Influence and Leadership
Cultivating Relations with the Colonial Government
Demonstrations of Loyalty
Marquis of Dalhousie’s Visit
The flourishing phase of Seah Eu Chin’s public life appears to begin in 1850, with the visit of the Governor-General of India, the Marquis of Dalhousie, to Singapore. At that time, Eu Chin’s business interests were growing well, and his leadership position among the Chinese was also secure, for he headed the deputation of twelve Chinese who presented an address from the Chinese merchants to the Marquis, acting as a spokesman for the Chinese community. 40 Buckley, Anecdotal History, vol. 1, 151. Lin W.C. [Lim Boon Keng], “Some Local Chinese Worthies: I. Seah Eu Chin,” Straits Chinese Magazine 3 (1899): 83-4. The address praised the free trade policy of the British and the “absence of local restrictions”, and expressed the gratitude of the merchants for being “entirely free from all legislative impediments”, at the same time pointing out the contribution made by the Chinese through “industry and enterprise”, the wealth earned having “been diffused over many thousands”, and assuring the Governor General of the “quiet and orderly manner in which so large a manner of Chinese… prosecute their avocations.” 41 Singapore Free Press, 5 Mar 1850. Lord Dalhousie received the address in the Court Office at 3 pm on 19 Feb 1850, 42 Letter from Gov. Butterworth to Kim Ching, Eu Chin et al. (18 Feb 1850), Straits Settlements Records [SSR] V15 no. 66, National Archives of Singapore. and made a reply on the 22nd that expressed his pleasure on knowing that the Chinese were “sensible of the strength, the justice, and the mildness of the rule under which they live.” 43 Singapore Free Press, 5 Mar 1850, though see SSR V15 no.70 that dates the reply on 20 Feb 1850.
Aside from presenting the address, Seah Eu Chin, along with Ang Choon Seng, Tan Kim Seng, and five Europeans, was also a member of the Committee on the Dalhousie Testimonial that decided on erecting an obelisk to commemorate Lord Dalhousie’s visit. 44 Buckley, Anecdotal History, vol. 2, 532. This memorial was erected at Anderson Bridge, Fullerton Road, and its Chinese text is in the usual panegyric mode of such commemorative inscriptions. 45 〈印度总督游心纪念碑记〉transcribed in Chen and Chen, Xinjiapo huawen beiming jilu, 321. It is interesting to note that “February” is transliterated as 卑不哇里 and that the Chinese refer to themselves as 唐人. Eu Chin was not involved, however, in the gift of a “State Umbrella” to Lady Dalhousie by Chinese merchants headed by Tan Kim Seng some months afterwards. 46 Letter from Gov. Butterworth to Tan Kim Seng et al. (2 Oct 1855), SSR V15 no.227, National Archives of Singapore.
The Dalhousie visit was a major event in the town and for the establishment in particular. The Chinese elite sought to use the opportunity to convince the Governor-General, and the British authorities in general, of the community’s loyalty to the British, and its commitment to continued peace, in the light of recent riots and disturbances amongst the Chinese. This was in the hopes of preserving the status quo of a laissez-faire economic policy, which was advantageous to the business of the Chinese merchants. Such an interpretation is implied in the words of the address that was presented to Lord Dalhousie and the commemorative obelisk, while the British understanding of this implicit agreement (of free trade and mild laws in exchange for the assistance of the Chinese elite in regulating their community and preventing disturbances) can be read into Lord Dalhousie’s reply.
Certificate of Naturalisation
Legally, China-born Chinese in Singapore were still considered subjects of China, and subject to its laws and regulations. For those who had made the decision to be long-term residents in Singapore and who, for all intents and purposes, had made this settlement their homes and business bases, it was advantageous to obtain status as a naturalized British subject to enjoy the legal rights and privileges associated with that position. Therefore, Seah Eu Chin requested and was granted a Certificate of Naturalisation in Dec 1853 under Act 30 of 1852. The Secretary to the Governor added in his letter that
“he [the Governor] cannot permit the Certificate to leave this Office, without assuring you [Eu Chin] of the satisfaction it has afforded him to enroll the name of so talented and highly respectable a Chinese Resident in Singapore, amongst the naturalized British in the Straits of Malacca.” 47 Letter from T. Church, Secretary to the Governor, to Seah You Chin (29 Dec 1853), SSR V18, no. 128, National Archives of Singapore. Eu Chin’s original memorial was dated 27 Dec 1853.
