This page is about Seah Liang Seah (1850–1925) as well as the book, Leader and Legislator: Seah Liang Seah.
To tell his story, we begin with another story: one of an unusual will.
An Unusual Will
On 13 December 1996, The Straits Times reported a sensational piece of news: “Over 300 may gain from quirky will”.
I was a young boy when my father told me, excitedly, to read this long and curious newspaper article. As the title promised, it was about an unusual will by a gentleman who shared the same surname as me—a certain Mr Seah Liang Seah.
It was only many years later after this episode that I fully understood what the issue was about—who the person in the newspaper was, what he did, and what his quirky will was all about.
What was this unusual will about?
According to The Straits Times, when Seah Liang Seah passed away in 1925, he left a will which stipulated that his assets could not be distributed until 21 years after the death of the last surviving child of King George V. Or as the will literally stated:
[Until] the expiration of the period of twenty one years after the death of the longest liver of such of the children of His Majesty King GEORGE the Fifth as shall be living at my death…
Until then, Seah Liang Seah wanted his trustees to manage his estate. This meant that there was a 70-year-long wait to distribute the estate—of a Straits Chinese man born in Singapore—because of a clause regarding British royalty.
Who was King George V, anyway?
King George V (1865–1936), the founder of the House of Windsor, ruled between 1910 and 1936. He was the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II (1926–2022). His six children were King Edward VIII (1894–1972), King George VI (1895–1952), Mary, Princess Royal (1897–1965), Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester (1900–1974), Prince George, Duke of Kent (1902–1942), and Prince John (1905–1919).
To determine the identity of the longest surviving royal, the trustees had to write to the British High Commission in Singapore, which in turn obtained the information from the reference unit of the Central Office of Information in London.
The last surviving child of the King George V was the Duke of Gloucester, who died in 1974.
How Large Was Seah Liang Seah’s Estate?
At the time of his passing, Seah Liang Seah’s estate originally consisted of many properties throughout Singapore. According to the Malaya Tribune, on 21 April 1939, it was reported that:
The will of the late Seah Liang Seah was made on Sept. 30, 1920. The testator died on Sept. 14, 1925, leaving behind to his trustees an estate which was estimated at $2,000,000 gross and $1,791,000 net. By his will, the testator divided his numerous properties into five classes.
(a) Bendemeer Estate, which consisted of 87 acres of land in Serangoon Road with a very large house on it also called “Bendemeer,” together with extensive grounds and gardens.
(b) Chin Choon Plantations which is about 84 acres of rubber land at Thomson Road with a large house there as well.
(c) Old family house which consisted of seven houses in North Bridge Road, two houses in North Boat Quay and one house in River Valley Road.
(d) Sons’ properties which consisted of 230 acres of land by the Gunpowder Magazine off East Coast Road, stretching right across inland to Changi Road and fronting on to Bedok Road proper. About 3½ acres of land on the seaward side of East Coast Road.
(e) Residuary estate which consisted of various houses and pieces of land in Singapore island.
Clearly, this was a massive fortune, especially in Singapore’s early days.
However, according to the news report, the vast majority of the properties had since then been either sold or acquired by the government and the money kept in the bank.
By 1996, nothing was left of the estate except a house off MacPherson Road, where the ancestral tablets were kept.
Seah Liang Seah’s Descendants
While the estate could theoretically have been distributed in 1995, there was still a long wait for the distribution of Seah Liang Seah’s inheritance.
On 12 December 1996, the Singapore High Court heard the case. The main question before the court was: who were the beneficiaries?
This was not easy to determine, because Seah Liang Seah was estimated to have hundreds of descendants.
During his life, Seah Liang Seah had three wives, six sons, and six daughters, and they had many descendants.
(Seah Liang Seah’s sons were Seah Eng Teck, Eng Keong, Eng Tong, Eng Choe, Eng Thye, and Eng Khway, and his daughters were Wah Cheng, Wah Kee, Wah Sim, Wah June, Wah Yong, and Wah Jim.)
Three of his sons were named as trustees then, but—quite naturally—they had long passed away. The trustees named in the newspapers in 1996 were two grandsons and one great grandson. Their lawyer told the court that when his clients placed a notice in The Straits Times in June 1995 to invite potential beneficiaries to come forward, 350 people responded.
