Influence and Leadership


Cultivating Relations with the Colonial Government


Memorials and Petitions


The British expected the Chinese merchants to be mediators between them and the Chinese community, having “virtues which the British could easily recognize, viz. wealth, education, influence, ability to speak English, and loyalty to the British Crown.” 66 Yong Ching Fatt, “Chinese Leadership in Nineteenth Century Singapore,” Journal of the Island Society 1 (1967): 1-18. On their part, the Chinese leadership communicated their views and made representations on behalf of the Chinese community’s interests through the submission of memorials and petitions to the colonial authorities. The variety of issues covered by these submissions reflected the sort of concerns and problems that affected the Chinese in Singapore of the time, though it should be clear that because of the strong class stratification and disparity within the Chinese community, the views advanced maybe better described as what the leadership elite thought was best for the community. They also had to choose their positions carefully to avoid offending the colonial authorities from whom they obtained legitimization for their privileged role and position.

One source of tension between the British and the Chinese was the former’s restrictions and suppression of certain Chinese festivals and public rites that were considered disturbances in town. On 23 Mar 1850, eleven prominent merchants including Tan Kim Seng, Seah Eu Chin, and Cheang Sam Teo petitioned Governor Butterworth for more sympathetic treatment of the Chinese community. Their petition made reference to an earlier petition submitted to the Marquis of Dalhousie during his visit to Singapore,

“…praying for liberty to observe the rites and customs appertaining to marriages and funerals and which are essential to their due celebration, the annual oblations to the manes of the deceased in the open air in front of each house, the oblations to the Fokien and Kwangtung temples and the ‘cho-hi’ [做戏] or plays in the enclosures in front in honor of the ‘Sin’ [仙] or deified mortals on their respective birthdays: the New Year festivities and worship extending over fifteen days, the annual procession and offerings to the queen of heaven of the people of the Junks from China and the beating of gongs on board the Chinese junks in the harbour on the arrival and departure of a junk.” 67 Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 81-82.

Their petition goes on to thank the Governor for making concessions to Chinese practices, allowing limited firing of firecrackers, and also for instructing against the seizing of queues (“thau-chang”) by police. 68 Policemen, when chasing down Chinese men, would grab them by their (conveniently) long queues, the hairstyle mandated by the Manchu rulers of Qing China. The dispute over Chinese customs was a drawn-out one. In 1855 there was still negotiation on-going, when some Chinese submitted a request to hold a procession in town, this being permitted by the authorities but with restrictions on the carrying of idols through streets. 69 SSR X26, no. 68, p. 63-64 (Mar 1855), National Archives of Singapore. The Chinese community also made use of the opportunity presented by the Marquis of Dalhousie’s 1850 visit to present other concerns to the authorities, such as the issue of the Pork Farm and Tax, which will be further discussed later.

The 1850s were a trying period for the relationship between the Chinese and the British, and one further incident relates this. In 1853, a rumour circulated that the Europeans had abandoned St. Andrew’s Church because of evil spirits there, and to appease the spirits, the Governor had ordered convict labourers to waylay people at night and kill them, to gather thirty human heads. This rumour was attributed to Chinese who “resented the employment by the Government of convict labour in public works and tried to get the convicts into trouble.” 70 Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 85. Hoo Ah Kay, Tan Chin Seng, Tan Beng Swee, Seah You Chin [i.e. Eu Chin], and Tan Kim Seng made a submission on 15 Aug 1853 informing the Governor of the state of panic among the community and petitioning him to take measures to allay their fears and restore the peace. 71 SSR W19, p.104, National Archives of Singapore.

What were the “head scares”?


St Andrew’s Cathedral today; this building was consecrated in 1862 and replaced the ill-fated one which was closed in 1852. Source: By Flaming Ferrari. (Own work.) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The rumour that heads of innocent victims were necessary to pacify malevolent spirits was not a new one in Singapore. Similar rumors had already circulated in the decades before. The villains in these stories were usually Indian convicts who had been transported to Singapore and other colonies to serve as a cheap source of labour. Perhaps these “head scares” were caused by a fear of these convicts by part of the general population. The original St Andrew’s Church was consecrated in 1838, but in 1852 it was declared unsafe after having been struck twice by lightning before. Ironically, the replacement, which is still standing today, was mostly built by convict labour.

