The Advent of the Automobile and the Booming Rubber Industry
Henry Ridley: Rubber’s Fervent Promoter
Henry Ridley was the first director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, and ceaselessly worked to promote rubber to planters. While in Singapore, he also delivered botany lectures at the King Edward VII School of Medicine, collected and described botanical specimens, and expanded the Herbarium and living collections of the Botanic Gardens by an estimated 50,000 specimens. He was awarded an honorary gold medal from the Rubber Growers’ Association in 1914, and a Frank N. Meyer medal in 1928 for his important role in establishing rubber plantations in Malaya.
, the director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1888 to 1894, was instrumental in promoting rubber to planters in Singapore. He was nicknamed Mad Ridley or Rubber Ridley for his tireless promotion of rubber, which involved presenting displays at horticultural shows, publishing articles in the Straits’ Agricultural Bulletin
, and even keeping rubber seeds in his pockets to distribute to anyone who seemed interested.
Ridley invented the herringbone rubber tapping method, which allowed the trees to be regularly tapped for latex while minimising harm to their bark. He also researched agricultural practices that allowed the trees to mature faster, optimal places for planting, the most effective processing techniques, and the best way to pack and ship processed rubber. Through Ridley's efforts, rubber planting became commercially viable, and he is known as the father of the rubber industry in Malaya.
Higher Demand, Higher Profits
The demand for vulcanised rubber
Vulcanisation is the process where crude rubber is treated with additives such as sulphur to make it flexible, stronger and resistant to heat. It can then be used to make objects such as tyres, rubber hoses and shoe soles.
drastically increased when Henry Ford revolutionised the automobile assembly line, producing cheaper cars the public could afford. Rubber was needed to make the tyres for the massive numbers of automobiles being produced for global markets. Rubber was also used to manufacture a wide range of products from cycle tyres to insulation for electrical wires. In 1898, Tan Chay Yan and his partners formed the Sembawang Rubber Plantation and the Tampines Para and Coconut Plantation, making Singapore one of the first countries to establish rubber plantations.
Due to the overproduction of rubber, the British government tried to stabilise prices by officially discouraging new rubber planting with the Stevenson Restriction Scheme, which lasted from 1922 to 1928. The scheme kept prices high, allowing Tan Kah Kee to benefit and reap profits from his chain of various rubber enterprises—plantations that supplied latex, mills that turned latex into sheets, the trading and exporting of sheets, and the manufacturing and retailing of rubber goods. As Tan adopted Henry Ford’s principle of being involved in all stages of the supply chain, he has come to be known as the Henry Ford of Malaya.
In 1925, Tan reached the peak of his financial success with a net profit of $7.8 million. His business enterprises had created jobs for over 30,000 people in several countries, and many of his employees later became prominent businessmen and community leaders. This included Dr. Lee Kong Chian
Dr. Lee Kong Chian was a Chinese philanthropist and multimillionaire. He invested large sums in what became today’s well-known enterprises such as the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation, Great Eastern Life Insurance, Sime Darby (Singapore), Cold Storage and the Straits Trading Company. During the Great Depression, Lee largely facilitated the merger of the Oversea-Chinese Bank, the Ho Hong Bank and the Chinese Commercial Bank into the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC), which was the largest bank in Singapore in 1932. Lee became the vice chairman of OCBC that same year, and chairman in 1938, holding the post until his death in 1967.
and Oon Khye Hong
Oon Khye Hong was a qualified Chinese chemist who worked as Tan Kah Kee’s assistant. He married one of Tan Kah Kee’s daughters and managed the rubber factory at the former Sumbawa Road (which was located near the side of Rochor River closest to Crawford Street).
, who both later became his sons-in-law, as well as Tan Lark Sye
Tan Lark Sye was the founder of Nanyang University and a prominent Chinese community leader. Born in 1897 in China, he left for Singapore in 1916 and worked for Tan Kah Kee, later leaving to start his own rubber trading firm. He succeeded Tan Kah Kee as the Hokkien Huay Kuan chairman, and served as the president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Accusations of being a communist saw him stripped of his citizenship in 1963. He continued to live in Singapore and remained stateless until his death in 1972.
. Tan Kah Kee was also a member of the Ee Hoe Hean Club
One of the oldest clubs for millionaires in Singapore, the Ee Hoe Hean Club was reputed for its political involvement in Chinese affairs. Early members consisted mostly of prominent merchants in Singapore. Tan Kah Kee was elected vice president in 1917, became the club’s president in 1923, and served as its chief spokesman until 1947. Tan was dedicated to the club to the point of living, dining, sleeping and working there. Since Singapore’s independence in 1965, the club has continued to play an active role in community services such as charity work and organising cultural talks for the public.
, one of the oldest clubs for millionaires in Singapore, and became its president in 1923 beginning the first of his three stints in the role.