Singapore: A Crown Colony: 1867-1942

The History of Singapore. Editor: Jean E Abshire. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

Changing trade practices were a key factor in the administrative development of Singapore. While the English East India Company (EEIC) long controlled trade between Asia and Britain, the EEIC’s monopolistic control over that trade had ended, and the company had weakened and was relieved of administrative control of India in 1858. Even before its demise, merchants all over Asia were looking increasingly toward trading houses in London, rather than India, for their business partnerships. This was also facilitated by technological improvements in transportation, specifically the steamship, which allowed for faster communications and trade between Britain and British holdings in Asia. With the end of the EEIC, these stronger direct ties, and the long-term weaknesses of EEIC administration of the Straits Settlements, the British government took direct control of administering Singapore. British colonial authority transformed Singapore in many respects; it grew to greater significance and scale as a trade port, and it experienced major societal changes in the areas of social order and the creation of distinctive identities among the people.

The End of English East India Company Control

There were incremental steps in the transfer of control from Kolkata to London. The Straits Settlements had already been removed from control by the Bengal (India) Presidency in 1851 and had been placed under the authority of a governor-general. This pleased the merchant community, which hoped that better administration would help the colony further increase its thriving trade. However, few beneficial changes actually occurred. Instead, the EEIC’s charter was renewed in 1853, and a new legislative council (on which Singapore had no representation) was established. The Council sought to standardize the administration of the various EEIC holdings in the region; and this did not please the Singaporean merchants, who began demanding separation from the EEIC. Merchants in Singapore held public meetings and petition drives to voice various complaints they had with the administration of the legislative council, including not dealing effectively with piracy, the importation of convicts, slow judicial reforms, and the threat of port duties, which Singaporean merchants had long opposed. Poorly handled administrative reforms gave rise to rioting in 1857, which contributed to a climate of concern fed by civil unrest in India and China. The European merchants feared widespread regional opposition to British colonial control, such as it was. In response, they called a public meeting at which they decided to support a petition from the European merchants of Kolkata to the British parliament asking that the EEIC be dissolved, and further, they petitioned that the Straits Settlements be directly ruled by London. The petition, supported only by Singapore within the Straits Settlements, condemned the lack of representation in the ruling bodies of the Straits Settlements and claimed that India had disregarded the wishes and concerns of the Singaporean community. The merchants reiterated specific complaints about piracy, port dues, etc. that had been points of contention for some time.

The result was a 10-year process of negotiations for the transfer of administrative control from India to the British Colonial Office in London. The parliament reacted positively, so success seemed assured, but it did not prove easy to accomplish. Most problematic were financial issues. Estimates of revenue and expenses for administering the Straits Settlements varied widely, leading the British government to worry about the administrative costs. The India Office, having taken over administrative control following the dissolution of the EEIC, had difficulty disentangling the various Straits Settlements-related accounts, leading to further confusion about the financing. Port fees were added in 1863 when the Indian Stamp Act was applied to Singapore. The merchants opposed the fees because they increased the cost of trade, but the fees finally made Singapore self-supporting and alleviated many of the financial concerns of the Colonial Office.

Another major sticking point was how much military protection would be necessary and how costly that would be. Fort Canning had been built in 1860, but necessary staffing levels remained contentious. A shift in interest by the War Office ultimately helped pave the way for a solution. Britain’s main military base in East Asia was Hong Kong, but the Admiralty began to reconsider that venue and, in 1866, looked at Singapore as an alternative. The military question was settled with a limited garrison being stationed in Singapore, supported by British primacy on the seas. Finally, a bill was passed in the British parliament, and on April 1, 1867, the Straits Settlements became a crown colony.

Ongoing Growth of Trade

As was the pattern for much of Singapore’s history, the global economy drove many of the changes that occurred after Singapore became a crown colony, including its growth in trade, increase in population, and improvements in social order and stability. The most important developments leading to the dramatic expansion in trade were, first, the rise of the use of steamships and, second, the expansion of British imperial control into the interior of the Malay Peninsula and beyond the port colonies of the three parts of the Straits Settlements.

The Growth of the Steamship

Before the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the Strait of Melaka was geographically advantageous for any trade between East or Southeast Asia and India and potentially onward to Europe. For trade going directly from East or Southeast Asia to Europe, the Strait of Sunda between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java was a more direct route from Asia, around the Cape of Good Hope, and up the west coast of Africa to Europe. However, the opening of the Suez Canal made the Strait of Melaka the shortest route to travel via India to Europe. The distance saved was immense. The trip around the African continent between Mumbai, India, and Liverpool, England, was 11,560 nautical miles; via the Suez Canal, that trip was reduced to 5,777 nautical miles. The total trip from China to Europe was cut by between one-quarter and one-third with the opening of the Canal.

Hand in hand with and, indeed, promoted by the opening of the Canal, was the rise in steamships for global trade. The steamship was not completely new to Southeast Asia—the EEIC’s ship Diana had been used in fighting pirates in1837; however, as a primary vehicle for shipping, it grew rapidly in popularity with the opening of the Canal. First, the steamship was advantageous in that it did not rely on the annual monsoon winds that had blown ships between Singapore and China and Singapore and India for centuries, thus trade could be conducted year-round. Second, the old, wind-driven clipper ships were not able to use the Suez Canal easily. The cost of towing such a ship through the 100-mile-long Canal was prohibitive, and the Red Sea was difficult for the clipper ships to navigate. Thus, the use of the Suez Canal fell almost exclusively to steamships, which could make their way through the Canal and onward under their own power. The use of the Canal by steamships was so nearly exclusive that between December 1869 and April 1875, only 238 sailing ships traveled through the Canal out of 5,236 total ships.

The coal-powered steamships had one major disadvantage to wind-driven sailing ships: fuel. Ships either had to carry adequate fuel for the voyage, which for a long trip could take up too much valuable cargo space, or have access to regular and reliable refueling stations along the route. The long and relatively less developed coast of Africa was not convenient for such fuel depots, but with the shorter route through the Canal and the developed port system around the Indian Ocean and beyond, the steamships had access to those refueling stations.

