HER grandfather was Tun Tan Cheng Lock, the first president of the MCA who worked hand-in-hand with Umno President Tunku Abdul Rahman and MIC president Tun VT Sambanthan to fight for Malaya’s independence. Her father was Tun Tan Siew Sin, also a former president of the MCA, and the country’s longest-serving finance minister (1959-1974).
A lawyer by training, Tan Siok Choo graduated with a law degree from the University of Bristol, UK and was admitted as a Barrister at Lincoln’s Inn, London in 1976 and to the Malaysian Bar in 1977.
Siok Choo describes herself as a “professional rolling stone”. Initially, she was a journalist, writing for two different newspapers on business, economics and law. After a short stint as a headhunter, she worked as an investment analyst with two stockbroking firms. Thereafter, she joined a commercial bank as head of the corporate finance department.
In this 23 Nov 2009 interview with The Nut Graph in Kuala Lumpur, Siok Choo talks about her childhood, her identity as a Malaysian, and what it was like growing up in an illustrious family.
Where were you born, and what were your earliest memories?
I was born in Singapore on 30 Jan 1952.
My parents come from different sub-ethnic groups. My father was a Peranakan Baba, so he only spoke English and Malay; and my mother is from Singapore, so she speaks Hokkien and English. They both communicated in English. So by the time I transferred to Convent Bukit Nanas in Standard Three, I had effectively lost the use of Hokkien.
As a child, were you aware that you were from a special family?
My father told us stories about our ancestors and the values they espoused. So we never had this idea that we were special or that we were wealthy.
My father would tell us about Cheng Lock’s grandfather Choon Bock, who was the most successful of our family’s ancestors. In the 19th century, when he was a young man, the easy way to make money was to run opium and gaming dens. But he didn’t believe in making money this way; he was reputed to have said, “Money made through the misery of others will harm my descendants.”
He preferred to make money the cleaner but harder way: by running one of the first steamship services in this part of the world. He was responsible for the family’s prosperity; he also bought the family house in Malacca in 1875.
But he was also a very tough man. He had four sons, and felt they were unworthy of inheriting his money. So he tied up his money in a trust. He died in 1880, and his trust came to an end in 1964 — by which time his grandson Cheng Lock had died four years earlier. So his sons and grandsons never enjoyed his wealth.
But because of his policy of tough love, he had three descendants who would contribute to this region’s political and economic development: my grandfather, my father, and also Goh Keng Swee, who eventually became deputy prime minister of Singapore. Keng Swee is descended from Choon Bock’s daughter, and was Singapore’s finance minister when my father was finance minister. Two cousins as finance ministers is quite a record.
Can you trace your ancestry?
My first ancestor, Tan Hay Kwan, came to Malacca between 1771 and 1781 from Chiang Chew prefecture in Fujian province. Apart from [having been] involved in shipping, not much is known about him except that he married a local woman who was already a resident in Malacca. I am a seventh-generation Malaysian, if you consider Tan the first generation.
I know very little about my mother’s side. Unlike my father, she didn’t tell us about her ancestors.
When my father married my mother, she had three strikes against her. She was not from Malacca, she was not Peranakan, and she was not a Confucianist. My grandfather and father were very staunch followers of Confucius, and were worried that as a Christian, she would not observe the ritual of ancestral worship. But to her credit, she said ancestral worship is not actually worship, it’s a remembrance ceremony and a cultural observance, and so she performs it.
What do you remember from the time your father was in cabinet?
Of course I remember Tunku Abdul Rahman and all the cabinet ministers visiting our house, but the two persons that I remember best were not politicians. One was an Indonesian author and a political dissident, Mochtar Lubis. I don’t know why he came to see my father, but I remember at the time I was into collecting autographs, so I asked him to sign my autograph book. He wrote “truth is beauty”.
After he visited our house, he sent me one of his books, The Road with No End. When he came to our house, my father and I were very impressed that he had been jailed by Sukarno for maybe about 20 years, and yet when we spoke to him, there was no sense of bitterness.
Another person I remember is the Dalai Lama. When he came to Malaysia, there were only two people he asked to meet, Tunku Abdul Rahman and my father. And I remember many of my parents’ friends were so excited that the Dalai Lama was coming, and they wanted to come to our house, just to see him. He didn’t say very much or stay very long, but I remember he had tremendous presence.
How has your perception of being a Malaysian changed?
I grew up with all these stories about my father and grandfather’s fight for independence. Especially their fight for the right of jus soli, which is the right of a person born in this country to be a citizen. They wanted that for the [Chinese community] because without jus soli, it would have been very difficult for them to gain citizenship. Without jus soli, according to one academic, Heng Pek Koon, around 75% of [ethnic] Chinese [would have been] ineligible for citizenship. That had a tremendous impact on me.
My grandfather looked very un-Chinese. He had very sharp features. [But] he used to say all the water in the four seas could not wash his Chinese blood away. He was very proud of his Chinese ancestry. He and my father used to read books on Chinese literature, philosophy and poetry.
I remember once we happened to be in Singapore during the Chinese New Year period, so we went to visit my maternal grandfather in Singapore to wish him “Happy New Year”. I asked my cousins how they wished my grandfather “Happy New Year.” They said they just shook his hands.
When I told my father this, he said, “No way, you’re going to do it the traditional way. All of you kneel.” So for my father, we had to kow tow to my grandfather. It was hard to know who was more astonished, my cousins or my grandfather!
What does it mean for you, then, to be so Chinese-customs orientated, and yet have an English education and upbringing? How does that figure in your identity as a Malaysian?
I grew up with a very strong sense of Peranakan identity. In Malacca, nearly all my relatives only spoke Malay. Very few of them spoke English, none of them spoke Chinese. So here you have a community that looks Chinese, observes all the old Chinese customs, and yet speaks Malay, eats food that is more Malay than Chinese, and dresses in sarongs and kebayas.
I feel as Malaccans, we are a microcosm of what Malaysia should be. In Malacca there is one road, called Jalan Tokong or Temple Street, where there is an Indian temple, a Chinese temple and a mosque very close to each other.
I remember I took a friend to see the oldest mosque in Malacca. I was standing outside the mosque, and the caretaker saw me and asked, “Would you like to come in?” We said yes, and he showed us around. I remember marvelling at the mosque because it was built during British rule. It had stained glass and lights from the Victorian era. I appreciated the caretaker’s gesture — allowing us to come and share the beauty of the mosque. I feel very sad that today we don’t have the same open-mindedness that we had back then.
What do you hope for Malaysia now?
I hope that Malaysia will be the Malaysia that my father and grandfather fought for: a united Malaysia with all the races living together, with mutual respect, understanding and goodwill towards each other.
When my grandfather was a member of the Legislative Council, he used to speak up for the Malay farmers, fisher[folk], the Portuguese settlers, and the Indian chettiars. One historian, Tregonning, said it was unusual for a legislator to speak up on behalf of other ethnic groups.
My father was so proud of being Malaysian and really treasured this country. My mother was so angry because once he was invited to a prestigious conference in Hawaii, but he arranged it so that he would present his paper and then fly back the same night. It is such a beautiful place, but he said, “No, I don’t want to stay on, I just want to go home.”
Read other Found in Malaysia interviews