely abandoned their activities in the Chinese community. Seah Eu Chin's second son, Liang Seah, purchased Chinese official titles for his parents in 1894 from the Qing imperial government. 123aTranscribed in Pan Xingnong, Malaiya Chaoqiao Tongjian, p. 80, also attested on Seah Eu Chin's grave inscription. The Qing government had started to allow the sale of official titles to overseas Chinese in the late 1880s, and in Singapore this was done through the Qing consulate established in 1877. These sales were a source of external revenue for the imperial government, and for the Chinese who bought them, they were both a form of social capital (because scholar-officials were the pinnacle of Chinese traditional society), and a public display of their commitment to helping their home country. 123bYen, "Ch'ing sale of honours" Titles could also be purchased for parents and departed ancestors, as Seah Liang Seah did, to show filial piety. Despite such efforts, the political context had changed, and it became harder to acquire leading positions in both spheres as Seah Eu Chin had, and so his sons were arguably not as successful at bridging the divide as he had been.
In a densely-populated city like Singapore, the landscape is constantly overwritten by each new generation, but many of the charities and organizations that Seah Eu Chin helped to found, or that he contributed to, have continued through to the present day. The Tan Tock Seng Hospital is now one of the major hospitals in Singapore, although his role in its early history is often overlooked. The Chongwenge school eventually became the Chong Hock Girls’ School, and is today’s Chongfu Primary School, run by the Hokkien Huay Kuan. The Ngee Ann Kongsi, as a result of its numerous land purchases in its early history that Seah Eu Chin helped facilitate, is one of the richest Chinese associations in Singapore; one key piece of property, the Tie Swah Ting cemetery site along Orchard Road, is now the location of the Ngee Ann City shopping centre. Political and economic changes, and finally the disruption of war, prevented Eu Chin’s descendants from using the same well-worn playbook to achieve the same degree of success as he had. It is to his credit that many institutions that he and his descendants lent their support to still survive in some form and remain relevant today, as a legacy of politics and philanthropy from 19th-century Singapore.