Singapore experienced trade growth since its founding as a colony, but it had become somewhat less essential as a Maritime Silk Road trade port after the advent of the clipper ships, which were able to sail all the way from China to India without stopping. The rise of steamships, however, restored Singapore’s centrality to trade, as it became an important fueling port for the steamships trading with Europe, China, other parts of Asia, and even North America. By the end of the 1870s, clipper ships had disappeared from the China trade, and all the trade between Asia and Europe relied on coal-powered steamers. British merchants’ willingness to shift to the steamship helped assure the continuation of British supremacy in maritime trade and Singapore’s increasing role in that.

Expanding Colonization and Growth of Commodities

Trade also grew as colonizing activities increased in the region. The Spaniards increased their activity in the Philippines; the French consolidated control in Indochina (today Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos); the Dutch in Indonesia shifted their commercial policies to be more open to trade going through Singapore; and the British and other European colonial powers came to agreements, essentially forced on Thailand, that increased access to Thai trade. As a regional trading center, Singapore benefited from the activities of the European empires.

The other major development that increased Singapore’s trade was Britain’s expansion of control on the Malay Peninsula, accompanied by shifts in global commodity demands. The Malay Peninsula, other than the Straits Settlements, was in the hands of the local, traditional Malay nobility. However, increasingly the Malay interior and Southeast Asia in general, became the source, and Singapore the gathering and distribution point, for various commodities that were exceedingly valuable on the global market. Initially, tin mining was an area of sharp increase in the interior of the Malay Peninsula. Controlled and worked largely by the Chinese, the tin mines created demand for labor from China to deliver the tin that the canning industry, expanded greatly in the United States during the Civil War, needed for production. While the Chinese ran the operations, they did so largely with European financial backing. There was growing unrest in the Malay Peninsula, fed in part by tensions with the local rulers who had little authority over the newly arriving Chinese workers and in part by rivalries between the various Chinese secret societies whose members were the workers. This caused significant concern among business people from both Chinese and European communities in Singapore who wanted better government protection for their investments. Thus began the pressure on the British Colonial Office to increase its control over additional territory in the Malay Peninsula. These demands were, in fact, much more on the minds of local businesspeople by the time Singapore became a crown colony, since their earlier concerns about piracy and the like had largely been remedied. Protection of investments in Malaysia was now high on the agenda for action.

Initially, these demands were not well received by the Colonial Office, which was little interested in the further investment of resources that control of greater territory would require. The British position was made clear in an 1868 communication to the Straits Settlements’ Governor, Sir Henry St. George Ord, from the British Secretary of State, “The policy of her Majesty’s government in the Malayan peninsula is not one of intervention in native affairs…. If merchants or others penetrate disturbed and semi-barbarous independent states … they must not anticipate that the British government will intervene to enforce their contracts.”

The situation continued to worsen and, in 1873, Singapore-based Chinese merchants made a formal petition to the Colonial Office in London to increase British control on the Peninsula. Governor Ord supported the petition, and the government, motivated in part by concern that other colonial powers in the region may intervene if they did not, decided to act. They forced agreements on the local sultans of what became the Federated States of Malaya and the Unfederated States, initially providing advisors for the Malay rulers and then later consolidating greater direct control.

Ultimately, this proved a lucrative step for the British because within a short time technological advancements and increasing demand in the global commodities markets made the resources they gained from the Malay Peninsula more valuable than ever. While tin mining had been primarily controlled by the Chinese with European financial backing, the advent of steam dredging and other advances led to greater mechanization in mining. Mechanization left mining companies less reliant on Chinese labor, and thus with the Europeans’ ability to invest in greater mechanization, the Chinese lost much of their power in the tin mining industry.

The other transformational technological advances affecting the commodities from the Malay Peninsula were in the area of rubber. In 1844, American Charles Goodyear received a patent for the process of vulcanizing rubber. Vulcanization involved heating the raw rubber to remove the sulfur, which left the rubber viable for industrial use. It retained its elasticity and also became weatherproof so that it did not melt in the heat of summer or become brittle in the cold of winter. The demand for vulcanized rubber spiked precipitously with Henry Ford’s invention of the automobile assembly line because rubber was needed for the tires of the masses of automobiles that flooded the American and then world markets. In the 1890s, rubber was extensively planted on the Malay Peninsula, and by 1907, there was a commercial plantation in Singapore. The demand for Malay rubber, mostly exported from Singapore, grew from 104 tons in 1905 to 196,000 tons in 1914, which was more than half of the world’s rubber supply. Major corporations from Europe and North America, including Dunlop, Goodrich, Goodyear, and Firestone, invested in plantations and rubber production. Most of their operations were on the Malay Peninsula, but they based their operational headquarters primarily in Singapore, which was also the center for export. Oil was a third commodity that was shipped in significant volume through Singapore, coming from oilfields in nearby Sarawak, Sumatra, and Borneo in present-day Malaysia and Indonesia. The growing auto industry fed demand for petroleum, in addition to the rubber.

Singapore’s trade in these years shifted from a finished-goods-based market of porcelain, tea, fabrics, and weapons, as it was in the early years of the colony’s trade, to a commodities marketplace of raw rubber and unprocessed tin. There was very little industrialization in Singapore or in Malaysia. A few tin smelting and rubber processing factories were built, but mostly the commodities were shipped as raw materials. In the long run, this likely contributed to the low level of industrialization that Singapore faced decades later at its independence.

