Song Ong Siang

1871 - 1941
Community leader, lawyer and church elder

Prominent community leader Song Ong Siang was born in Singapore on June 14, 1871. He was the eldest son of pioneer Straits Chinese Christian Song Hoot Kiam and his second wife, Phan Fung Lean. The older Song is well recognised for his contributions to the  Straits Chinese Church (today’s Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church), a legacy that his family carried on.

The younger Song, also known as Sir Ong Siang Song, was the first Chinese in Singapore and Malaya to be knighted by the British king in 1936. Blessed with exceptional academic aptitude, he studied at the Raffles Institution and won the Queen’s Scholarship (today’s President Scholarship) three times consecutively but was disqualified twice for being underage. He then became the first local to further his studies at Cambridge University. Upon his graduation in 1893, Song returned home to become the first Asian lawyer in the colony. Although he mainly handled chancery and conveyance work, Song took to court occasionally, notably winning cases against Europeans while representing Chinese clients. This was quite a feat during the colonial days when Europeans were deemed superior to Asians. As he was a devout Christian, Song projected the image of an upright lawyer and gained the trust of many influential clients. Among those whom he helped in their legal careers were the distinguished lawyer and philanthropist Koh Choon Joo [1] and Singapore’s first chief minister, David Marshall.[2]He also gave legal help and advice free of charge to needy clients. The highest point in Song’s legal career was when he was given the honour as the first Asian doyen (the most senior lawyer) of the Straits Settlements Bar to speak on the occasion of the opening of the new Supreme Court in 1939. 

Believing that the privilege of a successful life which he had gained as a government scholar came with social responsibility, Song was determined to serve both his Straits Chinese community and the wider Singaporean society. He petitioned the colonial government to ban the opium trade and end racial discrimination in the civil service. Through the pages of the reform-oriented Straits Chinese Magazine, which he inaugurated with fellow community leader Dr Lim Boon Keng as co-editors in 1897, he highlighted the plight of the Straits Chinese women, who were denied education and subjected to various forms of vice and abuse. He also facilitated the formation of a trade union to improve the welfare of clerks. Song was one of the few Asians privileged enough to be nominated by the British governor to serve as an unofficial member of the Straits Settlements Legislative Council (the colonial parliament) from 1924 to 1927. In this capacity, he raised issues  of concern to the locals for parliamentary discussion. After 1927, he continued to play this role as a member of the governor’s Straits Chinese Consultative Committee. This provided the platform for him to discuss informally with the governor aspects of government policy which specially affected his community. 

After decades of lobbying, Song finally managed to get the colonial government to pass the Adoption of Children Ordinance in 1939 and the Civil Marriage Ordinance in 1940. The first law gave adopted children the automatic right to inherit the wealth and property of their adoptive parents upon the latter’s death. The second law provided for a monogamous civil marriage for non-Muslims. This law was the first step towards the passing of the Women’s Charter Act in 1961, which outlawed polygamy among non-Muslims. 

Song co-founded the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School (SCGS) in 1899 with Dr Lim to promote the education of Straits Chinese girls. He served as a member of the Straits Settlements Education Board from 1923 to 1933 while also being, at various points in time, on the boards of Raffles College (one of the entities that merged over time to form today’s National University of Singapore or NUS), the SCGS, Gan Eng Seng School, the Anglo-Chinese School, and Choon Guan School (out of which grew the Presbyterian Boys’ School, which was merged with Kuo Chuan Girls’ School in 1985 to form Kuo Chuan Presbyterian Secondary School). In 1909, Song helped to set up the Straits Chinese Reading Club, a branch of the Chinese Christian Association (CCA) to help poor young Straits Chinese men improve their English language, literature and oratory skills. This was akin to the tuition outreach ministry of today. Despite the name of the club, some of the beneficiaries were Indians. Song personally tutored the senior section free of charge until the last year of his life. Many students testified to having gained academically and spiritually from his selfless and dedicated “labour of love”. One of them was Singapore’s fourth president, Wee Kim Wee, who paid tribute to Song for having taught him how to temper the pursuit of success with contentment. [3]

Song and his wife, Helen, donated large sums of money to all kinds of good causes, particularly in the field of education. After his death, Helen willed a third of her wealth to the SCGS, which named a new block in honour of him. She also carried on his legacy by funding and founding the Sir Ong Siang Song Trust Scholarship in honour of him with the then University of Malaya. This scholarship is still listed as a functioning scholarship on the NUS website. Finally, she also donated a sum of money to establish the Sir Ong Siang Song Scholarship and Book Prize in the Presbyterian Boys’ School and Kuo Chuan Girls’ School, which are still in place today. The other field that Song and his wife donated most towards was Christian and church work. Besides mission work, Song contributed one quarter of the total cost of building the new sanctuary of his home church, Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church. 

