He devoted his life to social and political reform, played a crucial role in government committees and in civil society efforts, and fought to improve the well-being of the poor.
Key public figure and successful businessman Tun Sir Tan Cheng Lock was born into a well-to-do family. Tan’s great-great-grandfather, Tan Hay Kwan, first set foot in Malacca between 1771 and 1775. He married a local woman named Lee Chye Neo.
Although Tan did not speak Chinese, his family embraced Buddism and Confucianism principles.
The third of seven siblings, Tan studied at Malacca High School and Singapore’s Raffles Institution, obtaining his Cambridge School (Leaving) Certificate.
He wanted to study law in Britain, but due to financial constraints, became a teacher of English and Literature at Raffles Institution instead in 1902.
However, he was still looking for his role in life and returned to Malacca in 1908 to work as an assistant estate manager in a rubber plantation company.
… the ideal to be aimed at by every community in Malaya is that they should learn to regard themselves as Malayans first irrespective of their race.
Recognised for his leadership by the British colonial administration, he was appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1912.
In 1923, he was appointed an unofficial member of the Legislative Council and, subsequently, member of the Executive Council of the Straits Settlements in 1933.
In 1947, Tan led the All-Malaya Council of Joint Action in pushing for a united Malaya (including Singapore), self-government by stages and equal status among all ethnic groups.
In 1949, he founded the Malayan Chinese Association (later renamed Malaysian Chinese Association, MCA) and became its first president, from 1949 to 1958.
In his presidential address to the party, he pushed for independence and a multiracial Malaya with equal rights for all races.
Although he was proud of his Chinese roots, he encouraged the Chinese to support Malaya and not China.
In the crucial 1955 Baling talks, Tan, with then Chief Minister of Malaya Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj and Singapore’s Chief Minister David Marshall, met Chin Peng, the Malayan Communist Party leader, to negotiate an end to the communist insurgency that had led to the declaration of the Emergency in 1948 by the British (it ended in 1960).
Working together with Umno and MIC leaders, Tan played a pivotal role in obtaining independence from the British in 1957.
In terms of education, Tan fought for free English primary level education, yet supported free Malay schools, too. Although he did not manage to obtain state funding for Chinese-language schools, as MCA president he ensured that the party subsidised Chinese schools, especially in the new villages that had been set up by the British during the Emergency to keep Malayan Chinese away from the communists.
Always concerned about the underpriviledged regardless of race, Tan helped improve the livelihoods of Malay farmers and Indian plantation workers, and proposed ways to help the poor in terms of minimum wage, housing and medical aid.
Tan opposed the negative effect of opium on the Chinese and fought to get it banned when the British had supported its use in China and Malaya.
He also did not agree with the treatment of and trade in the mui tsai (young Chinese girls) brought from mainland China to Malaya, and played a leading role in ending the trade.
In 1940, he also assisted the colonial government in the drafting and enactment of the Civil Marriage Act, which ended polygamy.
Umno leaders like Datuk Onn Jaafar and Tunku Abdul Rahman were close friends and would often visit Tan at his Malacca home, which still stands today.
In 1952, Tan received a knighthood from the British Government. In 1958 he was bestowed one of Malaysia’s highest awards which carries the title “Tun”.
His only son, Tun Tan Siew Sin (Tan had four daughters as well), was Malaysia’s longest serving Finance Minister from 1959 to 1974.
Tan died at age 77 in Malacca on Dec 13, 1960, and was accorded a state funeral, the first ever for a member of a non-royal family.