Shifting Trade Patterns amid the Growth

The overall increased volume of trade during this period was dramatic. The demands of the global market through the new technological developments of canning and automobiles increased the amount of trade but so too did international events. World War I led to further demand for rubber, tin, and petroleum, and Singapore benefited in trade from that as well. Singapore already ranked as the world’s seventh largest port in terms of tonnage in 1903. Singapore’s trade rose from $11.6 million in 1824 to $147.4 million in 1883 to $975.7 million in 1923 and reached a high in 1926 when the value of trade reached $1.867 billion. In the mid-1920s, rubber comprised just over half of the exports from the Malay Peninsula, and tin comprised another 17.4 percent. The orientation of trade also shifted with the European markets becoming secondary to North American markets. From 1915 onward, except during the worst of the Great Depression, more than 50 percent of Singapore’s trade with western countries went to North America. The nature of Singapore’s position as an entrepôt left it especially vulnerable to shifts in global demand. Thus, the worldwide Great Depression that began in 1929 and continued into the 1930s deeply and negatively affected Singapore’s trade. Demand for commodities fell as production and demand for finished goods fell. In turn, the prices for commodities fell. For example, the cost of rubber on the London markets dropped by 75 percent during the Depression. The value of tin faced a similar drop. By 1933, the value of Singapore’s trade had declined to $512.8 million, and it took until the 1950s to recover to the peak of the 1920s.

While trade prospered with some fluctuations during the decades after the Colonial Office took control, structural changes in the economy led to a number of other significant developments in Singapore’s globalized economy. A significant shift was a move away from the simple transshipment trade activity. The actors remained constant, but their activities changed in response to new challenges and opportunities. For the European community, the increasing mechanization of tin and the growth of the rubber industry, worked primarily by low-cost laborers from India, left them in a stronger position relative to the Chinese merchant community who no longer dominated in terms of providing inexpensive labor from China and running mining operations. This was a shift from past economic relationships between the two groups.

Since the beginning of British trade in Singapore, British agency houses dominated local trade and then expanded into global trade, acting as intermediaries between the global markets and Southeast Asian goods. Initially, they provided capital to Chinese intermediaries by giving them European goods on credit. This served as capital for the Chinese who, possessing both language skills and networks, then traded them for local or Chinese goods that then went back to the British creditors. The agency houses initially simply received a commission on these trade deals. This pattern of bartered trade continued into the twentieth century. With time and growth in prominence and wealth, however, the agency houses expanded their activities beyond simple trade. They began offering shipping services, banking services, shipping insurance, and commercial information. Major financial organizations of today, such as Barclay’s Bank or Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSB) have roots in these activities of the agency houses of Singapore. The agency houses also undertook major business projects, such as the creation of Tanjong Pagar Dock Company, which expanded Singapore’s port facilities in the 1870s, or the Straits Steamship Company, created in 1890 to break the monopoly of European-based shipping companies servicing Singapore’s shipping needs. Historian Carl Trocki described the agency houses as, “… the key ‘agents of change’ that created the empire and forged the global economy.”

The Chinese merchant community also underwent significant changes during this time of shifting economic activities. They mostly retained their role as middlemen for trading and amassed considerable wealth, yet economic activity did not remain constant for them. By the time Singapore became a crown colony, many Chinese merchants, rather than sending their money back to family in China, began investing their considerable wealth in business endeavors in Singapore. This included, in particular, plantations in the rural areas of Singapore where pepper and gambier, used for tanning leather, were cultivated together. Unskilled Chinese laborers, imported to Singapore through Chinese agents, worked the production. In trade, the Chinese merchants developed extensive networks throughout Southeast Asia that became the basis for later commercial operations. Their wealth and prominence was significant, especially given the number of Chinese people in Singapore relative to a small number of Europeans, whose power in governance and economics was somewhat diluted by how few there were. In fact, Rudyard Kipling noted upon visiting Singapore, “England is by the uninformed supposed to own the island.”

However, several factors eventually motivated wealthy Chinese businesspeople to broaden the scope of their business activities. Shifts in the network of unskilled Chinese labor supply, changes in production activities in the western-controlled Malay tin mines, a decline in the gambier and pepper plantations in Singapore proper, and finally even the onset of the Great Depression led to the changes. The development of a Chinese banking system was among the most significant of the new undertakings, and some of these institutions form the basis for major Singaporean banks today, like the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC Bank).

Finally, it is worth noting that Singapore’s economy was repeatedly buffeted by economic ups and downs during this period. This too shaped economic behaviors and may have driven the creation of new or expanded financial institutions beyond investments in trade or land. As integrated into the global economy as Singapore was, its fortunes were tied to economic cycles. For example, the World War I era was a boom time for the commodities exports, so Singapore fared very well. However, after the war, as the global economy reoriented to peacetime, there was a downturn, and commodity prices fell. From February to December 1920, rubber prices fell from one dollar and 15 cents to 30 cents per pound. Tin prices dropped by more than 60 percent during the same period. Trade rebounded through the 1920s, driven mostly by increased automobile demand, yet fell off again during the Great Depression. Overall commodity prices had a downward trend due in large part to increasing, and sometimes over, supply. In the early part of the century, the price of rubber from the Peninsula averaged 68 British pence per pound. From 1910 to 1919, the average price was down to 44 pence per pound, despite wartime demand. In the 1920s, the average price of rubber was 17 pence per pound, and during the 1930s it was down to a mere 6 pence per pound average.

There were various attempts to stabilize the economy. The administration enacted currency reform as early as 1903, pegging the value of the new Straits dollar to the British pound, which helped make currency values less volatile and increased economic stability. In dealing with commodity price fluctuations, the government implemented several protectionist trade policies during the Depression years, including international agreements to limit rubber and tin production to keep prices high. Furthermore, the British government introduced imperial preference tariffs that were designed to protect British markets from foreign goods. The tariff scheme was structured so that goods produced in Britain received the most protection, since they were not subject to tariffs, which raised the cost of a product. Goods produced in the British Empire, including Singapore and Malaysia, had tariffs placed on them but at a lower rate than goods produced outside the Empire; thus goods imported to Britain via Singapore were more expensive to British consumers than goods produced at home but were less expensive than goods produced outside of British control, such as rubber from Dutch-held Indonesia.