Song believed in being an “active citizen”, even when the running of the island was mainly in the hands of the British. He was one of the founders of the Straits Chinese British Association in 1900 (today’s Peranakan Association) to promote patriotism and the discussion of political and social issues concerning the colony. In those days, when there was no National Service and the defence of Singapore was in British hands, Song further demonstrated his commitment to Singapore by forming the Chinese company of the Singapore Volunteer Infantry (SVI) in 1901 with other Straits Chinese elites. He led by example, enlisting as a recruit, and was commissioned as the first Asian officer of the SVI in 1907. During World War I (1914-1918), he was the administrative officer in charge of detailing and supplying the Chinese volunteers for guard duties throughout the island. He played his part in suppressing the Sepoy (Indian soldiers) Mutiny of 1915 by leading reconnaissance patrols and gathering arms abandoned by the rebels. In the process, his patrol disarmed and escorted a number of surrendered rebels to detention centres. Song was subsequently promoted to the rank of captain. 

Song was a polymath who excelled in and took an interest in various fields and subjects. In his school days at Raffles Institution, he excelled in English Language, Malay Language, English Literature, Mathematics, Geography, History and sports. In 1923, he published his monumental One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore, which is still one of the standard sources consulted by historians researching the Chinese pioneers of Singapore. Unsurprisingly, he was nominated as the first president of the Friends of Singapore society in 1937. This non-governmental institution sought to promote and conserve the colony’s culture, art and history, very much like what the National Heritage Board of Singapore is doing today. Song also played the violin well and sang in musical recitals. A rather accomplished amateur competitive tennis player and an excellent competitive shooter in his younger days, he was president of the Straits Chinese Recreation Club from 1908 to 1912. Due to his strong interest in gardening, he was also nominated into the management committee of the Botanical Gardens in 1925. 

Finally, he was active in Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church. He served as a deacon in 1895 and as a lay preacher from 1893 and an elder from 1902 till his death in 1941. He also sang in the choir, edited the bi-monthly Messenger publication when it was inaugurated in 1908 and taught Sunday school lessons in his younger days. He was president of the CCA from 1893 until his death, during which time he constantly encouraged members to take a Christian view of life and service. Through his influence, many of them became believers.[4]

Song was a supporter of Christian mission work and parachurch organisations in Singapore such as the Salvation Army and the British and Foreign Bible Society. He was also a pioneering champion of the ecumenical movement for church unity among the different Protestant denominations in Singapore. In 1939, he generously availed his spacious seaside East Coast bungalow for the combined training of church workers and missionaries from various Protestant denominations. This foreshadowed the setting up of the interdenominational Trinity Theological College in 1948. Above all, Song was known and respected by many in his day for exemplifying Christian integrity, character and compassion.


  1. ^  Koh was so grateful to Song for his guidance that he erected a bust of the latter, with the words “Sir Ong Siang Song – first employer and mentor of C.J. Koh”. It is still in the NUS Law Library. 
  2. ^  Kevin Tan Yew Lee, Marshall of Singapore: A Biography (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), 94- 96. 
  3. ^ Wee Kim Wee, Glimpses and Reflections (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2004), 52-53. 
  4. ^  Short memoirs of the late Tan Kek Tiam (unpublished). 

Malcolm Tan Shih Lung

The writer is a history teacher in Singapore and has a Master of Arts (History) from the National University
of Singapore.



Chong, Alan, ed. Great Peranakans: Fifty Remarkable Lives. Singapore: Asian Civilisation Museum, 2015.

Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church. 150 Years of Faithfulness 1843-1993. Singapore: Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church, 1993. 16, 17, 18, 20, 23, 25, 28 & 29.

Song Ong Siang. One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (The Annotated Edition). Singapore: World Scientific, 2020. 116, 328, 340, 341, 344, 345, 356, 397, 418, 447, 483, 493, 526, 558, 565, 566, 602, 625, 694, 695, 697, 715, 723, 746, 754 & 794.

Tan, Kevin Yew Lee. Marshall of Singapore: A Biography. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008. 94-96.

Wee Kim Wee. Glimpses and Reflections. Singapore: Landmark Books, 2004. 52-53.


Academic Thesis (unpublished)

Ching Seow Ying. “A King’s Chinese: A Study of Song Ong Siang.” Academic Exercise, University of Singapore, 1973.


Other Primary Sources

Personal papers of the late Tan Kek Tiam

Last will of Lady Helen Song, 1949