Tan Chin Tuan

Singapore Infopedia


Tan Sri Tan Chin Tuan (Dr) (b. 21 November 1908, Singapore–d. 13 November 2005, Singapore), nicknamed “Mr OCBC”, was a prominent Peranakan philanthropist and banker, and often credited as the man who built the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC).1

Early history
Tan grew up in austere conditions, having lost his father while still at school. It is believed that these early years shaped his conservative approach to finance. Educated at Anglo-Chinese School, he left school and joined the Chinese Commercial Bank (which later merged with Ho Hong Bank and Oversea-Chinese Bank to form OCBC) as a junior bank clerk on 1 March 1925 at the age of 17.2 He remained at OCBC for 58 years.3 He was the managing director of OCBC from 1942 to 1972 and its chairman from 1966 to 1983.Under Tan’s stewardship, OCBC rose from its humble beginnings to become one of Singapore’s top banks.5

Tan is also a noted philanthropist.6 He established the Tan Chin Tuan Foundation in 1976 to share the rewards of his career with the society.7

In 1984, he donated £350,000 to the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge, United Kingdom, for the construction and equipping of its East Asian History of Science Library.8 In recognition, the institute installed a plaque in the library building to commemorate his contribution.9 In 1997, Tan committed S$250,000 each year towards the engineering exchange programme at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Named the Tan Chin Tuan Exchange Fellowship, it provides funding for 20 academics to conduct research at NTU or overseas.10

In 1999, Tan celebrated his 91st birthday by offering a gift of S$1,000 to any Singaporean who was over 90 years old and still active.11 He wanted to share his good fortune with people of a similar age.12 About 60 volunteer doctors and Justices of the Peace helped to check and certify that the applicants were still physically active and mentally alert.13 By the time the application for the offer closed, a total of 1,282 people had applied. It is estimated that Tan’s birthday gift cost him S$1.2 million.14

The Tan Chin Tuan Foundation supports causes such as education and community development in Singapore and ASEAN countries.15

Banking career highlights
1 Mar 1925: Joins Chinese Commercial Bank (CCB) as a junior bank clerk.

1932: Assistant manager of CCB prior to its merger with Ho Hong Bank and Oversea-Chinese Bank to form OCBC in the same year.16 He then takes on the position of divisional manager.17
1933: Bank manager of OCBC.18
1939: Managing director, Eastern Realty, OCBC’s subsidiary.
1942: Joint managing director, OCBC – the youngest person in Singapore then to hold such a position.
1945: Sole managing director, OCBC.
1966–83: Chairman and managing director, OCBC. After retiring in September 1983, he is conferred the lifetime title of Honorary Life President.19 

Other notable positions
1939: Municipal commissioner20

1948–55: Member of the Singapore Legislative Council and subsequently Member of the Singapore Executive Council21
17 Apr 1951: Deputy president of the Singapore Legislative Council
1983–86: Chairman, Singapore Turf Club22
1988: Chairman, Bukit Turf Club23

Tan was also the chairman of companies such as Malayan Breweries Ltd, the Overseas Assurance Corporation Ltd, Wearne Brothers Ltd., Fraser and Neave, Great Eastern Life, Robinson & Co., and The Straits Trading Co. Ltd.24 He was the founder and chairman of the Tan Foundation, Singapore, and the Tan Sri Tan Foundation, Malaysia. He was also a patron of organisations such as the Orchid Society of Southeast Asia, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Singapore Badminton Association.25

 Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, for contributions during service in the Legislative Council.26

1969: The title of Tan Sri, conferred by Malaysia’s Yang Di Pertuan Agong Sultan Tuanku Ismail Nasiruddin Shah.27
3 Sep 1991: Honorary Doctor of Law, National University of Singapore, “in recognition of his role as banker, civic leader and public benefactor”.28
13 Jun 1992: Honorary Doctorate of Letters, Curtin University, Australia “in recognition of his contribution to the banking community and his close association with Australia”.29

Tan Cheng Siong, a banker30

Wife: Puan Sri Helene Tan, née Wee, a banker’s daughter31
Son: Tan Keng Siong
Daughters: Tan Kheng Lian, Tan Kheng Choo
Grandchildren: Kenneth Tan Boon Beng, Debbie Tan Siok Hean, Patti Tan Siok Tze, Chew Gek Khim, Chew Gek Hiang, Chew Kwee San, Chuan Ian Campbell, Helene Campbell32
Nephew: Tony Tan Keng Yam33

Tan’s hobbies included rearing fish, birds and dogs, and orchid planting.34

Eugene Tan


1. Yang Razali Kassim, “The Legend Who Built the OCBC Group,” Business Times, 15 May 1992, 10; “Obituary: Tan Sri Dr Tan Chin Tuan,” Straits Times, 14 November 2005, 15; Lam Pin Foo, “Can Baba Culture Be Revived?” Straits Times, 3 August 1998, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Low Kar Tiang, Who’s Who in Singapore (Singapore: Who’s Who Pub., 2003), 375. (Call no. RSING 920.05957 WWS)

