Our Amazing Pioneers

Resources on “Understanding Singapore in the Past and Present”

An image depicting Sir Stamford Raffles. Photo taken at the Bicentennial Experience in 2019.

This page supports students, teachers, and parents in Understanding Singapore in the Past and Present. It provides supplementary information on the book series, Our Amazing Pioneers.

Who were these amazing pioneers, who travelled from distant lands to search for adventure and fortune in Singapore? You will discover our pioneers’ inspiring stories and learn how they made a difference to Singapore through their hard work, service, and sacrifice.

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OUR AMAZING PIONEERS

Who was Tan Tock Seng?

Tan Tock Seng was born in Malacca in 1798. When he was in his early twenties, he sailed to Singapore and arrived shortly after Sir Stamford Raffles established a British trading outpost. Tock Seng was one of the earliest immigrants in Singapore. He sold vegetables, fruits, and poultry. Within eight years, he opened a shop at Boat Quay. He eventually became a wealthy businessman and landowner.

He was often asked to settle disputes between Chinese migrants. This earned him the title of “Captain of the Chinese”. He also became the first Asian to be appointed Justice of the Peace. He was a founding leader of the Hokkien Huay Kuan. The Huay Kuan helped Chinese migrants to find work and places to stay. He also gave money to build Thian Hock Keng, the temple at Telok Ayer Street.

A kind-hearted merchant named Cham Chan Sang started a hospital fund by leaving behind some money when he passed away in 1844. To make the hospital a reality, Tock Seng added more money from his own pocket. With community support, the foundation stone for “The Chinese Pauper’s Hospital” was laid at its original location at Pearl’s Hill. Today, this hospital is known as Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

In 1850, Tan Tock Seng passed away from an unknown disease. He was only 52 years old.

Who was Tan Kim Seng?

Tan Kim Seng was born in 1806 in Malacca. He came to Singapore when he was old enough to be married. He soon set up Kim Seng & Company and joined the Singapore Chamber of Commerce. Kim Seng traded in spices and commodities, and never in opium, a damaging drug. He eventually became the richest man in Singapore and Malacca.

Tan Kim Seng gave generously to the community. He started the first Chinese school in Singapore. He built Kim Seng Road, connecting River Valley Road to Havelock Road, for public use. He also built a bridge, Kim Seng Bridge. When Tan Tock Seng passed away, Kim Seng stepped up to lead Tan Tock Seng Hospital. He was also made Justice of the Peace.

In the 1800s, there were many riots in Singapore. During the riots, Kim Seng and Teochew merchant Seah Eu Chin were called upon by the British authorities to help bring about peace.

Kim Seng donated a large sum of money to the government to bring a more dependable fresh water supply to town. In fact, Chinatown is informally referred to as “Bullock Cart Water” in Chinese because water was brought into town on bullock carts.

However, the waterworks were unfortunately not completed while Kim Seng was still alive. The British marked his generous donation by dedicating a water fountain to his memory.

Who was Naraina Pillai?

Naraina Pillai is credited with building the Sri Mariamman Temple. Photograph taken by Shawn Seah.

Not much is known about Naraina Pillai, but from what is known, he came to Singapore with Sir Stamford Raffles. Naraina Pillai first worked as a coin inspector, but later went into business. He was a building contractor and cotton merchant.

Although he lost everything in a fire, Naraina Pillai made a comeback through grit, hard work, and the kindness of others. To give back to society, he built what later became Sri Mariamman temple and served the Indian community as a community leader. He is remembered today in the form of Pillai Road.

There was a statue of Naraina Pillai that once stood along the bank of the Singapore River.

What occasion was it that led to the making of Naraina Pillai’s statue? It was the occasion when Singapore marked 200 years since Sir Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore. The statue of Naraina Pillai, as well as other amazing pioneers like Sang Nila Utama and Tan Tock Seng, shows that the Singapore we know today was built by many communities and different people over the years.