Societal Changes in a Globalized Economy

Such significant shifts in the economic activity of Singapore led to corresponding shifts in society. One of the most notable was the steadily increasing levels of immigration that occurred during Singapore’s early years as a crown colony. The increased British control of the Malay Peninsula combined with the increased commodity demands made Singapore, as the gateway to the Malay Peninsula, an attractive destination for labor migration. Factors as varied as poverty, civil unrest (particularly in China), natural disasters, exploitation by landlords, and overpopulation in rural areas encouraged workers by the thousands to leave their home countries, especially China and India. In 1871, Singapore had a population of 97,111 of which almost 54,600 were Chinese, 26,000 were Malay, 11,600 were Indian, and only 1946 were European. By 1931, the total population had grown to 557,745, of which there were 418,600 Chinese, 65,000 Malays, 50,800 Indians, and 8,100 Europeans.

While many immigrants remained in Singapore, most of them continued onward to the Malay Peninsula or sometimes present-day Indonesia. In the vast majority of cases, these workers anticipated returning home after earning some money. However, for a variety of reasons, many found it difficult to save the money they had hoped, and they remained.

Labor Migration

Indians came in larger numbers once the rubber industry developed on the Malay Peninsula. There were several programs to import Indian workers that were at least somewhat regulated by Britain’s India Office. Until about 1900 the chief means by which Indian workers came to Singapore and onward was through indenture contracts. There were formal recruiters who assisted in the process, and workers had to agree to pay back from their wages the cost of their travel and any recruitment costs. The average contract was for one to three years; however, since wages were so low, workers often stayed indentured longer. If the contract was broken, it was considered a criminal offense. With time, the kangani system developed. A kangani was a well-known Indian laborer who would contract with, supervise, and discipline workers and would act as an intermediary between plantation owners and the laborers. The kangani would not, however, be responsible for the workers’ living or eating arrangements. The shift between indentured and kangani-assisted migration happened toward the end of the nineteenth century, with the majority of migrant Indians coming through the kangani system by 1905. This system reached its peak from 1910–1919 when 50,000 to 80,000 Indian workers came each year. While much of this Indian labor ultimately went to the Malay Peninsula, by late in the 1800s, increasing numbers of Indian immigrants remained in Singapore. Some were merchants or clerks, but many also worked in hard labor because the Indian community had a near monopoly on transportation-related work: dockworkers, river boatmen, haulers, and the like. What was of long-lasting social significance in the kangani system was that women eventually became part of the immigrant labor force, resulting in family unification, permanent settlement, and locally born children. With time, this helped address the gender imbalance within the Indian community in Malaysia and Singapore, which may have increased social stability.

For the Chinese community, the numbers were greater, although the means of recruiting migrant workers bore some similarities to the pre-kangani Indian system. Until 1893, emigration from China was officially banned. It is evident that the ban was not enforced, but it hindered formal labor recruitment programs with government involvement such as those that existed in India. In some cases, recruiters tapping into kinship or hometown networks arranged transit, with the costs of the transportation and related expenses being backed by family or friends. In most cases, however, an indenture approach was used. Labor brokers, agencies, or ship captains initially paid a person’s expenses for going to Singapore. Local employers then paid back the transit expenses on the workers’ behalf, and workers became indentured to Singaporean Chinese businesspeople until such time as their debt (often inflated) could be paid off. Thousands of people came to Singapore using this system.

Social Problems

The indenture approach for poor, unskilled immigrants was often an abusive system associated with many social ills. Most scholars point to the fact that almost all of these Chinese immigrants were men, creating a nearly all-male society, as a factor that sharply exacerbated the social problems of the time. These social problems included poor labor conditions, high levels of opium use, prostitution, and the activities of Chinese secret societies. However, while various social ills were widespread, significant progress was made, especially in the 1900s, toward lessening the problems as part of the social changes that occurred.

Poor Labor Conditions

The indenture contracts left immigrant workers virtual slaves. Not only did they owe their employer for their passage from China and recruitment costs, but they often lived in overpriced, overcrowded, employer-owned, low-quality housing that, coupled with other living expenses, left them in abject poverty. The majority of workers came to Singapore with the intention of returning home, but very few were actually able to save enough money to do so. A government study done in 1875 confirmed the poor conditions for so many of Singapore’s workers and, in 1877, a new government office was formed, the Chinese Protectorate. There was little opposition to this among economic leaders because it was widely known how bad the situation was for most unskilled workers. The first person to hold the position of Protector was William Pickering, the first European official able to speak several of the Chinese dialects common in Singapore. He first turned his attention toward the abuses of the indenture system by regulating the recruitment agencies that brought workers to Singapore. The next step was to legalize the boarding of ships by Protectorate staff so that workers whose passage had been paid could be released, and those who had to pay for their passage could be taken directly to government offices where their indenture contracts could be officially registered with the Protectorate. This did not end labor abuses completely, but it was a step toward improving the situation for workers. With time, other positive developments were implemented. In 1914, indentured labor from China was banned; and in the 1920s, a series of new labor laws further improved workers’ positions, such as the right to bring wage disputes to the Protectorate without cost to the worker. However, the unskilled workers in Singapore continued to face extremely high levels of poverty for all their hard work as rickshaw pullers, stevedores, coal haulers, boatmen, and other menial jobs.


What exacerbated the poor living conditions of many poor and unskilled workers was opium use. Opium used was blamed for much illness and mortality, but discouraging its use was problematic. The two most powerful groups in Singaporean society, the Europeans and wealthy Chinese merchants, both benefited considerably from the sale of opium. From the earliest decades of the colony, revenue from opium sales and rent (regular payments to the government from those selling the opium) provided a significant portion of the government’s funds—up to 60 percent. Wealthy Chinese businesspeople, often in syndicates, owned the opium-selling revenue farms that the government auctioned off to them and benefited from opium sales as well. Thus, incentives were minimal for limiting opium use. Estimates based on anecdotal evidence suggest that as many as 60 to 70 percent of unskilled, and even skilled, Chinese workers were steady opium users, if not addicts. The high levels of opium use worsened the poverty and living conditions of many of the poor workers, in particular. The meager funds they had left after paying their indenture payments, housing fees, and food costs, were often spent on opium to help dull the physical and psychological suffering resulting from hard, physical labor far from home and family, in poor working and living conditions. Between the government’s interest in opium profits and the interconnected interests of the wealthy Chinese community who owned the labor contracts of the workers in their businesses who smoked their opium, there was little impetus for change.

