Influence and Leadership

Cultivating Relations with the Colonial Government

Keeping Order during Civil Unrest




The 19th century was a time of frequent unrest in the Chinese community that manifested itself in the form of strikes and riots, frequently blamed on secret societies (such as the rivalry between the Ghee Hin and the Ghee Hock societies) but also class alienation and resentment against colonial rule. 80 Wang, “Towkay and Worker Strikes”. Members of the mercantile elite, such as Seah Eu Chin, were thus frequently called upon to help the authorities in quelling unrest among their “countrymen”, in their role as “community leaders”. Buckley wrote that “…years ago, when the Chinese Secret Societies were troublesome, he was the person who had most control over the headmen of them,” 81 Buckley, Anecdotal History, vol. 1, 151. and that “Eu Chin’s aid has been found of great use in controlling his countrymen….” 82 Buckley, Anecdotal History, vol. 2, 503.

The British government’s approach towards the Chinese population was primarily an attitude of control. It saw the community as a black box, the inner workings of which were murky – their fear of secret societies mirrored their fear of the unknown and reflecting their ignorance and uncertainties regarding the Chinese – and which had to be controlled from time to time when riots arose. Eu Chin and other merchants were surely aware of this and they also made use of the law to protect their interests, in contrast to the majority of the Chinese population which lived in a closed world of their own.

Most Chinese never availed themselves of the authorities both because they were unaware of their existence, and because community organisations like the secret societies met their needs (for social welfare, conflict mediation, etc.), though it is probable that the latter also cultivated their ignorance of the former. 83 R.N. Jackson, “Grasping the Nettle: First Successes in the Struggle to Govern the Chinese in Malaya,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 40, no. 1 (1967): 133. The merchants did not seek to change this state of affairs from within because it suited their interests (in labour arrangements and free trade, for example) and they could maintain their positions of leadership in the community so long as the British did not want to rule the Chinese directly.

Seah Eu Chin could wield considerable clout over the secret societies without himself being a member, because he was one of the major employers of coolie labour (on his plantations and businesses), which formed the bulk of the secret societies’ membership, and also because he was at the head of the lines of debt and credit that petty traders and tradesmen were beholden to (they comprised the class that the secret societies’ headmen were drawn from). 84 See the biographical details recorded in Chng, Heroic Images. In addition, his position at the head of the Ngee Ann Kongsi, which played an important role in administering religious rites and performing burials for the Teochew community, added to his authority.

In 1849, for instance, Seah Eu Chin was asked by the police to help settle secret society disturbances, and eventually “succeeded in effecting a treaty of peace, though probably not of friendship, amongst the belligerents, whom he [had] bound over in heavy penalties to keep the peace in time to come.” 85 Singapore Free Press, 1 Mar 1849. The writer of the article reporting this went on to recommend that he be appointed as a Justice of the Peace, which eventually did happen some years later.

During the large 1854 riots, he also helped the government, and was said to have gone with the Sepoys who escorted the food supplies to his plantations. 86 Lin, “Local Chinese Worthies,” 84. Here it is clear that Eu Chin, as would most merchants, had a vested interest in preventing unrest and riots, because these affected his own businesses and plantations too. Riots were bad for business because they closed shops; labourers would be rioting in the streets rather than working, or too scared to work in rural areas. Such unrest also diminished their position in the eyes of the British, who looked to them to help prevent these from occurring in the first place, by hurting the credibility of their promises of a peaceful and loyal Chinese community.

Reform eventually came on the initiative of the British who acted less from altruism than from their uneasiness at having such a large Chinese population in Singapore that they had little influence over. The British started out with ad-hoc methods such as recruiting known secret society heads as special constables, stationing them in police stations and forcing them to patrol streets with the police to restore order, but the turning point came when William Pickering was appointed as Interpreter and then Protector of Chinese. 87 R.N. Jackson, “Grasping the Nettle,” 134.

The Protectorate became a direct link between the colonial authorities and the Chinese, especially the labourers who had hitherto been in ignorance of the existence of the government, though some Chinese felt that the Protectorate actually hindered and not protected Chinese interests. 88 李钟珏 [Li Zhongjue], 《新加坡风土记》Xinjiapo fengtu ji (1895); reprinted in《新加坡古事记》Xinjiapo gushi ji, comp. and ed. 饶宗颐 (Rao Zongyi) (Hong Kong: 中华大学出版社, 1994), 163. The role of Eu Chin and the Chinese elite as intermediaries between the authorities and the Chinese community gradually wound down after the setting-up of the Protectorate, which institutionalized relations between the Government and the Chinese population in Singapore. Although his sons were also appointed as Justices of the Peace, these were sinecure posts compared to the more demanding appointment held by their father.

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