From Johor Bahru Directory
Tan Hiok Nee (1827-1902) was the second leader of the Ngee Heng Kongsi of Johor, a legitimized secret society based in Johor Bahru. Succeeding Tan Kee Soon in circa 1864, he transformed the Ngee Kongsi Kongsi from a quasi-military revolutionary brotherhood, based in the rural settlement of Kangkar Tebrau, into an organisation of kapitans, kangchus, and revenue farmers, based in the state capital of Johor Bahru.
2. Early life: Born in Chaoshan, China, Tan Hiok Nee, a Teochew, started life as a cloth peddler and in the course of his frequent visits to Maharaja Abu Bakar's home in Telok Blangah, Singapore, had became a friend of the royal family. He subsequently extended his textile business to Johor Bahru where many textile shops still line Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, a road named after him, and where he used to stay. He was thus already in Johor when he obtained his first surat sungai (river document) in 1853, then aged 26. This was to form the beginning of a vast holding of 9 such grants which made him the largest holder of kangchu concessions, as well as the wealthiest and most influential Chinese in Johor. A map of Johor Bahru drawn in 1887 shows Tan Hiok Nee as the owner of several lots of land in the centre of Johor Bahru where he owned many shops and houses as well as started a market.
3. Revenue farming and the Great Opium Syndicate: With his grants, Tan Hiok Nee went into pepper and gambier planting which led naturally to trading in these crops, and eventually became a major pepper and gambier trader at Boat Quay in Singapore. He held the opium and spirit farm for Johor for various periods but in 1870-79, he joined with Tan Seng Poh and Cheang Hong Lim to form the Great Opium Syndicate which managed to gain control of the opium and spirit farm not only in Johor, but also the vastly lucrative revenue farms in Singapore, Melaka, and Riau. Like Tan Kee Soon, Tan Hiok Nee was a trusted friend of Sultan Abu Bakar and with his enormous wealth, may even have been one of the Sultan's financiers.
4. Levers of wealth and power: In about 1870, then aged 43, Tan Hiok Nee was appointed Major China of Johor, a governmental appointment that was assisted by an assistant treasurer, a head clerk, and a head inspector. The position was apparently created specially for him since Johor at that time already had two kapitans, namely Kapitan Tan Cheng Hung in Tebrau and Kapitan Seah Tee Heng in Johor Bahru. In addition, Tan was also appointed as one of two Chinese members to the Council of State. However, what made him so powerful among the Chinese community in Johor was his position as the leader of the Ngee Heng Kongsi after Tan Kee Soon's death in circa 1864. By then, however, Md Salleh bin Perang had been appointed Chief of Police and the policing responsibilities that Tan Kee Soon had been entrusted with were now carried out by Johor officials. Under the circumstances, the Ngee Heng Kongsi was now more like an organisation of towkays who financed the plantations and operated the profitable revenue farms. Nevertheless, with his position as Major China and head of the Ngee Heng Kongsi, as well as being a partner in the Great Opium Syndicate, Tan held all the levers of wealth and power available to a Chinese during his time.
5. Retirement: In the 1880s, Tan Hiok Nee inexplicably gave up his connection with Johor entirely, selling off all his concessions and withdrawing completely from Johor to settle in Singapore. Nevertheless, he chose his timing well for he withdrew at a time when Johor was standing at the peak of its progress under the rule of Sultan Abu Bakar. However, for the Ngee Heng, it was the beginning of the slide downhill. The administrative structure of government was well established and was managed by a core of able and experienced officers led by the much respected Dato' Jaafar bin Mohamed as Mentri Besar. Even so, Tan continued to have a towering presence in the Kongsi as his successor, Lim Ah Siang, was referred to only as Second Brother, the second most senior-ranking member in the secret society hierarchy. In 1885, he built himself a magnificent mansion in Singapore but eventually returned to China to become one of the few migrants who made good overseas and returned to end his days in his native village.