In the early decades of the 1900s, however, attitudes began shifting, despite the economic incentives against it. Increasingly, wealthy Singaporeans, especially the Chinese born in the Straits Settlements, sent their sons to Europe for university education. When these young professionals started returning in meaningful numbers, their changed attitudes began shaping Singaporean society. While still holding true to their ethnic identities, they nevertheless were shaped by the cultural norms they encountered in Europe, including an opposition to opium, which had been outlawed in Britain in 1868 when the Pharmacy Act prohibited its sale to all but licensed pharmacists. There was also grassroots pressure in Britain against the Asian-targeted opium trade as part of the larger temperance movement. The Singapore Anti-Opium Society was formed in 1906; and in 1907, due to Colonial Office insistence, the Singaporean administration convened a commission to examine the issue. The commission’s findings indicated that opium use was a harmless habit among the rich but was more injurious to the poor because they were only able to afford the dregs of used opium, and it was only a few people, mostly rickshaw pullers, who were actually addicted. As a compromise between the competing pressures of financial incentives versus physical harm, the government took control of opium production in Singapore in 1910. The government manufactured and sold quality opium and then purchased and destroyed the opium waste. This limited the worst of the abuses, and the percentage of government revenue from opium sales fell gradually. By 1934, only 25 percent of revenue came from opium, although the government continued to produce it until World War II.


Another social ill, linked to the poverty of the unskilled workers and the scarcity of women in Singapore, was prostitution. For many workers, extra funds that were not spent on living expenses, indenture payments, or opium were spent on prostitutes. As an illustration of the gender imbalance that fed the problem, in 1884, there were 60,000 Chinese men in Singapore and only 6,600 Chinese women, of which it was estimated that at least 2,000 were prostitutes. In the late 1870s, it was estimated that 80 percent of the females coming to Singapore from China were sold into prostitution. Many had not come voluntarily; some were kidnapped, some were tricked, and others were sold by their families. The Chinese Protectorate did not attempt to stop prostitution but instead sought to prevent women and girls from being forced into prostitution and otherwise abused. The Protectorate was able to mandate the registration of brothels and prostitutes to help regulate the trade. An Office to Protect Virtue was also formed and its staff worked with advisors from the Chinese community to help Chinese women and girls who were unwillingly involved in prostitution. As with increasing social order in other areas, there were improvements with time. In 1914, the sale of women and girls for prostitution was banned; in 1927, the importation of women and girls for prostitution was banned; and then finally in 1930, brothels were banned, although prostitution remained legal. A balancing of the gender ratio may have helped the situation somewhat. The number of women in the Chinese community increased steadily from 1880 onward; increases in female Chinese migration to Singapore varied depending on dialect group, but by the 1930s, there were higher levels of female migration, and the community gained more social stability. In terms of overall population in Singapore, by 1931 there were 205,600 women and 352,000 men. This was still not balanced, but it was much closer than it had been since the colony was founded.

Secret Societies

Finally, there were important changes relating to the Chinese secret societies. The benefits of the secret societies, specifically assistance and support for new immigrants, did not outweigh the problems associated with the groups. There were regular waves of rioting by the societies that resulted in social instability. Moreover, with the increased Chinese immigration to work in the tin mines in Malaysia, almost all of which passed through Singapore, there was a sharp increase in professional thugs (samseng) hired to act as enforcers in rougher areas. These thugs were affiliated with the secret societies, which were involved with supplying labor. There were even organized kidnappings assisted by the samseng to supply workers for the areas, such as Sumatra, where the working conditions were so poor that few workers would go voluntarily. With more secret society rioting in 1872, the government saw the need to address this problem and, after discussing different approaches, including a law to regulate Chinese immigration (much opposed by the community who wanted to continue the policy of free immigration along with free trade), the government turned over the problem to the Chinese Protectorate.

The Protectorate sought to take over some of the beneficial roles in the community that the secret societies provided, thus reducing their value to the Chinese community, in particular adjudicating financial and domestic disagreements. The Protectorate also attempted to convert some of the secret society leadership into government workers, which would help give the government a bigger presence in the Chinese community. Ultimately, the Protectorate’s greatest success came through cutting the interconnections between the secret societies with the opium revenue farms, the supply of labor for plantations, and smuggling. This was done, in part, by the government opening bidding on the opium revenue farms to entrepreneurs from outside Singapore, which introduced more competition and helped break the secret society control of this lucrative industry. When new and different economic opportunities opened to the Chinese community, power within the community shifted to a different set of Chinese organizations: bangs or groups based on dialect group and region of origin in China. The bangs were led by the wealthy elites from each dialect group, but the bangs also incorporated poorer community members; the leaders were recognized by the government as community representatives.

With the secret societies in decline, it was easier for the government to pass legislation that banned the secret societies. Initially the Protectorate did not wish to go as far as a ban, but Governor Cecil Clementi-Smith, with the support of the Colonial Office, managed to gain adequate public support and pushed it through. The ban did not completely eradicate the secret societies. During economic downswings, the secret societies thrived, but their activities were, and remained, severely reduced from their heyday when they were connected to the lucrative business of opium and labor. Ultimately, they were left to engage in gambling, prostitution, minor smuggling, protection rackets, and other forms of extortion. However, they were never again connected closely to the power holders in Singaporean Chinese society, and the recurrent rioting that had long-plagued Singapore virtually ended.

