Teochew v Teochew: From 'twin brothers' to combatants in court
Singapore's two oldest Teochew associations - Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan and Ngee Ann Kongsi - locked in battle over building's redevelopment. The Sunday Times take a look at what is fueling the divide.
In 2012, a rather unusual advertisement appeared in The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao.
Paid for by an anonymous member of the local Teochew community, it reproduced an open letter penned in 1965 by its leader, Mr Yeo Chan Boon.
It reminded Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan and Ngee Ann Kongsi of their shared history, and called on the two groups to stay united for the interests of the community.
The heartfelt plea went unheeded.
Today, the two oldest associations representing Singapore's second-biggest Chinese dialect group after the Hokkiens are feuding over that age-old source of many a dispute - money and property.
At the centre of this spat is a stately six-storey building in Tank Road, which both organisations have occupied together for 55 years.
To some Teochews, the in-fighting is an embarrassment.
Madam Koh Soo Hoon, 58, a project assistant in the construction industry, says: "As Teochews, we should stay united. The associations should focus on giving back to society rather than squabbling among themselves."
Last month, things reached a new low.
Unable to resolve the conflict via mediation, both camps are taking their battle to the courtroom.
In December, the Kongsi served an originating summons for the Huay Kuan to vacate the building in the River Valley area, so that it can be redeveloped.
The Huay Kuan refuses to budge. It says the redevelopment was a unilateral move, and announced last month that it will counter the legal case.
Both sides have engaged expensive, high-profile lawyers - Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, who will represent the Kongsi, and Senior Counsel Tan Chee Meng, acting on behalf of the Huay Kuan.
The case will be heard in court on Thursday.
It is a case of deja vu. Both parties previously had also come close to legal blows.
The Kongsi was founded in 1845 by pepper and gambier plantation king Seah Eu Chin.
It was a force to be reckoned with, as it raised funds and bought land to build temples, burial grounds and for other charitable and religious purposes. Today, it owns tracts of land including the site of Ngee Ann City in Orchard Road.
But more than 80 years later, a second group of Teochew leaders that included rubber and pineapple magnate Lim Nee Soon emerged. They considered suing the Seah family, alleging that the management of the Kongsi had become monopolised by Mr Seah and his descendants, according to the letter by Mr Yeo.
After mediation, the matter was later settled out of court, and both sides came to an agreement.
The Kongsi was restructured into a trustees' organisation, providing education and financial aid to the Teochew community. It became formally incorporated as a charitable organisation in 1933.
Meanwhile, the second group of leaders established the Huay Kuan in 1929 to promote Teochew culture and foster ties. It became the umbrella body for Teochew clans here.
Since then, both parties had been like "twin brothers", the Huay Kuan said in a commemorative book launched earlier this year.
In 1963, they moved in together. Both organisations were housed in the Teochew Building, which was constructed in 1963 at a cost of about $1 million.
Members of the organisations also took up directorships on the board of the other.
The Kongsi financed activities held by the Huay Kuan such as cultural exhibitions and conferences, and also donated revenue from its assets to schools and other charities. It manages schools such as Ngee Ann Primary.
A SOURING OF TIES
However, new cracks began emerging around 2007.
The first sign of trouble was when the Kongsi's Constitution was amended that year, cutting the number of Huay Kuan representatives on the Kongsi's management committee from three to one.
In 2009, annual grants of $100,000 from the Kongsi to the Huay Kuan were stopped, with funds being given out instead on a one-off basis for specific projects.
Three years later, leaders of the Kongsi launched a rival Teochew Federation in their personal capacities, which Huay Kuan members say was a move to replace the clan.
This slew of spats is down to two reasons: personality clashes and the emergence of factions on both sides.
The Kongsi is dominated by Teochew old money and prominent leaders include Mr Teo Chiang Long, eldest son of the late Chinese business and community leader Teo Soo Chuan, who founded See Hoy Chan, Singapore's largest rice importer.