This number jumped to 370 when a second notice was placed in The Straits Times in July 1996.
As most of the respondents did not (or rather, could not) state their relationship with Seah Liang Seah clearly or definitively, the trustees could not compile a complete list of his descendants.
Genealogical studies are not easy!
According to The Straits Times, as at 13 December 1996, about 133 claimants—only male descendants of Seah Liang Seah’s six sons—would be entitled to the lion’s share of the estate, around $11.5 million. It was Seah Liang Seah’s intention that they could only inherit this portion.
Another $450,000 was supposed to go to about 100 people, the descendants of his five daughters. To me, considering that Seah Liang Seah lived in a different Singapore from today, this provision for his female line seemed fairly enlightened.
There was also a whole host of legal issues. Complicated legal questions were asked—for example, were adopted children counted as descendants? How about illegitimate children? Should the net be cast wider to include more than just Seah Liang Seah’s grandchildren?
Benny Seah Seng Lee, one of Seah Liang Seah’s descendants, was one of the lucky ones who received a share of the inheritance. He shared with me that he received a sum of about $90,000. It was issued to him in two parts: the first around $80,000, and the remainder a while later.
To me, the main lesson from this episode that I learnt from a young age is that history is not just about words in a book or merely stories of people long gone.
History is a living story.
Every now and then, it is reinvigorated.
Today, I can answer my former Chinese teachers’ questions about whether I benefitted from the will and received any inheritance from Seah Liang Seah’s estate.
The short answer is: no, I did not benefit.
The long answer is: no, because I am descended from Seah Liang Seah’s brother, Seah Peck Seah, and therefore was never in the running for the inheritance. In other words, Seah Liang Seah was my great-great-grand-uncle.
Who was Seah Liang Seah?
The second son of the King of Gambier and Pepper (Seah Eu Chin), Seah Liang Seah was born in Singapore in 1850.
He studied Chinese under a private tutor under his father’s direct supervision, and learnt English for a while at St Joseph’s Institution.
He married at the age of 17, and after his marriage became an assistant in Eu Chin & Co., his father’s company, and worked for many years as his secretary. He eventually became the President of the Gambier and Pepper Society.
He was also engaged in other ventures, including pineapple canning. For example, Seah Liang Seah opened a factory at Thomson Road for canning tinned pineapples bearing a “Lion” label, that sold well in Bangkok.
His second son Seah Eng Keong acquired the business in 1901 and conducted canning operations on an extensive scale. Sir Song Ong Siang stated in his book One Hundred Years History of the Chinese in Singapore that the firm’s brands, “Tiger” and “Defiance” acquired a strong reputation for quality and excellence both in Europe and Asia.
While he was a successful businessman, Seah Liang Seah also took a keen interest in public issues because of his father’s influence as an important public figure. On 5 January 1883, Liang Seah was first appointed by Governor Sir Frederick Weld as a temporary member of the Legislative Council.
His appointment was significant because there had been no Chinese member on the Legislative Council since Whampoa’s death in 1880. However, Whampoa was born in China (and when he passed away his remains were shipped back to China), which meant that Liang Seah became the first Singapore-born Chinese to be appointed to the Legislative Council.
In November 1883, his appointment as a permanent member of the Legislative Council received Her Majesty’s sanction.
In 1890, Seah Liang Seah resigned his seat due to an increase in his private businesses as well as his ill health. For his service on the Legislative Council, he received the thanks of the Secretary of State in 1891, communicated to him through the Governor, Sir Cecil Smith.
In 1894, on the resignation of Tan Jiak Kim, Seah Liang Seah was once again appointed to the Legislative Council, but resigned in 1895 together with the other Singapore unofficial members of the Legislative Council, to “protest against the unsympathetic attitude of the Home Government over the Military contribution”. The central issue was that the colony was required to contribute more and more funds to the War Office and Lord Ripon thought that every dollar beyond what was needed for civil administration should go towards military expenditure, which was not acceptable to the public.
However, because of his experience, Seah Liang Seah continued to be occasionally appointed as a temporary member of the Council to stand in for members who were absent or on leave.