Overall, during this time period major societal transformations resulted in a larger population and a more orderly society. Policing became more efficient; the Protectorate was created. Many of the changes, for example measures to reduce opium addiction and provide protection for women and girls against involuntary prostitution, were clearly to the social good. What is evident, however, is the demise of a hands-off approach to governance that characterized the early decades of British authority in Singapore and a shift toward governance with a heavier, more controlling hand.

The Development of Group Identity

Identities, or how people think of themselves, often matter little until something important is at stake. What transpired in Singapore in the later part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the beginning of important definitions of social group identities. Initially in Singapore, when most everyone considered themselves temporary residents who would work for a time and then return home, advantages or disadvantages relating to identities could perhaps be more easily dismissed, but when people began establishing themselves as long-term or permanent inhabitants of Singapore, some of those perceptions changed. The process of identity formation and its resulting political significance were wrought by a variety of forces. Globalization, which had shaped so much in Singapore, likewise affected identities. Other developments that formed identities were more internal to society and the government that administered it.

Even without these forces, the foundations for each identity were complex. Within the Chinese community, there were the five major dialect and regional groups that corresponded to the bangs; there were class divisions and whether one was born in the Straits Settlements (Straits-Chinese) or born in China. In the Indian community, there were likewise many divisions, the most significant being wealth and area of origin in India, which also shaped language, although the majority spoke Tamil. Even the indigenous people, the Malays, were more diverse than one might expect. The Malay cultural space is much larger than simply the Malay Peninsula and nearby islands like Singapore; it also includes the Indonesian archipelago and beyond. The cultural patterns across the region bore important similarities, including considerable trade and intermingling, thus in the Malay cultural space, the question of who was an insider and who was not was unclear. Non-Malays, particularly the British, lumped together groups like the Bugis and others from Indonesia, although there were some differences among groups. Despite all these divisions within Singapore’s ethnic communities, this period also saw the foundations for a Singaporean identity that provided connectivity across the ethnic communal lines, at least for some members of society.

Globalization and Identity

The globalization-related forces that helped shape Singaporeans’ identities were largely twofold. First, there were influences from Europe acting on the Asian communities, initially mainly the Chinese community, through Straits-born Asians who sought higher education in Britain. While there, they were influenced by European attitudes and then returned to become prominent leaders in their communities, especially the Straits-Chinese and Indian communities. As mentioned above, these individuals led the way in the anti-opium movement, but they also became advocates for better local education. This experience of European education also strongly contributed to a distinctive Straits-Chinese identity that differed from the identity of immigrant Chinese Singaporeans, who remained more strongly oriented toward China.

The other main globalization-related force working on identities was ideological in nature. While Singaporean Indians were not spurred to anti-British or anticolonial action, they were nevertheless aware of the Indian Independence Movement and Mahatma Gandhi’s opposition to policies of racial exclusion and oppression. These racist policies were also in place in other British colonies, including Singapore, and the ideology of the Indian Independence Movement heightened the awareness of Singaporean Indians to their group status within a discriminatory system.

While globalization of ideology made Indians aware, it mobilized Chinese Singaporeans. China was undergoing major changes in the early decades of the twentieth century, including an anti-imperial struggle that brought an end to two millennia of imperial dynasties. The Nationalists (Guomindang) under Sun Yat-sen took control for a time after imperial rule was abolished but struggled for power, and there was soon a competition for leadership between two ideological groups, the Communists and the Guomindang. Both of these ideological movements targeted “overseas Chinese” or ethnic Chinese communities outside of China, including those in Singapore, seeking financial and other support.

The political developments and appeals were of great interest to immigrant Chinese in Singapore, who, despite having been in Singapore for a long time, still felt close cultural and emotional ties to home. Political activism in response to events relating to China became common. In 1905, after the United States passed the Exclusion Act against Chinese immigration, many Singaporean Chinese boycotted imports from the United States. A similar boycott against Japanese goods occurred in 1908 after a dispute arose between Japan and China. Leaders in China encouraged Chinese nationalism that included overseas Chinese communities. They encouraged the building of schools, and Singaporean Chinese fell in line with the establishment of additional schools in which Chinese was the language of instruction. Many of these schools used materials imported from China, which helped promote the nationalist message. The Chinese government also advocated the use of standard Mandarin Chinese, the official language of China, as the language of instruction, rather than the varied dialects commonly used within the Chinese community. By 1935, Mandarin Chinese was adopted by all Chinese-medium schools in Singapore. The orientation toward China was strengthened further in the immigrant community by the fact that all of those who could afford it sent their children, products of the Chinese-medium schools, to college in China. This helped spread the Chinese ideologies on the students’ return and maintained strong ties into the next generation between China and the overseas immigrant Chinese and their sons.

The schools promoted Chinese nationalism not only through the curricular materials from China but also through a new type of Chinese immigrant. For the first time, intellectuals immigrated to Singapore to flee the ideological struggle taking place and found jobs through which they could spread Chinese viewpoints. Many became teachers in the Chinese-medium schools, some became journalists, and others worked as labor union organizers. This became a concern for the British administration after intense anti-Japanese sentiments developed in Singapore in the 1920s, coinciding with heightened conflict between China and Japan, and led to more civil unrest. Japanese immigrants to Singapore were specifically targeted for harassment. Viewing the schools as a big part of the problem, the government placed restrictions on school materials from China. The government also censored the Chinese-language press, banned the local branch of the Guomindang, and made direct efforts against the spread of ideas from the Chinese Communist Party. These policies angered the Chinese community, because they were seen as an identity-related assault on the community itself.

The common focus on China’s political events, the introduction of Mandarin Chinese as the universal language of instruction in Chinese-medium schools, and the common alienation caused by the response of the government to the spread of ideologies from China led to greater cohesion within the Chinese immigrant community. The different bangs were still present, but ties that formed the basis of a communal identity began to surface. This uniting of interest was also expressed in the business sphere where the most influential businessmen of the immigrant Chinese community founded the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce in 1906 after they were no longer welcome in the European-dominated Singapore Chamber of Commerce.

