Tan Cheng Lock

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Yang Amat Berbahagia Tun Dato' Sir
Cheng Lock Tan
1st President of the Malayan Chinese Association
In office
27 February 1949 – 27 March 1958
Succeeded by Lim Chong Eu
Personal details
Born (1883-04-05)5 April 1883
Malacca, Straits Settlements
Died 13 December 1960(1960-12-13) (aged 77)
Malacca City, Malaysia
Political party Malayan Chinese Association (MCA)
Spouse(s) Yeo Yeok Neo
Children 1. Tun Tan Siew Sin (M)
2. Tan Kim Tin (F)
3. Wee Geok Kim (F)
4. Alice Tan Kim Yoke (F)
5. Agnes Tan Kim Lwi (F)
Occupation Businessman
Religion Buddhist

Tun Dato' Sir Cheng Lock Tan, SMN, DPMJ, KBE (Chinese: 陳禎祿; pinyin: Chén Zhēnlù; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Tân Ching-lo̍k) (5 April 1883 – 13 December 1960) was a Chinese Malaysian businessman and a key public figure who devoted his life to fighting for the rights and the social welfare of the Chinese community in Malaya. Tan was also the founder of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), which advocated his cause for the Malaysian Chinese population.


Born on 5 April 1883, Tan was the third son of Tan Keong Ann (Chinese: 陳恭安; pinyin: Chén Gōng'ān),[1] who had seven sons and daughters, and the fifth-generation Peranakan Chinese Malaysian living at 111, Heeren Street (Malay: Jalan Heeren) in Malacca. His ancestor, Tan Hay Kwan (Chinese: 陳夏觀; pinyin: Chén Xiàguān), a junk owner and trader, had migrated to Malacca from Zhangzhou prefecture in Fujian Province, China in 1771.[2] His grandfather, Tan Choon Bok (Chinese: 陳春木; pinyin: Chén Chūnmù), was very wealthy but he felt his four sons were unworthy to inherit his business empire and wealth and he locked up all his assets in a family trust which ended 84 years after he died, in 1964. By then even Tan Cheng Lock had already been dead for four years.[3] Tan Cheng Lock's father, Tan Keong Ann, was so devastated by his 'disinheritance' that he railed at his father's portrait daily and took to drink.[4] He did not try to earn a living to support his family and instead lived off his annual allowance of $130 (Straits dollars) from the family trust in genteel poverty.[5] Tan Cheng Lock refused to emulate his father.

The young Tan attended Malacca High School and won the Tan Teck Guan Scholarship awarded to top performers in the school. He later continued his education at Raffles Institution in Singapore. He was unable to proceed to England to study law due to his financial situation so he decided to teach instead, and taught at Raffles Institution from 1902 to 1908.[6] He was unhappy with his lot and was too impatient to be a teacher,[7] so his mother, Lee Seck Bin, insisted he return to Malacca to work as an assistant manager of the Bukit Kajang Rubber Estates Ltd.,[8] a company which belonged to his maternal cousin, Lee Chim Tuan.[9] Being a rubber planter suited him and he was a quick learner. Soon he was appointed visiting agent to Nyalas Rubber Estates in Malacca in 1909. In 1910, Tan was involved in the founding of three rubber companies. He started United Malacca Rubber Estate Ltd. himself, and he obtained the assistance of other businessmen to jointly set up Malacca Pinda Rubber Estates Ltd. and Ayer Molek Rubber Company, Ltd.[10]

Three years later in 1912, he was nominated as Malacca Council Commissioner and a Justice of the Peace for Malacca by the British government. Months later, he was also nominated as the Commissioner of the Town Council for the towns and Malacca port as well. In 1914, he resuscitated the Chinese Company of the Malacca Volunteer Corps (later also known as B Company, 4th Battalion, Straits Settlement Volunteer Force) and served as a private for five years until 1919.[11] In 1915, the Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA) was revived by him, electing him as the President of SCBA soon after. In 1923, at the age of 40, he was appointed as a nominated member of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements.

