Tan Seng Poh

Community leader, businessman, and… “drug lord”

Shawn Seah
8 min readDec 29, 2021

--

Artist’s impression of an opium pipe. Illustrated by Jeyasoorya and commissioned by the writer.

Prologue: backstory and spoilers

How do you explain that it is acceptable to become rich dealing drugs?”

I was seeking guidance from fellow local history writers, when one of them asked me that question (I paraphrased the writer).

I was going to write a short piece on Tan Seng Poh (~1828 to 1879), a prominent Teochew merchant and community leader in colonial Singapore, and develop it into a children’s book.

But real life is complex.

The great man happened to deal in many businesses, and one of them was “opium and spirit (alcohol, not ghosts) farming”.

I intended to write mainly about his contributions to society. Writers often grapple with complex topics and issues, focusing on a few plot points rather than a person’s entire life. What’s more, this man lived in colonial Singapore in the 19th century where the context was different then. In those days, opium could be freely bought in shops. Today’s drug-free, safe, and secure Singapore is a far cry from the drug-ridden, unsafe, and violent Singapore then. The historical context matters.

Taking a leaf from Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr Seuss — where, despite the seemingly positive tone of the title, Dr Seuss dishes out both good and bad news, and hard truths, to little children — I decided to press on with the story with both the good and bad.

This is the story of Tan Seng Poh, a historical community leader, prominent businessman, and… “drug lord”.

Tan Seng Poh’s Story

Early days

Tan Seng Poh was born in Perak, Malaya around 1830 (likely 1828). [1]

His father was Teochew Tan Ah Hun, the Kapitan Cina of Perak (the leader of the Chinese community in Perak). Relatively little is known of Tan Seng Poh’s time in Perak.

What we do know is that Tan Seng Poh came to Singapore when he was nine or ten years old. [2] The young boy was accompanying his older sister to Singapore, and he eventually settled here.

There was good reason for this move to Singapore. His older sister, Tan Meng Guet, married prominent Teochew merchant Seah…

--

--

Shawn Seah

Singaporean writer and public speaker, passionate about education, social issues, and local history and community stories.