These new-found connections across the bangs, however, did not extend to the Straits-Chinese. Most Straits-Chinese were not interested in the internal affairs of China. In addition, they were likely to have been educated in English-medium schools, which contributed to a significant division between Straits-born Chinese and immigrant Chinese. Instead of focusing on China’s politics, they were more interested in social and educational issues in Singapore. They organized the Social Purity Union, the Boy Scouts, and the Singapore Volunteers. They even had their own business association, the Straits-Chinese British Association, an alternative to the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce of the immigrant Chinese community.

The Singaporean Malay community also had some experience with ideological globalization that also helped crystallize their identity. Considering again that the Malay cultural space extends across Indonesia, some Singaporean Malays were taken with calls for an Indonesian nation in what was still the Dutch East Indies. Others found resonance in pan-Islamic movements. Neither of these had significant effects on the Malay community as a whole; instead, the Malay identity was more influenced by various internal events that also shaped the other communal identities.

Internal Factors and Identity

In terms of internal factors encouraging identity development, education proved to be a point of ongoing contention and a rallying point. Education was not provided in any sort of coherent way; there were multiple school systems, supported financially by different entities, with varying educational content. Given the lack of a cohesive approach, the quality of education differed greatly. The government changed its policies on subsidizing schools time and again, depending the economic climate or political atmosphere. Basic education tended to receive government support more consistently than secondary education, and Malay- and English-medium schools tended to be funded more consistently than schools where the teaching was provided in Chinese or Tamil. Government financial assistance, however, was not necessarily an indicator of quality of education, because the Malay-medium schools were of notoriously poor quality. Malays were seen as being destined to do menial tasks, so there was little attention paid to providing a good education. Tamil-medium schools were similar. Chinese-medium schools, however, developed along a very different trajectory. Many wealthy members of the Chinese community wanted to be seen as philanthropists, so in addition to helping fund hospitals and other public works, they also funded schools for members of their particular dialect groups. The schools had mixed outcomes, although overall, they were better than Malay or Tamil schools. English-medium schools tended to be good, partly because the government had an interest in educating elite members of the local communities to a level where they could serve as clerks or similar jobs where English was needed.

The greatest advantage fell to those in English-medium schools, most frequently attended by wealthy Chinese, particularly Straits-Chinese. As access to those schools was limited by wealth and other factors, this approach to education heightened class, ethnic, culture, and language differences between the communities, and raised people’s consciousness of those differences and the reasons for them. The Malays, in particular, had limited opportunities for social mobility; most were illiterate or were educated minimally in the poor Malay schools. In their efforts at commerce, they came head to head with tough Chinese competition and typically did not fare well. These problems gave much greater significance to being Malay and what made it distinctive among the various cultures of Singapore: the language and religion.

The Malay community, as indigenous inhabitants, had an identity of “sons of the soil;” this is perhaps also because they, more than the other communities, managed to retain a fairly traditional lifestyle outside of the urban area and thus had concerns about maintaining their group’s claim to the land. Moreover, by the 1920s, the Malays felt further threatened by the growing influence of the Straits-Chinese. In 1926, the first Malay political organization was created. The Singapore Malay Union sought to protect Malay interests relative to the Chinese community, but of greatest concern were the problems relating to the poor quality of Malay education. This group became an important voice for the interests of the Malay identity group.

Various policies implemented by the government to increase social order also fed the distinctions between groups in Singaporean society. Some of the policies of the decreasingly hands-off administration may have appeared beneficial on the surface, and indeed were likely intended as such but, in fact, indicated an increasing disconnect between the small number of elite Europeans who governed Singapore and the masses of Asians who comprised the population. There were some initiatives to connect the government more closely to the communities; for example, the administration created a Chinese Advisory Board to provide a formal tie between the government and the largest of Singapore’s ethnic communities. However, there were many policies that gave the Asians of Singapore a different outlook.

In the 1870s the British administration decided to address the densely constructed Asian neighborhoods packed with “shophouses” that were usually three stories high, were backed up onto one another with no rear access, and were next to one another with little or no space in between. They also had covered sidewalks at the front where retail, storage, or even living space spilled out into the sidewalks and streets. The government wanted to improve sanitation by installing sewer and drainage systems, which helped with severe public health problems like the continuous outbreaks of cholera. In order to do this and to enhance efforts to reduce crime, the government decided to open up these areas that were both people’s homes and businesses, which meant removing entire buildings. To the Asian population, this seemed to be an assault on their property and living space.

To make matters worse, in the interest of improving traffic flow for larger vehicles, the government also sought to ban sidewalk space for storage or commercial use. This appeared as a further attack on property and even on aspects of people’s daily lives and financial well-being, because many would buy their food and other basic provisions from street sellers (known as hawkers) who operated on the sidewalks and earned their income through those street sales. This gave rise to the Verandah Riots as people sought to defend their right to use the sidewalks. The government used Chinese community leaders to try to explain its intent, but these policies nevertheless gave rise to tensions and were an indicator of a serious division between the Europeans charged with running Singapore and the Asian masses who lived there.

The government’s actions into the 1920s were also seen as disruptive and even blatantly discriminatory as it sought to address other political concerns. Again, the intervention in Chinese-medium schools to restrict the spread of Chinese nationalism and the censorship of the Chinese-language press were poorly received in the Chinese community. To make it worse, as the Great Depression negatively affected Singapore’s economy, the government introduced, for the first time, restrictions, in the form of a quota system, on immigration of unskilled male workers, which gravely affected Chinese immigration. In 1930, 242,000 Chinese immigrants were allowed; in 1931 that number dropped to less than 28,000, and in 1931, the quotas for Chinese immigrants were reduced even more. In 1933, the Aliens Ordinance, which combined quotas with fees that immigrants had to pay on arrival in Singapore, replaced the existing quota system. Since this law did not apply to British subjects, it left not only Europeans but also Indians untouched and was thus clearly targeted against Chinese immigrants. The Chinese saw the immigration restrictions as plainly discriminatory. These immigration policies, combined with other policies viewed as offensive, led to an unprecedented increase in racial tensions.

