Influence and Leadership


Cultivating Leadership Position within the Chinese Community


Chinese Leadership in the 19th Century


Chinese community leadership in early 19th century Singapore, according to the analysis of Yong Ching Fatt, was based primarily on two factors: wealth and bang 帮 affiliation. 2 Yong Ching Fatt, Journal of the Island Society 1 (1967): 1-18, and Chinese leadership and power in colonial Singapore (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1992). Wealth was necessary to carry out acts of charity that were the best means of generating favorable publicity, whereas one’s bang, which was the faction, regional or dialect group that one belonged to, was the power base upon which one built, and the constituency that one represented as a leader. Unlike later leaders like Lim Boon Keng, eloquence, literacy, and personal appeal were not as important in the 19th century. Leadership was not acquired by a democratic process: leaders were self-appointed based on their wealth and influence, and that influence usually arose as a consequence of wealth.


The British colonial authorities used community leaders or go-betweens to maintain control over the non-European communities in their settlements. 3 庄饮永 [David K.Y. Chng],“新加坡华人甲必丹”《亚洲文化》Yazhou wenhua (Asian Culture) 9 (1987): 21-25. This had previously been formalized as the “Kapitan system”, where the most prominent and powerful leader of each ethnic group in a settlement was appointed as the Kapitan for his community, and given certain judicial and representative rights. The formal system was done away with in 1826, but the use of ethnic representatives as intermediaries remained. This new informal policy complicated matters: leadership was a matter of tension between wealth and influence within the ethnic community on the one hand, and of recognition and empowerment by the colonial authorities on the other. The two were hard to balance, for the British feared the effects of Chinese secret societies and, ironically, were therefore distrustful of Chinese leaders who were too close to the Chinese community. 4 The British also felt that some Chinese who would have helped them were “cowed and rendered timid by the bold and unscrupulous.” Quoted from a letter by E.A. Blundell to the Secretary to the Government of India (dated Singapore 10 Jan 1857), Annual Reports on the Administration of the Straits Settlements (1856/57) p. vi, National Archives of Singapore. The Chinese population at large, however, would not trust those who were too closely identified with British interests; this might also have involved class resentment. 5 E.g. Wang Tai Peng, “Chinese Towkay and Worker Strikes in the Straits Settlements (1857-1900) with special relevance to Singapore,” Review of Southeast Asian Studies (Nanyang Quarterly) 11 (1981): 12-13, cites an incident during the 1872 riot where Whampoa’s (Hoo Ah Kay’s) bakery was stoned.


As a result, community leadership stratified into (i) the 'elite' leadership, who possessed great wealth, prominent public lives beyond the Chinese community, and recognition from the colonial administrators, and (ii) the local leadership, members of the towkay class (who may also have been involved in smaller enterprises e.g. shopkeepers, tradesmen) who headed huay kuan 会馆 huìguǎn and kongsi 公司 gōngsī (including secret societies), whose influence was within the Chinese community and often defined by clan or regional origin; the latter were largely ignored by the British authorities and the colonial European press. 6 E.g. Ghee Hin leaders named in David K.Y. Chng, Heroic Images of Ming Loyalists: a Study of the Spirit Tablets of the Ghee Hin Kongsi Leaders in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore Society of Asian Studies, 1999), 58-9. Some 'minor' towkays are named in Wang, “Towkay and Worker Strikes,” 21. Seah Eu Chin began as a member of the local leadership class, but the fortune that he made in pepper and gambier planting made him influential beyond the Chinese community and he also seen as a representative of his community by the British. Yet he still managed to hold on to his position within the community through his directorship of the Ngee Ann Kongsi, as well as charitable contributions to the Chongwenge School and the Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

Previous | Back to Influence | Next (Ngee Ann Kongsi)

Original content and web presentation Copyright (c) 2007-2016 Brandon Seah