DPM Heng Swee Keat at the Book Launch of 'An Illustrious Heritage: The History Of Tan Tock Seng And Family'

DPM Heng Swee Keat | 26 July 2022

Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the Book Launch Of ‘An Illustrious Heritage: The History Of Tan Tock Seng And Family’ on 26 July 2022.


Ms Chang Hwee Nee, Chief Executive, National Heritage Board

Mr Roney Tan and members of the Tan family

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

I am very pleased to be here with you this evening for the launch of ‘An Illustrious Heritage: The History of Tan Tock Seng and Family’. 

Tan Tock Seng 

The name Tan Tock Seng is well known to Singaporeans. Tan Tock Seng Hospital has served countless patients over the years. I was one of them – I will always be grateful for the care provided to me by the doctors, nurses and therapists at the hospital when I suffered a stroke in 2016. Even though Tan Tock Seng is a household name, there is still much more that we can learn about him. In June 2019, I joined Roney and John, the great-great grandsons of Tan Tock Seng, for the Hospital’s 175th Founder’s Day Heritage Walk. While on our way to the starting point of the walk, the tour guide gave a briefing on Tan Tock Seng. Roney and John jumped in at several points to provide greater historical context on the details. I said to Roney and John that they should do a documentary on Tan Tock Seng. Coincidentally, they had already conceived the idea of writing a book on Tan Tock Seng! 

Values of our Pioneers 

I am glad that three years later, this book has been completed. This book is about the fascinating life stories of Tan Tock Seng and his descendants. But there is much more.Their lives are tightly interwoven with the Singapore Story. In fact, Tan Tock Seng came to Singapore from Malacca in 1819, the same year as Stamford Raffles. By tracing the history of the Tan family over the years, there is much to learn about the social, political, and economic life of Singapore, from its early years up till today.  

Tan Tock Seng himself was of course most famous for the hospital that he founded. In the 1840s, Singapore was plagued with diseases and starvation. One third of the Chinese community lived below the poverty line. Many did not even have money to bury their loved ones. Tan Tock Seng’s donation of 7,000 Spanish dollars in 1844, a princely sum at that time, established a “pauper hospital” on Pearl’s Hill, without which many of the sick would have been left dying in the streets. Importantly, he called for the hospital to care not only for the Chinese but all races. But beyond the hospital which carries his name, Tan Tock Seng also made significant contributions in many other areas, which this book has done well to explain. The Thian Hock Keng Temple, which he had a pivotal role in establishing in 1839, was more than just a temple. In those early days, it provided much-needed support for the needs of the immigrant population such as employment and accommodation. Tan also responded to the call of Raffles to open Singapore for trade.  As early as 1828, he had established trading links with the Rio Archipelago and by 1840, with Siam, Burma, and the rest of Indochina. For his many contributions to the local community, Tan Tock Seng became the first Asian to be conferred the Justice of the Peace by the British. It was fitting that during our celebration of Singapore’s Bicentennial in 2019, a statue of Tan Tock Seng was placed alongside Sang Nila Utama, Stamford Raffles, Naraina Pillai, and Munshi Abdullah at Empress Place.   

Beyond Tan Tock Seng, the book also explores the contributions of the subsequent generations of the Tan family. These are stories that are perhaps less well-known to Singaporeans but just as important. I am glad that this new book has put a spotlight on their philanthropic contributions, which reflect the enduring values of Tan Tock Seng. The family continued to devote itself to public health. For example, Tan Tock Seng’s eldest son Tan Kim Ching donated significant sums towards the renovation of Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Education was another key area. The family’s donations made possible the Tan Teck Guan Building in 1911, which supported the growth of Singapore’s first medical school. The building, which is on the grounds of the Singapore General Hospital, is today a national monument. Tan Tock Seng’s great-grandson Tan Boo Liat also advanced female education by co-founding the Singapore Chinese Girls School in 1889. And there are many other examples within the Tan family, of giving back to the community. 

Singapore was built on the back of the efforts of our pioneers. Many of them, including Tan Tock Seng, were immigrants. But they made this place their home and developed deep roots here, which Professor Wang Gungwu, who is here with us this evening, has written extensively about. Our pioneers faced daunting challenges and dire conditions. But their sheer tenacity and a sense of solidarity, forged the Singapore that we know today. For Singapore to continue to thrive, it is critical that we continue to remain open to those who may not be born and bred here, but can contribute to the next chapter of the Singapore Story. At the same time, this book also reminds us that we must all do our part, and collectively own and shape our future together. So I urge everyone to step forward to contribute in our own ways to build a stronger and more cohesive Singapore. And I hope this book will serve as inspiration for current generations of Singaporeans and beyond. 


Let me conclude. Congratulations to John and Roney, to principal authors Kua Bak Lim and Lim How Seng, and to all other contributors, on the launch of this new book. I am also glad that the book will be published in both English and Chinese – as this will allow the book to reach a much wider audience. Thank you all, and have a good evening.