The resentment against these laws and policies was further fed by blatant racism on the part of the British. In part it was an issue of general attitude. British colonizers were concerned with keeping up appearances to underscore their perceived superiority to the Asian communities and, thus, were never willing to be seen doing work that could be considered menial. However, as more Asians from Singapore were educated in Britain and saw the poor living and working conditions of many Britons, they gained perspectives on the realities of British and European society and realized that Caucasians were not inherently superior.

This new awareness coincided with increasingly discriminatory policies on important issues like employment. The British practiced policies of racial exclusion in Singapore like in other parts of the British Empire. Educated Asians could gain employment in the Civil Service, the Medical Service, and the Legal Service, but they could not gain promotion out of the lowest levels. With their British educations, they worked in professional positions with Britons who were sometimes less qualified or less capable than they were, but the Asians could not be promoted. This happened even in the face of colonial administrators who stayed in Singapore for shorter stints and thus had less familiarity with the community, and with fewer such administrators knowing local languages. Compounding these barriers to promotion were dual pay scales in which Europeans received higher pay than Asians for comparable work. These European-educated Singaporeans had learned the English language, and they had been socialized to dress like Europeans and enjoy European sports and activities, which were part of the British attempt to “civilize” the Asian communities. However, just as they were becoming more Europeanized, they were denied most of the advantages of being European. With steamships making travel easier, more Europeans were settling in Singapore; and the social schism between Europeans and Asians grew wider with Europeans taking refuge in their exclusionary social organizations that complemented the insurmountable barriers against advancement in the professional sphere. Racism was pervasive and contributed to the distinctive communal identities that were already taking shape.

The conflict between European and Asian attitudes had an unintended consequence: They provided a common perspective for the different Asian communities. This also developed in part due to the English-medium schools, which the best students from each of the three Asian communities could attend. This gave this group of elites a common experience, in addition to a common language (English), which bound them together psychologically. It also created a class-based gap between the English-educated Asian elites from each of the communities, and those without wealth or education, but it formed an important sense of cohesion and a basis for a broader common identity—not just Chinese, Indian, or Malay but a beginning sense of being Singaporean that would be an important connection in years to come.

What Did Not Happen: Defenses for Singapore

Britain’s sole interest in Singapore from the beginning of the colonial period was as an international trade center and a source of revenue. This never really wavered. When the Crown took over control of the Straits Settlements in 1867, its primary concern was that the colony not cost the government money. For this reason, Britain relied largely on its command of the seas to provide protection for Singapore and other colonies. The British constructed Fort Canning, but military assessment made it clear that it would be nearly worthless in defending the port. There could be some shots fired when an attack fleet was coming toward Singapore, but once it was actually in the harbor, nothing could be done. Defenses were, at best, minimal.

Every so often, there would be a spark of concern about world events, and eyes would turn to Singapore as a possible center for British naval activities; but then the threat would pass, and attention would move elsewhere. This happened in the 1860s when the Admiralty’s fleeting interest in Singapore helped pave the way in the negotiations over the shift to crown colony status. It happened again in the 1880s when there was concern about the French moving into Indochina, possible fighting with Russia over Afghanistan, and a greater Japanese naval prowess. The Colonial Office indicated a willingness to defend the port, but the merchants also wanted defense of the town. Three decades of arguing about costs ensued. While there was debate in the 1890s about building a big dockyard for the British Navy, concerns grew about protecting the waters closer to Great Britain, and resources shifted in that direction.

Singapore survived World War I without a single upset except for a 10-day mutiny in 1915 by the single regiment that was left in Singapore. The 5th Light Infantry was composed of Indian Muslims from Punjab. Already out of sorts with Britain being at war against Muslim Turkey, when they were ordered to ship out for Hong Kong (leaving Singapore with no military units), they mutinied out of fear that they would instead be sent to fight Turkey or something equally unappealing. A combination of local effort (police, Singapore Volunteers, and the like) and the efforts of nearby French, Russian, and Japanese allied naval crews put down the mutiny and restored order. Within Singapore, the lasting effect was resentment within the Indian community because all Indians in Singapore had to register with the government. In terms of defenses, it illustrated how dependant Singapore would be on allied assistance, but Britain continued to view Singapore as being first and foremost about trade.

The interwar years, however, finally yielded a shift in this outlook. In assessing global risks and military strategy, the British War Office reached some important conclusions. First, it concluded that the ongoing use of Hong Kong as the base for all British naval operations in East Asia was not viable. Hong Kong was too vulnerable to a land-based attack. Singapore was determined to be a better location, and the Singapore Strategy was developed. The first draft of the Singapore Strategy called for an extensive naval base to be built in Singapore along with accompanying airfields. The naval station was to be large enough to function as a base for the full fleet, which risk assessments indicated would be needed to defend British interests in Asia against a full assault from the Japanese Imperial Navy.

Once again, however, defense plans were scaled back. The cost assessments weighed heavily against an extensive naval base in Singapore, and as fears increased that the next war would begin in Europe rather than Asia, the pressure to defend the British home front from potential aggression coming via the North Sea lessened the incentive to invest so heavily in naval defenses in Singapore. While the Singapore Strategy remained Britain’s master plan for Asia, it was based on gross misjudgments about Singapore’s vulnerabilities and was significantly scaled back from the first, more extensive draft of the Singapore Strategy. In a few short years, Britain’s miscalculations would become brutally evident because, while Singapore was able to sit out World War I, it was not so fortunate in World War II.

Overall, these decades of crown colony status were ones of profound change in Singapore. Its population rose dramatically with increased immigration from China and India. Despite being subject to world market fluctuations, it grew in significance and wealth as a port with the greater demand for rubber and tin and its position as a valuable coaling station for the new steamship trade. It experienced ongoing social problems but slowly improved on many of them. Finally, Singaporean residents developed meaningful communal identities, both within their groups, and to a certain degree, as Singaporeans. All of these developments set important foundations for what would come in the future.