Commerce and Kinship


When the story of Singapore’s modern history is told, it usually starts with how the island is ideally situated to be an entrepôt – a trading centre where goods are imported and exported. 1E.g. W.G. Huff, The Economic Growth of Singapore: Trade and Development in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). Being a small island with little land or natural resources of its own, but blessed with a geographic position at the convergence of important shipping routes, the story goes, it served as a meeting point between East and West. Especially after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, it rapidly rose to become a major world port by the beginning of the 20th century, being the main export centre for the products of colonial mining and agriculture in Southeast Asia, especially for tin and rubber. This set the stage for its even more dramatic economic takeoff after World War II.

新加坡在二十世纪初已经是一座重要的城市和港口。谈起新加坡的经济发展时,我们经常重视本岛的地理条件。新加坡站在东西方之间的商路中,早以货物转口为重要的经济活动,尤其在苏伊士运河(Suez Canal)开辟之后,也是英殖民地之出口货(例如锡和橡胶)的贸易中心。

What this simplified narrative overlooks, though, is that despite the bustling trade and the volume of goods moved through its port, the city could not support itself by entrepôt trade alone. A large part of the colonial government’s revenues came from revenue farming, where the right to collect certain taxes and duties, especially from opium and gambling, were auctioned off to the highest bidder. The Chinese syndicates that controlled many of these revenue farms were in turn based upon the infrastructure built around the cultivation of gambier and pepper plants in Singapore and Johore. These crops were unimportant to Singapore’s economy by the end of the 19th century, but in their mid-century heyday, they accounted for much of its trade, attracted significant capital, and employed much of its Chinese immigrant labour. 2Carl Trocki, Singapore: Wealth, Power and the Culture of Control (London: Routledge, 2006).


Seah Eu Chin was one of the major figures on the development of pepper and gambier agriculture in Singapore, and his family members were also involved in the revenue farms that came to dominate Singapore's economy. In this part of the biography we look at how he built up his business, the role played by family ties and kinship, and his legacy today.




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