He was also a member of the Municipal Commission, which oversaw public works in Singapore. According to the minutes of the proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners at an ordinary meeting on 25 April 1894, the President of the Municipal Commission, Alexander Gentle, announced that the Governor had nominated Seah Liang Seah and the Acting Inspector General of the Police, EH Bell, to be Municipal Commissioners. Liang Seah was nominated as he was widely regarded as the head of the Teochew community.
He served with distinction until he was succeeded by Choa Giang Thye in 1897.
Other Community Leadership Positions
As his elder brother Seah Cheo Seah had passed away in 1885, only a short time after their father passed away in 1883, Seah Liang Seah became the leader of the Ngee Ann Kongsi, a welfare organisation for the Teochew community.
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, co-founded the Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA). Liang Seah was Vice-President while his brother Peck Seah was the SCBA honorary treasurer. Today, the SCBA is known as the Peranakan Association Singapore.
After a long life of public service, Seah Liang Seah passed away on 14 September 1925.
Today, his achievements and contributions to society are still remembered in the name of Liang Seah Street.
Summary of Seah Liang Seah’s Story
Summary (click here for more details). In 1850, Seah Liang Seah was born in Singapore. He studied Chinese with a private tutor under his father’s supervision and learnt English at St. Joseph’s Institution. With his unique education, Seah Liang Seah was able to speak English and Teochew, and straddled both West and East. At the age of 17, he was married, after which he became an assistant in Eu Chin & Co., his father’s company, and worked for many years as his secretary. In 1883, Seah Liang Seah was appointed a member of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements. 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, co-founded the Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA). Among his other contributions, he was also a member of the Municipal Commission, a community leader of the Teochews and the Ngee Ann Kongsi, as well as a prominent philanthropist. He passed away in 1925.
Quick Access to My Online Resources (click on the link to access)
Linda Chee, Seah Liang Seah: King of the Streets, in The Peranakan.
Shawn Seah, Grandfather Stories, for the Singapore Heritage Festival 2020.
Leader and Legislator – Seah Liang Seah is currently available at Kinokuniya.
Supported by the National Heritage Board, Our SG Fund, and the Singapore Bicentennial, Leader and Legislator – Seah Liang Seah tells the story of the man behind Liang Seah Street in Bugis.
Born in 1850, he rose to become a successful businessman, Teochew community leader, and member of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements. Straddling both East and West, he lived an interesting life of public service, profit, and parties.
And when he died in 1925, he left behind an extremely unusual will… that was only resolved in 1996.
This remarkable man was leader and legislator, Seah Liang Seah.
Edited by local playwright Nabilah Said, this book on one of Seah Eu Chin’s most prominent sons is a sequel and continuation of the story in my first book, Seah Eu Chin: His Life & Times.
It also tells the story of other influential Straits Chinese pioneers like Sir Song Ong Siang, Tan Jiak Kim, and Dr Lim Boon Keng.
Heritage and community correspondent Melody Zaccheus wrote a piece titled “Singapore’s Original Crazy Rich Asian” in the Sunday Times, 10 March 2019. Some key points which stood out for me were:
NHB’s Assistant Chief Executive of Policy and Community Alvin Tan was quoted as saying that the board supported the publication because it presented original research and provided new insights into the life and legacy of Seah Liang Seah.
Mr Tan added that it was important to document the contributions of Singapore’s second-generation pioneers so that their stories would hopefully inspire current and future generations to give back to society and leave their mark in Singapore’s history.
The article quoted me saying that: “The question of his identity – Teochew, Straits Chinese, pro-British – was, and still is, an interesting topic of discussion.”
“Seah Eu Chin and his descendants and their families settled in Singapore and helped make it the way it is today. More ground-up accounts of our past should be encouraged.”
There has been increasing recognition that Singapore has a longer history than once thought. However, while Singapore’s history began neither at 1819 nor independence in 1965, the history between these two dates is still important in shaping who we came to be as a people. We are a product of our colonial history and blend of people who came here and made this their home.
This book is about the story of Singapore-born Seah Liang Seah and his home, and the people who lived in it. But it is equally a story of a Singapore gradually shaping up to be more and more familiar to those who live in it today.
With your support, local writers like me will be able to share our stories and help promote and raise awareness of Singapore’s history, heritage, and culture.
Copyright © 2019 by Shawn Seah
Webpage updated: 24 January 2023
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