2. Kassim, “Legend Who Built the OCBC Group”; Mike Macbeth, Quiet Achiever: The Life and Times of Tan Sri Dr Tan Chin Tuan (Singapore: Times Editions, 2003), 22. (Call no. RSING 332.12092 MAC)
3. Braema Mathi, “At 90, He’s Still Going Strong,” Straits Times, 22 November 1998, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Kassim, “Legend Who Built the OCBC Group”; Melanie Chew, Leaders of Singapore (Singapore: Resource Press, 1996), 215 (Call no. RSING 920.05957 CHE); Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation, Report of Directors and Statement of Accounts 1972 (Singapore: Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation, 1973), 31. (Call no. RCLOS 332.12095957 OBCLRD)
5. Kassim, “Legend Who Built the OCBC Group.”
6. “Tan Chin Tuan Foundation Names YMCA S’pore Chief as First CEO,” Business Times, 7 October 2006, 7; Leong Wee Keat, “Revamped Tan Chin Tuan Foundation Seeks Clarity in Charity,” Today, 24 October 2006, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
7 “Top Private Foundations and Trust Funds Here,” Straits Times, 13 October 2006. (From Newslink via NLB’s eResources website)
8. “Needham Legacy and China’s Genius,” Straits Times, 26 May 1995, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Macbeth, Quiet Achiever, 208.
9. Gillian Pow-Chong, “Cambridge Library Named after Mr Tan,” Straits Times, 21 October 1984, 16 (From NewspaperSG); Macbeth, Quiet Achiever, 208.
10. N. Nirmala, “NTU Gets Donation from Retired Banker,” Straits Times, 8 May 1997, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Banker’s Birthday Gift for Over-90s,” Straits Times, 22 November 1999, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “Banker’s Birthday Gift for Over-90s.”
13. B. Porter, “Birthday Give-Away Cheers 90-Something,” South China Morning Post, 9 December 1999. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
14. Wong Fei Wan, “$1.2M,” Straits Times, 7 December 1999, 37. (From NewspaperSG)
15. ASEAN Causes,” Tan Chin Tuan Foundation, accessed 10 December 2021; Theresa Tan, “Slicing the Donor Pie / Long-time Givers: Who’s Who,” Straits Times, 26 June 2016. (From Newslink via NLB’s eResources website)
16. Lynn Lee, “Tan Chin Tuan Made OCBC a Household Name,” Straits Times, 14 November 2005, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Honorary Doctorate for Tan Chin Tuan,” Straits Times, 14 June 1992, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Kassim, “Legend Who Built the OCBC Group”; Conrad Raj, “A Patriarch of Blue Chips,” Business Times, 15 November 2005, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Kassim, “Legend Who Built the OCBC Group”; “Tan Chin Tuan Made Life President of OCBC,” Business Times, 27 September 1983, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Lee, “Tan Chin Tuan Made OCBC a Household Name.” 
21. Kassim, “Legend Who Built the OCBC Group”; Low, Who’s Who in Singapore, 375; Grace Loh, Goh Chor Boon and Tan Teng Lang, Building Bridges, Carving Niches: An Enduring Legacy (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 2000), 86. (Call no: RSING 332.1095957 LOH)
22. Kassim, “Legend Who Built the OCBC Group”; “New Chairman,” Singapore Monitor, 23 March 1983, 24; “Election Day for STC,” Straits Times, 21 March 1986, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “Tote Board Registers New Club with Chin Tuan at Helm,” Straits Times, 22 March 1988, 33; “Barker to Head Bukit Turf Club,” Straits Times, 19 December 1988, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Kassim, “Legend Who Built the OCBC Group”; Low, Who’s Who in Singapore, 375.
25. Mathi, “He’s Still Going Strong”; “What It Should Have Been,” Straits Times, 27 August 1991, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “2 Commissioners Congratulated,” Straits Times, 1 February 1951, 5; “Banker Tan Chin Tuan Receives Honorary Degree,” Business Times, 4 September 1991, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
27. “The King Appoints Four New Tan Sris,” Straits Times, 31 August 1969, p. 1; Mathi, “He’s Still Going Strong
28. “Two Leading Businessmen Conferred Honorary Degrees,” Straits Times, 4 September 1991, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “Honorary Doctorate for Tan Chin Tuan.”
30. Chew, Leaders of Singapore, 215–8; Raj, “Patriarch of Blue Chips.”
31. “Fashionable Wedding,” Malaya Tribune, 20 September 1926, 8; “Obituary.”
32. “Obituary.”
33. Mathi, “He’s Still Going Strong.”
34. Mathi, “He’s Still Going Strong.”

The information in this article is valid as of December 2021 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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