Secret societies in Singapore

Secret societies in Singapore have been largely eradicated as a security issue in the city-state.[citation needed] However many smaller groups remain today which attempt to mimic societies of the past. The membership of these societies is largely adolescent. Despite fading from contemporary Singaporean society, these secret societies hold great relevance to Singapore's modern history. The founding of the city-state in 1819 saw the arrival of thousands of Chinese, thereby transplanting to Singapore social systems already present in China itself. Although the secret societies were commonly associated with violence, extortion and vice, they also played a part in building a social fabric for early Chinese migrants in Singapore. They were given leeway to control the Chinese populace due to the hands-off policy adopted by the British colonials, who hoped to create stability. History [edit]The first secret societies The secret societies formed in Singapore can be traced to mid-18th century Fujian province in China, with the local offshoots adopting an organisational structure mirroring the parent organization. The Hongmen, the first secret society to be established in Singapore, traced its origins to the Tiandihui in Fujian.[citation needed] [edit]Policing secret societies Despite their founding principles of mutual assistance and bonding, secret societies have, over time, come to conjure up impressions of violence and disorder. This association, perhaps exaggerated, has been encouraged by law enforcement officers since their formation in the colonial era. This perception was strengthened by several factors, including the inability of the colony's administration to control their activities, the branding of arrested society members as "criminal gangsters" by the media and an upsurge in violent crime in the 1960s sparked by a few society members. These factors came together during the same period in which the country was trying to gain a foothold fresh from having attained political independence it did not foresee. Several important riots in Malayan history had prompted the colonial government to respond umambiguosly. These riots include the Penang Riots of 1867 (which involved the Ghee Hin) and the Post Office Riots of 1876. The Societies Ordinance of 1889 was introduced as an attempt at suppression. [edit]Reasons for the decline In the early 19th century, secret societies posed a significant threat to law and order in Singapore. The early Chinese immigrants' clandestine activities and occasional turf wars proved too much of a problem for the British authorities. The British authorities were therefore obliged to curb the growing problem. They employed a number of methods, both on purpose and not, to check the growth of secret societies. This resulted in the decline of secret societies. [edit]Singapore becoming a Crown Colony The transfer of authority over Singapore from the Indian Government to the colonial office in London is considered by most to be the most important factor that helped the British authority check the growth of secret societies. Elevation of Singapore to a Crown Colony meant that London was willing to spend money and resources, and provide proper administrators that it was previously unprepared to do. Thus, Singapore was given a significantly larger priority and only with the transfer of power, could the authorities initiate the following changes. [edit]Legislation of strict laws The legislation of strict laws had an enormous effect in checking the growth of the secret societies. Two significant laws were passed in the 1860s. The first was the Peace Preservation Act (also known as the banishment act) of 1867, which gave the colonial government the power to detain and deport Chinese immigrants who were convicted of crime. This was a major weapon against the secret societies members as it created fear and deterred the immigrants from joining the secret societies. With this law, the power of the secret societies was significantly curtailed. In 1869, The Peace Preservation Act was amended, and the Dangerous Societies Suppression Ordinance was also enacted. This required that secret societies be registered. By requiring only the societies, and not the individual members, to be registered, the police attracted people to go to provide insight on the actual strength of the societies. 10 societies, 618 office bearers and 12371 members were registered in the first round of registrations. This Ordinace also accorded the colonial government the power to inspect any society that was deemed dangerous to public peace. This way the colonial government could monitor the activities of the secret societies closely. This prevented the Chinese immigrants from joining the secret societies, causing it to reduce in influence in Singapore in the 19th century.

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Updated in February 2013