The Huay Kuan, on the other hand, is mainly run by self-made businessmen. They include the likes of BreadTalk founder George Quek, who took the helm as president from 2013 to 2017, and the Huay Kuan's lifetime honorary president Goh Nam Siang, 66, who runs a recycling business and was its president from 2009 to 2013.
One key episode happened in 2009. A faction in the Huay Kuan that was aligned with the Kongsi committee allegedly attempted to get the clan to change its Constitution and adopt a system of rotational presidency instead of its current system of an elected presidency. The reasons for doing so are unclear.
The other faction refused, and the episode led to a breeding of distrust that soured relations over the years.
Some Huay Kuan members are also upset that they have not been granted membership in the Kongsi, and feel that the Kongsi is deliberately keeping them out of its affairs.
Potential members have to apply to the Kongsi management committee for membership approval. The committee is not obliged to explain why applications are rejected.
THE UNRESOLVED DISPUTE
Back to the building in question. Why is the Kongsi in such a hurry to redevelop it?
Key leaders from either side declined to speak on the record, citing legal sensitivities.
Details of its ownership are murky and disputed.
Documents from the Singapore Land Authority's integrated land information service portal show that the Kongsi is the owner of the Teochew Building.
But the Huay Kuan, which has been residing there rent-free since 1963, has said that it also has rights to the building. According to Mr Yeo's letter, the project was a joint development by both associations, and the Huay Kuan had transferred shophouses that it owned in Tank Road to the Kongsi for the project.
Over the years, prominent personalities have tried to mend bridges.
The Sunday Times understands that Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, chair of the Chinese Community Liaison Group and a half-Teochew himself, has stepped in to try to mediate in recent years.
When contacted, Mr Ong declined comment, as the dispute over the Teochew Building is currently before the courts.
Civil servant Shawn Seah, 33, who is the great-great-great grandson of Mr Seah Eu Chin, says members of his immediate and extended family are no longer involved in the Ngee Ann Kongsi or the Poit Ip Huay Kuan, as far as he is aware.
"But as a Teochew, it's sad to hear about the dispute. We Teochews in Singapore have a unique identity, and should be united."
The 2 groups' shared history - and rivalry
• 1845: Teochew pioneer Seah Eu Chin, together with other merchants, set up Ngee Ann Kongsi, a religious observance and social welfare organisation. It raised funds to acquire land for temples and burial grounds.
• 1927: Rubber and pineapple magnate Lim Nee Soon and other Teochew leaders led a petition to stop the Kongsi's presidency and management from being dominated by Mr Seah's family, and considered taking legal action.
• 1929: After mediation, both parties came to an agreement. The Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, widely regarded as the umbrella body for Teochew clans here, was set up.
• 1930: The Ngee Ann Kongsi was restructured into a trustees' organisation for the Teochew community. Members of the organisations took up directorships on the board of the other.
• 1933: The Ngee Ann Kongsi (Incorporation) Ordinance was drawn up and the Kongsi was formally incorporated as a charitable organisation.
• 1963: The Huay Kuan and the Kongsi moved into the newly built Teochew Building in Tank Road.
• 2007: The Kongsi reduced the number of Huay Kuan representatives on its board from three to one.
• 2009: The Kongsi stopped its annual grants of $100,000 to the Huay Kuan.
• 2012: Some leaders of the Kongsi launched the Teochew Federation in their personal capacities. Huay Kuan members saw this as a move to start a rival clan association.
• 2017: The Kongsi gave written notice to the Huay Kuan that it had a year to move out ahead of redevelopment of the premises.
• 2018: In December, the Kongsi served an originating summons for the Huay Kuan to leave the building.
• 2019: Last month, the Huay Kuan said it intends to counter the legal case by the Kongsi. The case will be heard in court on Thursday.
PLEASE STOP SQUABBLING
As Teochews, we should stay united. The associations should focus on giving back to society rather than squabbling among themselves.
MADAM KOH SOO HOON, 58, a project assistant in the construction industry.
Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.