In 1926, Tan made history with his monumental speech of ideals of a territorially and politically united Malaya in a speech to the council. Like many Straits-born Chinese of his time, Tan was partial towards Britain but was deeply influenced by ideas of independence which were sweeping across many British colonies. He advocated the concept of a "united self-governing British Malaya". From 1933 to 1935, he was an unofficial member of the Straits Settlements Executive Council. He championed social causes like opposing opium smoking, promoting Chinese vernacular education, legislating against polygamy and pressing for immigration policy reform. During the Japanese occupation of Malaya, Tan and his family lived in India in exile. They witnessed the struggles of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru for independence during their stay in India, and inspired them to do the same for their motherland Malaya when they returned.

The birth of Malayan Chinese Association[edit]

Tan returned to Malacca after the Japanese surrendered. On 27 February 1949, Tun Tan founded the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) alongside Tun Leong Yew Koh (Chinese: 梁宇皋; pinyin: Liáng Yǔgāo) and Colonel Lee Hau Shik. Although he was 66 when elected to the position, Tun Tan was regarded as the only man able to bring the Malayan Chinese together in perhaps their most trying time.

The post-war years and the Emergency was a difficult and dangerous juncture for the community. The Chinese were deeply divided and their loyalty was under scrutiny. Among the Chinese, only Tan had the stature to engage with senior Malays such as Datuk Onn Jaafar and Tunku Abdul Rahman at a time of imminent constitutional changes in the country. Strongly anti-communist, he was also trusted by the British colonial officials. He joined the Malay leaders – first through the All-Malaya Council of Joint Action, which he chaired, and then the Communities Liaison Committee headed by Dato' Sir E. E. C. Thuraisingham – to fight for constitutional change and work towards inter-ethnic co-operation.

The establishment of the Federation of Malaya did not go down well with the ethnic Chinese, whereby favourable conditions for obtaining citizenship for the Chinese and other non-Malays were withdrawn. The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) was formed in 1949 under the leadership of Tan Cheng Lock who frequently raised grievances over the citizenship terms that were set when the Federation was established.[12] As a result, communal tensions between the Malays and Chinese surfaced, and Onn Jaafar, who was then heading UMNO kept his distance from Tan. Tan encountered initial difficulties with meeting Sultan Ibrahim of Johor, who was not accustomed to working with Chinese businessmen.

The goal for the foundation of the Malayan Chinese Association was to unite the Chinese population in Malaya, including the protection of the rights and interests of the Chinese, also to work with the colonial government to stop the spread of communism and to work with other races to achieve the independence of Malaya. The MCA branches had been set up after their campaigns had attracted more than 200,000 members.

Soon later, on 26 September 1951, he had supported the idea of Onn Jaafar to form the Independence of Malaya Party (IMP) in Kuala Lumpur with co-operation of various races as her theme of struggle. However, the formation was choppy, which due to the fact that Dato' Onn Jaafar was not co-operative on the issue of citizenship.

In the end, Tan decided that only a Chinese party could safeguard the interests of his community and that multi-ethnic co-operation was more likely to be achieved through partnership with UMNO. With that, the MCA joined with UMNO to form the Alliance, the precursor to the Barisan Nasional. However some people do not agree that he acted in best interest of Malaysian Chinese as some felt that the marginalisation of Malaysian Chinese would not be so severe had the British ruled until now citing Hong Kong as an example.

In 1952, Tan Cheng Lock and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) under Tunku Rahman's leadership contested the election as partners. He was best remembered for his contributions in the business and political arenas and his work for integrating between the Chinese and the Indian communities to the nascent Malayan society.[13]

Under Tan Cheng Lock, the MCA played a vital rôle in negotiating independence from the British; he was also in charge as the MCA formed the Alliance in 1954 in coalition with the United Malays National Organisation and the Malaysian Indian Congress. Tun Tan Cheng Lock, who was a member of the Malayan Anti-Japanese League, was MCA's first president, but did not enter the cabinet on independence because his rival, Tun H.S. Lee, from Selangor, was part of the cabinet.