In Eu Chin’s reply to the Secretary’s letter, he makes mention of
“the certainty, the impartiality, and the justice of the British laws and the mildness, the freedom, and the equitableness of British rule” that “induced [him] to avail of the benefits which the said act… confer.” 48 Letter from Seah Eu Chin to T. Church, Secretary to the Governor (30 Dec 1853), SSR W19, p. 177, National Archives of Singapore.
By this time he had been a resident in Singapore for 29 years. The reasons he gave appear to confirm the same points made in the address presented to Lord Dalhousie, namely that the environment in Singapore was to the advantage of the Chinese merchants, because the rule of law was in the interests of businessmen who had to settle legal disputes from time to time, while the free trade policy and laissez faire government were also good for the growth of business and the accumulation of private wealth by the rich.
Examining Students at the Singapore Institution
Some secondary sources state that Seah Eu Chin was a trustee of the Singapore Institution, later known as the Raffles Institution, but this is nowhere recorded in sources of the time. This is apparently a misreading of his service in one year as an examiner for the Chinese class for European boys at the Institution. A scholarship had been instituted for training “Protestant European, or Anglo-Indian, or Portuguese, lads studying at the Institution school” in the Hokkien and Teochew dialects, in order to supply interpreters for the Settlement to combat the secret society “problem”. The existing ethnic Chinese interpreters were believed to be inadequate, because secret societies and bang loyalties were thought to be all-pervasive among the Chinese, so they were not trusted to interpret accurately and impartially, hence the desire to train Europeans in Chinese languages. 49 Singapore Institution Report 1859-60, appendix B, 20-21, National Archives of Singapore. See also Report 1864, 7-8.
Several eminent Chinese (the British having the belief, not necessarily accurate, that their wealth and position put them above the “underworld” of secret society activities and politics) were asked to act as examiners, as was William Pickering when he came to Singapore to assume the post of Interpreter and later Protector of Chinese. It was in this capacity that Eu Chin served the Institution, as part of a Committee to examine and report on the class in 1865, along with Tan Beng Swee and Whampoa (Hoo Ah Kay). 50 Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 139. He in turn cites the Singapore Institution Report for 1865, paragraph 14. These prominent Chinese who acted as examiners were chosen not so much for their academic knowledge as for their loyalty. They were trusted by the British to help in examining future civil servants who were to supplant Chinese interpreters who were in turn not trusted by the British because of their possible hidden loyalties. Apparently the British considered secret society participation and bang politics to be a class-phenomenon, that the “better” classes would not be involved. The truth of this belief has already been examined above.
Levees and Celebrations
The Chinese mercantile elite were eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the British authorities and to maintain good relations with them, because their business interests were well served by the free trade policy and laissez-faire governance of the British (in comparison with, say, the Dutch in Batavia or the Riau islands who had a different, more restrictive view of the Chinese community). One way that they manifested their loyalty was by making addresses welcoming and sending off important colonial officials who were arriving or departing Singapore, and the elite appended their names to most of these addresses. 51 Lee Poh Ping, Chinese Society, 22-3.
For example, on 8 May 1871, the Chinese merchants and inhabitants presented a farewell address to Chief Justice Maxwell on his retirement. 52 Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 162. Later that month on the 26th, Governor Anson held a levee at Government House in the afternoon, and a ball in the evening, to celebrate the Queen’s birthday. Among the Chinese present were Seah Eu Chin and his two eldest sons (Cheo Seah and Liang Seah), Whampoa, Tan Kim Ching, and Tan Seng Poh. 53 Ibid.
When incoming Governor Sir William Robinson arrived at Singapore, a welcome address was presented to him and printed in the newspapers, and the signatures were headed by Ho Ah Kee (i.e. Hoo Ah Kay, Whampoa), Tan Kim Ching, Seah Eu Chin, Tan Seng Poh, Tan Beng Swee, Tan Yeok Nee, and Seah Cheo Seah, in addition to the “Gambier and Pepper Society” (the Kongkek) and other smaller merchants listed by their business chops. 54 Straits Times, 3 Nov 1877. He held a levee later in the week at Government House, and among those attending were Seah Cheo Seah and Liang Seah representing their father Eu Chin, Tan Seng Poh, Cheang Hong Lim, Tan Yeok Nee, and several other Chinese in addition to the European community. The purpose of the levee was clear: for the attendees to “[manifest] their loyalty to Her Majesty’s Representative.” 55 Straits Times, 10 Nov 1877. Another interesting point to note is that so many of the “prominent Chinese” were connected with the Seah family and involved in the gambier and pepper trade.