Everyone has a part to play in building a better Singapore.

Who was Tan Seng Poh?

Artist’s impression of an opium pipe. Illustrated by Jeyasoorya and commissioned by Shawn Seah.

Tan Seng Poh (ca. 1828 – 1879) was an important Teochew merchant and community leader. The son of the Kapitan Cina (leader of the Chinese) of Perak in Malaya, he came to Singapore when he was nine years old to accompany his sister. She married the “King of Gambier and Pepper”, Seah Eu Chin.

Seng Poh stayed and studied in Singapore and worked for his brother-in-law, rising from an assistant to the manager of the firm. While he successfully bought and sold cotton and tea, he also traded harmful vices, such as opium, which were legal under British rule. (Today, opium and other harmful substances are illegal in Singapore. These undesirable substances hurt families and destroy lives.)

In the later part of his life, Seng Poh gave back to society. He raised money for charitable causes. He worked on improving the city for almost a decade. He maintained peace and order in Singapore.

Seng Poh passed away in 1879 after many years of service.

He is remembered in street names as well as in the name of a park, Seng Poh Garden. Located along Seng Poh Road at Tiong Bahru, Seng Poh Garden is a popular attraction today with a sculpture called Dancing Girl. From certain angles, the girl looks like a swan, ready to take flight and soar.

There is another interesting fact about the street names at Tiong Bahru. There is a street called Eu Chin Street, perpendicular to Seng Poh Road, and close to Seng Poh Garden.

Eu Chin Street is named after Seah Eu Chin. He was none other than Seng Poh’s brother-in-law!

Who was Ngeow Cher Seong?

Kerongsang. Illustrated by Jeyasoorya and commissioned by Shawn Seah.

Ngeow Cher Seong (1910–1977) was a Hakka migrant from China who made good in Singapore and settled down to start a family. His silversmithing business was ruined when the Japanese invaded Singapore. Cher Seong was detained by the Japanese, but was released after a few weeks, as they must have determined that he had nothing to do with supporting the war in China.

However, picking himself up after the Occupation, and learning goldsmithing skills from the Indian community, Cher Seong and his family overcame many hardships. Throughout his life, he had a close working relationship with the Indian community.

The Ngeow family started taking more and more jobs from the Indian community, specialising in the Batu Pahat style of Indian jewellery. Batu Pahat Indian jewellery broadly refers to traditional Indian-style jewellery. Cher Seong worked closely with Indians, especially craftsmen, in the operation of his business.

He also took on commissioned work from Peranakan families, to produce customised jewellery. Peranakan jewellery was individually handcrafted by skilled craftsmen and often featured intricate details.

Eventually, Ngeow Cher Seong passed away in 1977, aged 67.

Who was Syed Omar bin Ali Aljunied?

Born in Hadramaut in Yemen in 1792, Syed Omar travelled to Southeast Asia when he was 24 years old. He first settled in Palembang, Sumatra, before coming to Singapore with his uncle soon after Singapore was founded. He tapped into a regional network of traders stretching from the Red Sea to the Malay Archipelago.

Syed Omar enjoyed the Malay rulers’ trust because he was a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, which brought him the title of Prince of the Malays. The Muslim community also looked up to him as a holy man.

Even as he prospered from trade and property investments, he also gave back to society, bridging between different faiths and cultures. He commissioned the first mosque in Singapore, the Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka in 1820. He also donated land for St Andrew’s Cathedral and the Chinese Pauper Hospital, which eventually became known as Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

Syed Omar passed away in 1852, but his name lives on.

Who was Syed Mohamed Alsagoff?

Born in Singapore to a prominent family, Syed Mohamed Alsagoff eventually became a leader of the Muslim community. Because of his mother, Princess Raja Sitti, he was considered of Bugis royal descent. He was a talented merchant, owning and running many companies including Alsagoff and Company, the Singapore Steam Ship Company and the Straits Cycle and Motor Company.

