Not many realise that the first non-Western insurance enterprise in South-east Asia was founded in Penang in the late 19th century. This was no strange coincidence. In fact, it was a reflection of the continuing importance of the island as a transport hub long after Singapore was considered the centre for impulses of modernisation in the region.
In 1885, the Chinese-owned Khean Guan Insurance Company was established in Penang. This was in response to the growing number of Western insurance companies operating in the city in the final decades of the 19th century. At that time, the island had been witnessing an unprecedented expansion in Western enterprise, and insurance was one of the major branches.
By 1895, there were at least 15 Western managing-agency insurance firms operating in the city. They dealt mainly with marine and fire insurance, and their proliferation was closely linked to Western expansion into regional shipping services.`
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