Prior to the independence of Malaya, he was also a member of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements. In 1952, Tan Cheng Lock and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) under Tunku Rahman's leadership contested the election as partners. He was best remembered for his contributions in the business and political arenas and his work for integrating between the Chinese and the Indian communities to the nascent Malayan society.[14]

Tan died of a heart attack on 16 December 1960 at the age of 77, leaving behind a great legacy and a strong family. His son, Tan Siew Sin became the 3rd President of MCA after his death.


Many tributes were made to Tun Tan, for his immense contribution to Malaysia.[15][16] Besides being recognised as one of the founding fathers of modern-day Malaysia, along with Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak and Tun V.T. Sambanthan, the street named Foch Avenue, adjacent to the Petaling Street was renamed Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock in Kuala Lumpur after 1957. The former Cross Street was renamed Tan Siew Sin Street in honour of Tun Tan's son, a former Finance Minister of Malaysia. In Malacca, Heeren Street where Tun Tan's family home and the place of his birth was situated was also renamed Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock in his honour. In 2002, a school was built at Subang Jaya in the state of Selangor and was named SJKC Tun Tan Cheng Lock Sekolah Kluster Kecermelangan.

In April 2005, the National University of Singapore (NUS) received a generous gift of S$4 million from Ms Agnes Tan, the last surviving daughter of Tun Tan Cheng Lock to acquire a Peranakan house on Neil Road in Singapore.[17] Another donation of S$1.5 million was made for the purpose of acquiring two other houses on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock in Malacca for the conservation and promotion of Peranakan architecture and culture in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. The house in Singapore was named the Tan Cheng Lock Baba House, in honour of Tun Tan's strong belief in education.[18]


Honour of Malaya[edit]


  1. ^ Page 127, Who's Who in Malaya 1938
  2. ^ Page 1, "A Son of Malacca" 1985. Private publication authored by Mrs Agnes Scott-Ross a.k.a. Agnes Tan Kim Lwi.
  3. ^ Nutgraph.com interview with Tan Siok Choo, granddaughter of Tan Cheng Lock, 7 January 2010.
  4. ^ Biodata on Tan Cheng Lock, Perpustakaan Negara Malaysia 2000.
  5. ^ Speech by Tan Siok Choo, granddaughter of Tan Cheng Lock, addressed to the MCA School of Political Studies.
  6. ^ Biodata on Tan Cheng Lock, Perpustakaan Negara Malaysia 2000.
  7. ^ Speech by Tan Siok Choo, granddaughter of Tan Cheng Lock, addressed to the MCA School of Political Studies.
  8. ^ Page 1, "A Son of Malacca" 1985. Private publication authored by Mrs Agnes Scott-Ross a.k.a. Agnes Tan Kim Lwi.
  9. ^ Biodata on Tan Cheng Lock, Perpustakaan Negara Malaysia 2000
  10. ^ Pages 2 and 3, Report on THE MALAYSIAN PLANTATION INDUSTRY, 1880–1921 by Boon Weng Siew, Vice chairman, MPOA & President, MEOA.
  11. ^ Page 19, Leaders of Malaya and Who's Who 1956.
  12. ^ Bayly, Harper, Forgotten wars: Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia, pg 502-3
  13. ^ "Private Paper". (22 September 2002). ISEAS.
  14. ^ "Private Paper". (22 September 2002). ISEAS.
  15. ^ "A true Malayan nationalist". The Star (Malaysia). 15 December 2006. 
  16. ^ Debbie Chan (30 June 2007). "Tribute to a great son of Malaysia". The Star (Malaysia). 
  17. ^ Nayar, Parvathi (1 December 2006). "Cultural philanthropy; Parvathi Nayar looks at the pornografy – but often unnoticed – role cultural philanthropy has played in creating and shaping important public collections in Singapore's growing number of museums". The Business Times Singapore. 
  18. ^ Davie, Sandra (8 October 2005). "Daughter of late businessman wants the young to learn the legacy". Singapore: Straits Times. 
  19. ^ "Senarai Penuh Penerima Darjah Kebesaran, Bintang dan Pingat Persekutuan Tahun 1958." (PDF).