Syed Mohamed contributed to Singapore in many ways, including serving on the Municipal Commission, donating money to charitable causes, and even starting a school in his family home.

After his passing in 1906, the Alsagoff Arab School that bears his family name was started.

Who was Edwin Tessensohn?

Edwin Tessensohn (1855–1926) arrived in Singapore when he was 15. He worked in the shipping industry, linking East and West, and later opened his own firm.

Tessensohn enjoyed cricket and tennis. He was later elected president of the Singapore Recreation Club, formed by a group of Eurasians in 1883, and served a total of 25 years.

At the time, many Eurasians felt the need for an association to protect their interests and promote their advancement. Tessensohn became patron of the Eurasian Literary Association, which organised lectures, debates and classes. Later, the Eurasian Association was founded and Tessensohn became a committee member and patron.

Tessensohn actively participated with the Singapore Volunteer Corps. During World War I, the Eurasians were keen to support the war effort and Tessensohn, among others, proposed forming a Eurasian Company. Eventually, the Eurasian Company was set up in 1918 with 100 members. Tessensohn was later appointed to the advisory committee.

Tessensohn was also appointed a municipal commissioner and Justice of the Peace. His dedication to public service led to his appointment as the first Eurasian member of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements in 1923.

Tessensohn passed away in 1926, but his legacy of leadership and service lives on.

Who were Prominent Seah Family Pioneers?

Born in Singapore, Seah Liang Seah (left) and Seah Peck Seah (middle) were sons of Teochew community leader, Seah Eu Chin (right), who was born in China. Illustrated by Jeyasoorya and commissioned by Shawn Seah.

Who was Seah Eu Chin?

The King of Gambier and Pepper, Seah Eu Chin (1805–1883), was not just a successful merchant.

He led Teochew clan leaders to form the Ngee Ann Kongsi, a welfare organisation that supported the needs of Teochew migrants. He also supported Tan Tock Seng Hospital. When there were riots, he helped bring peace. For contributing to law and order, he was appointed Justice of the Peace, Grand Juror and magistrate.

He passed away in 1883, aged 78, one of Singapore’s oldest inhabitants then.

For more information on Seah Eu Chin, please visit Seah Eu Chin.

Who was Seah Liang Seah?

The second son of Teochew leader Seah Eu Chin, Seah Liang Seah (1850–1925) was born in Singapore. When he was a child, Liang Seah studied Chinese with a private tutor under his father’s supervision and learnt English at St. Joseph’s Institution.

At the age of 17, Seah Liang Seah got married, after which he became an assistant in Eu Chin & Co., his father’s company. He worked for many years as his father’s secretary.

In 1883, Seah Liang Seah was appointed a member of the Legislative Council. He was the first Singapore-born Chinese appointed. In August 1900, Seah Liang Seah and other prominent Straits Chinese, Tan Jiak Kim, Dr Lim Boon Keng, and Sir Song Ong Siang among them, founded the Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA). This association has lasted till today, and is now named the Peranakan Association Singapore.

For more information on Seah Liang Seah and his brothers, please visit Seah Eu Chin’s family.

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Acknowledgements

Special thanks must go to the following people who made all of this possible. I would like to thank Hong Koon, Ruth Wan, Patrick Yee, and the rest of the team at World Scientific. I would like to thank Roney Tan, Vivienne Tan, Zahra Aljunied, Julia d’Silva, Jeffrey Seah, Sarafian, and Francis Ngau for giving invaluable input and sharing their stories. I would like to thank my team of long-suffering volunteers, namely Claudia, Wilson, and Jeyasoorya. Last, but certainly not the least, I would like to thank all the people in the community who have helped, supported, and encouraged me.

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Copyright © 2022 by Shawn Seah

Illustrations by Patrick Yee (courtesy of World Scientific) unless otherwise stated

Updated 24 January 2023