In the end, the government enlisted the help of thirty Chinese merchants to draw up and sign a public notice pointing out the “benevolence of the English Government, and its anxiety to protect the lives of all persons under its care, even to the extent of offering rewards for the destruction of tigers which killed people.” 72 Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 86. The original signatories of the earlier submission, including Seah Eu Chin, were among the thirty who signed the later public notice. 73 Buckley, Anecdotal History, vol. 2, 576-577. This incident illustrates the role the Chinese merchants had in advocating the position of the government in situations where the community at large was distrustful of it and of Europeans in general. An earlier public notice put out by the Governor had not stopped the panic but instead caused more “Chinese placards of a very improper nature” 74 Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 85. to be put up. However, the willingness of the Chinese public to believe and trust in their self-appointed merchant-leaders was contingent on the former not seeing the latter as mere lackeys of the colonial government. By two decades later in the 1870s, the labourer class had been quite clearly alienated from its merchant leadership, as documented by Wang in his study of Chinese riots and strikes of the 19th century. 75 Wang, “Towkay and Worker Strikes”.

In at least one incident, though, the merchants got what they asked for, but were surprised by the consequences and then had to petition for a reversal. This was when eighty merchants led by Tan Kim Ching, Hoo Ah Kay, Seah Eu Chin, and Tan Beng Swee petitioned the Governor, Sir Harry Ord, to suppress “Hwa Hoey” gambling among the Chinese, because

“this sort of gambling has ruined many a family, being … extensively carried on. [It] has an irresistible allurement to silly poor natives, to rush headlong into it. And many of the offences committed in this place, such as thieving, committing of suicide, embezzlement, failures in business, and other evils, and the effects of this gaming.” 76 “Petition from certain Merchants and other inhabitants of Singapore, praying for the suppression of the Wha Whehs,” Straits Settlements Legislative Council Proceedings 1870, appendix 27, p.78, National Archives of Singapore.

Here we see the business and community leadership trying to claim a role of moral leadership as well. More pragmatically, however, such gambling probably had an economic cost to them, through worker inefficiency and petty crime, that they were trying to eliminate. Their petition was successful, for as a result of it, a new Bill for suppressing “Wha Whehs” and other illegal lotteries was introduced, and was passed as the Gaming Houses Ordinance of 1870. In the Legislative Council meeting of 3 Oct 1870 that discussed this issue, the Chief Justice brought up the “principle of presumption” in gambling suppression: since it was hard to gather evidence of illegal gambling because evidence was frequently destroyed while authorities tried to enter a gaming house, so it would be legally presumed that a house was a gaming house if it was fortified beyond reason and there was suspicion of gambling within. 77 “Suppression of Wha Whehs,” 119-120.

However, in May 1874, and once again in Oct 1875, owners of house property in Singapore, including Tan Quee Lan, Tan Seng Poh, Seah Eu Chin (who had signed the earlier petition), and even Jewish, Arab, and Indian merchants, petitioned the Governor for a change to the Gaming Houses Ordinance. They sought to reword section 15 of the Ordinance, which applied the abovementioned principle of presumption by considering suspicious fittings (e.g. ladders, additional bars on doors) to a house as sufficient to raise presumption that the house was being used for gambling. They feared prosecution because under the Ordinance, “it shall be presumed, until the contrary is shown, that the place is a gaming-house, that the same is so kept or used by the occupier thereof, and that it is so kept with the permission of the owner thereof.” However many house-owners leased out their properties and claimed to have little control over their tenants’ activities. 78 Straits Settlements Legislative Council Proceedings 1876, appendix 9, lxxiii-lxxiv, National Archives of Singapore. This situation was ironic because their appeal for the suppression of gambling was what led to the act being passed in the first place! Eventually, Thomas Braddell, the Attorney-General, proposed to amend the law by having police notify owners and occupiers when gambling was suspected, and for the presumption of section 15 to apply only after such notice had been served. 79 Straits Settlements Legislative Council Proceedings 1876 appendix 19, ccxx, National Archives of Singapore.

Previous | Back to Influence | Next (Keeping order)

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