Influence and Leadership


Cultivating Relations with the Colonial Government


The mercantile elite of 19th century Singapore, both Asian and European, sought to build good relations with the British colonial authorities, whose goodwill they needed for business success (e.g. in the settlement of legal disputes) and in providing for municipal infrastructure. Hence it is no surprise that Seah Eu Chin also came to attain marks of status, such as his appointment as a Justice of the Peace, from the British, who in turn depended on him and other members of the Chinese elite to help manage the large and culturally displaced Chinese population. His activities in cultivating relations with the British can be classified into (1) demonstrations of loyalty, (2) memorials and petitions on behalf of the Chinese and business interests, (3) assistance in keeping order during civil unrest, and (4) judicial activities on behalf of the law courts. The choice of words in James Guthrie’s comment on him captures quite well how the British regarded his service:

“He was one of the best educated Chinese in Singapore, and was always ready to make himself useful.” 38 Quoted in Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Printed by Fraser & Neave, 1902), vol.1, 151.

He was an important enough figure that when a public meeting, chaired by Joaquim d’Almeida, was held in the Town Hall on 11 Dec 1863 to debate the proposed Transfer of the Straits Settlements from administration by the Indian government to direct Colonial Office administration, he was one of the few non-Europeans present. 39 Buckley, Anecdotal History, vol. 2, 771-2. Singapore Free Press, 17 Dec 1863. His actions were not simply selfless volunteerism but also a canny strategy, because gaining the trust and good opinion of the establishment was useful to him for his own purposes.



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