Commerce and Kinship
Seah Eu Chin's Legacy
Seah Eu Chin and the Narrative of National History
As one of the early pioneers in Singapore’s agriculture and economy, Seah Eu Chin is often featured as one of Singapore’s pioneers in many school textbooks and popular books on Singapore history. He is also commemorated by Eu Chin Street, in Tiong Bahru estate (incidentally it is off Seng Poh Road), built by the now-defunct Singapore Improvement Trust. Roads in this estate were named after many early Singapore settlers. The Seah family as a whole, having produced so many prominent personalities, is also commemorated with a street of its own, Seah Street, now a small side-street beside the Raffles Hotel.
When Eu Chin and other figures from 19th century Singapore are memorialized in the public consciousness in this way however, their stories become subsumed into a larger narrative of national “progress”. Such a telling of the Singapore Story presumes that there has been a rising tide of progress from before 1819 to colonial times to the present day, and often treats Singapore as a geopolitical entity whose boundaries are drawn pretty much as they are today. Furthermore, simplifications of his role in history tend to cast him, alongside other “pioneering Singaporeans” of various ethnicities, as an archetypal rags-to-riches success story, pointing to such personal qualities as frugality and hard work as the keys to their success, and claiming them, by apposition, as precursors to the modern-day project of nation-building. These attempts to wedge him into the national narrative are anachronistic and historically dishonest, because they are using present-day eyes to understand the past, which should be understood on its own terms. The story is told in this way precisely because national history is being used to legitimate national identity as envisioned by the modern Singapore state. 171 Hong Lysa and Huang Jianli, The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and its Pasts (Singapore: NUS Press, 2008), analyze the ‘scripting’ of the so-called Singapore Story in relation to the nation-building exercise of post-independence and contemporary Singapore’s government.
Using someone like Seah Eu Chin in a nation-building narrative is anachronistic. First, Eu Chin would not have seen Singapore as it is seen and understood geopolitically today. His trading and business activities treated Singapore not as a self-contained territory but instead a component of the larger trading network encompassing Riau, Singapore and Johore. That was the natural watershed that the gambier and pepper economy flowed through. Second, he would not have considered himself Singaporean for there was no such thing at the time. He was resident in Singapore but a naturalized British national, and a former subject of China, so while his cultural identification may have been Chinese, his political and economic loyalty was largely with the British. Third, it is wrong to suppose that Eu Chin was a typical rags-to-riches story, because he started out with more advantages than the average Chinese immigrant labourer, ranging from his literacy to his possession of capital. Although his personal frugality surely played a part in his success, it also owed a fair deal to serendipity, such as in the timing of his entry into the gambier and pepper business, his wide business connections, and the circumstances of the times. Transplanted a few decades later, he may not have done as well as he did.
Eu Chin’s enterprises had their ugly sides: the destructive human effects of opium and the exploitative nature of its revenue farm in the Straits Settlements, the harsh conditions that labourers under his employ or in plantations financed by him had to endure, the tremendous inequalities of socio-economic position and opportunity in colonial society, and the fundamentally undemocratic assumption that power and influence are the natural preserve of the very wealthy. It can be difficult to reconcile these unflattering images with the other activities that he put his energies into: the next article in this series will explore his philanthropy and public service. We need to see him first as a man of his times, instead of the one-dimensional labels like “pioneer” or “philanthropist” frequently attached to his name, in order to better understand the motivations and expectations that shaped his doings, and to do justice to a rich and complex life.