Biography of Dr Chen Su Lan

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Biography of Dr Chen Su Lan

Biography of Dr Chen Su Lan

Physician, anti-opium fighter, philanthropist and social reformer, Dr Chen Su Lan, was one of Singapore Methodist's most distinguished leaders: a legend in his time. He lived in China during his childhood which was towards the end of the Qing dynasty. During that period, he saw first-hand the harmful effects of opium consumption which was forced upon the Chinese by the British consequently as a result of the Opium Wars, and dreadful crimes were committed to support its abuse.

Born in Fuzhou in 1885, he was a third generation Methodist, brought up by his deeply devout mother, a widow who sincerely believed that Jesus taught about God. But it was only when the young lad began to read the Bible in "Baihua" which was the spoken language did he realise that there were underlying messages behind those written words and they became meaningful to him. He enrolled himself at the Anglo-Chinese College in Fuzhou, at the age of 15, and at a revival meeting held by the visiting Bishop Bashford he prayed that God would use him as an instrument like Moses and even pledged to become a preacher one day.

His Achievements

Not long after, like many young men in those days, he set sail for Singapore, and joined the first batch of students at the newly opened Medical College. Although, he was very busy with his medical practice after his graduation, he served in a number of important committees: The Tan Tock Seng Hospital Management Committee; The Central Midwives Board; and The Council of the King Edward VII College of Medicine. He also founded the Alumni Association of Medical College and was elected President for the Malayan Branch of the British Medical Association. Most people would have said that it was enough work for one man but not for this relentless man.

In Singapore, as in China, opium addiction was a grim social problem. The Colonial government monopolized the sale of the drug as a means to "control" its use. Remembering his early experience in China, he decided to fight the menace, even though this was considered "disloyal" by the British and could have led to his banishment. He courageously spear-headed the anti-opium drives in 1929, and founded the Anti-Opium Clinic which treated many poor labourers who had been addicted. Some even gave away their daughters for adoption because they could not stop smoking the drug. Unfortunately,  the  Clinic  had  to close its doors due to the outbreak of war in China in 1937, which subsequently led to the donations from Singapore being diverted to the China Relief Fund. However, after World War II, the British Government decided to ban the sale of opium, limiting its use to medical and scientific purposes. Perhaps, Dr Chen Su Lan's efforts helped, after all.

His experience of God’s presence

When the Pacific War broke out in December 1942, the Japanese army wreaked havoc on Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia. The Malay Peninsula was quickly occupied, and Dr Chen Su Lan, anticipating that Singapore would surrender, decided to flee on one of the last ships leaving the "fortress" on Friday 13th February 1942. But the ship was attacked, bombed and set on fire; the passengers abandoned the ship and it seemed like the end for Dr Chen Su Lan.

While floating and drifting helplessly, he shivered terribly from prolonged immersion in the cold sea water and thought he was going to die.  In the midst of his plight, he began to wonder and asked himself, “What have I done to deserve this?” His answer was to review his past. In the eyes of the world, he might have been considered to be successful; but he saw himself as having fallen short of what he had set out to be and wanted to do in his life.

He recalled the pledge he had made to be a preacher and to be of service to God, and in that dreadful moment, he realized that his independence from God had actually created a barrier between them, resulting in him not being able to fulfill the commitment he had made as a youth many years ago. He thought it was sinful of him for not keeping his promise and decided that he would henceforth live fully for the glory of God and not for himself.

He fervently told himself "My old self had sunk to the bottom of the sea some 60 miles south of Singapore and out of the watery grave has now risen a regenerated soul to prove to the world the simple but eternal truth: Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit " (John 12.24). Miraculously, he was washed onto a sandy beach, and a place of safety for which he had prayed for during those despairing moments when he faced imminent death. He did not die, but in fact he was born again.

His experience of being at the brink of death had a profound effect on him as did another crisis when he returned to "Syonan" which was the Japanese name for Singapore. He was detained by the dreaded Kempeitai for questioning because an informant had told the Japanese that he and other Methodist Church leaders were conspiring against the Japanese government. Again, he was miraculously preserved from physical punishment. Although the Japanese searched his home, they were not able to find any documents which would have incriminated him, but instead their informant was made to look foolish.

During such fearful moments he had thought of Biblical passages such as "Your father know what things ye have need of before ye ask Him " (Matthew : 6.8); " When ye pray, believe that ye shall receive them " (Mark 11:24); and “ Nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt. " (Luke 22:42)

His Vision and Mission

After the Japanese occupation ended, he found new life and commitment to serve the Lord and having been invited by the British Military Administration to join the Advisory Council, he made use of the opportunity to speak out fearlessly on social problems which had been a result of the four years of Japanese occupation. Determined to resolve these perennial issues in a practical way, he founded the Chinese YMCA between 1945 and 1946 with the aim of providing demoralized youths in Singapore with an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves.

Stemming from his personal interest and commitment to the growth of Christian organizations in our community, he formed Chen Su Lan Trust in 1947 which disbursed funds and loan to organizations such as the Scripture Union. This in turn led to the birth of Chen Su Lan Methodist Children's Home which was named after him. Here, children from broken families could grow up in a Christian family environment. It helped to raise needy children who have themselves grown up and raised their own families. Many of whom are active in our churches today.

Although Dr Chen Su Lan’s prayer of wanting to be a "preacher" of the Word of God did not become a reality, his whole life was dedicated to serving the needs of God's children: by feeding his sheep, and washing the feet of those who gathered at the table of Lord, hungering and thirsting for the bread and water of life. He steadfastly served the Lord in the spirit of the quotation which he lived -  "Not to be ministered unto, but to minister”.

A tribute to this exceptional human being

The selfless deeds of Dr Chen Su Lan have benefited many children and many more are still benefiting today from this extraordinary man’s desire to foster a better life for needy children. This courageous and compassionate man may have passed on but his spirit lives on and continues to inspire and touch the hearts and minds of many hurting children in Chen Su Lan Methodist Children’s Home.