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History & Culture / Southeast Asia

What was Singapore like 100 years ago? (Friendly Societies)

Curious, we gathered answers from official colonial records. The British, in their administrative precision, kept tedious records of almost every aspect of their jurisdiction over the Straits Settlements, including public education, civic organisations, and public health. An investigation into these seemingly mundane colonial records yields an interesting picture about the daily lives of the communities living in Singapore 100 years ago.

In this series, we cover different segments of life and society in 1920s Singapore. The 1920s were among the most prosperous periods of the century. Singapore benefited greatly from the global recovery then as soldiers rejoined the economy after the First World War. The “Roaring Twenties”, as the period was known in the USA, reflected the economic dynamism and social exuberance of the time. Throughout these boom years, Singapore’s social services expanded, largely funded by the colonial government.

Previously, we looked at colonial Singapore’s education landscape in the 1920s—“What was Singapore like 100 years ago? (Education)”. Here, we look at the existence of friendly societies in colonial Singapore.

The 1920s was an interesting time for civil and civic activity in Singapore. The decade’s affluence brought about a different lifestyle for most of the Europeans and the wealthy in the city. Simultaneously, politics brewing abroad, particularly in China, had great influence on activities within Singapore. Famous Chinese-language papers such as Tan Kah Kee’s Nanyang Siang Pau and Aw Boon Haw’s Sin Chew Jit Poh were both founded in this period.

Secret societies from 1920 to 1925

At the start of the decade, almost half of the friendly societies registered at the time were for social and recreational purposes. Established by European expatriates or colonial officials, clubs such as the Singapore Cricket Club (established 1852) were often a big part of colonial social life, acting as a place for gathering and for businessmen to mingle.

However, more than half of these registered societies were created for charitable purposes or mutual aid, a sign of the city’s maturing society. Many of these were established at the turn of the century, likely due to heightened awareness of the destitute’s poor standards of living.

1926 onwards

There were changes in legislation that propelled more societies to be registered in later years. In particular, 1926 showed a stark change in the makeup of societies detailed in the colonial records.

There was an increase in societies registered under Societies Ordinance No. 116—mostly Chinese societies that were registered with “Mutual assistance at funerals” as their objective.

During the economic slump in rubber and tin from 1920 to 1922, the secret societies recruited many new Hainanese immigrants, which strengthened left-wing political movements. To curb this, the colonial government amended Societies Ordinance No. 116 in 1923 to give the criminal system more powers to tighten registration requirements, leading to more societies being registered from 1926 onwards.

Societies Ordinance No. 116 was first enacted in 1890 “to suppress dangerous societies and register harmless benevolent associations”, and it was created to target unlawful secret societies. Any society with more than 10 members had to be registered, and any society deemed harmful could also be banned and dissolved. This was intended to break big societies up into smaller, more manageable groups.

Secret societies

Civil life in Singapore also had a strong relation to secret societies. While they were regarded as a severe menace to law, order, life, and property, these societies also gave Chinese immigrants a sense of familiarity in a foreign land. They offered protection and employment to their members. However, they were also organisations for crime and violence, and their total control over the coolie trade led to gross abuses, in which “youths were drugged, kidnapped or tricked” into coming to Singapore.

Due to the stricter regulations on registering civil societies, the number of societies exempted from registration decreased after 1925. Thereafter, the profile of the exempted societies changed dramatically. Societies established for social gatherings and recreation were no longer listed in the books. Instead, all the listed exempted societies that remained were for mutual assistance and charitable purposes.

Famous clubs, such as the Singapore Cricket Club and the Singapore Turf Club, still operate today. Why they are no longer listed, even as exempted societies, remains a mystery.

It is noteworthy that the societies exempted from the ordinance were largely Christian or Catholic. This suggests colonial biases towards the more European-centred societies.

Oddly enough, while there were a greater number of registered societies under Societies Ordinance No. 116, the membership of the exempted societies was far larger than that of the former.

The colonial government also made detailed records of the funding of these societies. Where these funds had come from is not clearly documented, but it is likely that they were accumulated donations and membership fees.

In the first half of the decade, societies with larger members tended to be better funded. Yet after 1926, even though there were more societies registered under the ordinance, these were significantly less well-funded, and all had roughly the same membership size.

This story is the third part of a series on the life and society in 1920s Singapore. The first story was “What was Singapore like 100 years ago? (Demographics)”, followed by “What was Singapore like 100 years ago? (Education)”. In the next, and final, chapter of this series, we will be looking into the public health landscape of colonial Singapore.

Story by Loh Pei Ying and James Lui
James Lui is a passionate and experienced historical researcher who has more than a decade of experience in the publishing industry. An established editor, his greatest wish is to marry his passion for history with his experience in publishing, and he is currently researching the British founding of Singapore in 1819.
Research by Gwyneth Cheng
Code by Siti Aishah
Design and illustrations by Amanda Teo and Griselda Gabriele
Background image courtesy of Singapore Cricket Club

Methodology

Data used in this article was taken and compiled from the Annual Departmental Reports, Colonial Office: Straits Settlements Sessional Papers (CO275/103-126), and the Blue Books, Colonial Office: Straits Settlements Miscellanea (CO277/72-82). It is important to note that data collection methods were not specified in the colonial records, and the numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt and room for error or bias in collection.


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