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Societies Ordinance comes into force 1st Jan 1890

The Societies Ordinance was enacted with the aim of eliminating Chinese secret societies in the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Penang and Malacca. The enactment of the ordinance marked an important milestone in the relations between the British colonial government and the societies as tolerance gave way to suppression.[1]

Introduced to Malaya by the immigrant Chinese community, the secret society or hoey was a brotherhood organisation with historical origins in the Triad Society of Qing China.[2] The “secret” nature of such societies stemmed from their possession of “well-defined norms, secret rituals and an oath that […] bind the members to secrecy regarding the group’s affairs”.[3] Secret societies flourished with the influx of Chinese immigrants to Malaya in the early 19th century.[4] The new immigrant arrival, or sinkeh, would be quickly recruited into one of these societies from which he would derive assistance, protection, a sense of kinship and spiritual fulfillment.[5] Recognising the positive role of secret societies, British colonial administrators sought to enlist hoey leaders as intermediaries through which indirect rule of the immigrant Chinese population could be perpetuated.[6]

However, intense rivalries within and between secret societies, and the virtually unchecked influence of the secret societies contributed to a state of disorder with clashes amounting to public riots in the Straits Settlements between 1845 and 1885.[7] Yet the authorities refrained from direct intervention with the reason that suppression would simply force the societies underground to the detriment of government relations with the Chinese population.[8] In 1869, the Suppression of Dangerous Societies Ordinance was introduced in the hope that control would be achieved over time.[9] Despite its name, the chief effect of the ordinance was not the immediate proscription of secret societies, but their legal recognition through formal registration.[10]

The last straw came in 1887 when W. A. Pickering, the first Protector of the Chinese, was severely wounded in an attack allegedly incited by the Ghee Hok Society.[11] With the backing of then Governor of the Straits Settlements Cecil Clementi Smith and the Colonial Office, the new policy of suppression was committed to law with the passing of the Societies Ordinance in 1889.[12] The ordinance came into effect on 1 January 1890.[13] Under its provisions, societies of more than ten members were deemed illegal unless they had obtained official approval and were registered with the government.[14] In addition, the government was authorised to ban and dissolve any society it considered unlawful.[15] The ordinance dealt a critical blow to the secret societies as the major hoeys – 10 in Singapore, five in Penang and three in Malacca – were declared dangerous and were shortly dissolved.[16]

1. Blythe, W. (1969). The impact of Chinese secret societies in Malaya: A historical study (p. 6). Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press. Call no.: RSEA 366.09595 BLY.
2. Comber, L. F. (1955, May). Chinese secret societies in Malaya; an introduction. Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 29, no. 1 (173), 146–147. Retrieved from JSTOR. Call no.: RCLOS 959.5 JMBRAS.
3. Mak, L. F. (1981). The sociology of secret societies: A study of Chinese secret societies in Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia (p. 8). Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press. Call no.: RSING 366.095957 MAK.
4. Blythe, 1969, p. 63.
5. Ng, S. Y. (1961, March). The Chinese protectorate in Singapore, 1877–1900. Journal of Southeast Asian History, 2(1), 76. Retrieved from JSTOR; Blythe, 1969, p. 1. Call no.: RCLOS 959.05 JSA.
6. Yen, C. H. (1986). A social history of the Chinese in Singapore and Malaya 1800–1911 (pp. 115–116). Singapore: Oxford University Press. Call no.: RSING 301.45195105957 YEN.
7. Comber, May 1955, pp. 149–150; Ng, Mar 1961, p. 77.
8. Blythe, 1969, p. 222.
9. Blythe, 1969, p. 222.
10. Ng, Mar 1961, p. 78.
11. Blythe, 1969, pp. 220–222.
12. Turnbull, C. M. (2009). A history of modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (p. 103). Singapore: NUS Press. Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR.
13. Blythe, 1969, p. 236.
14. Blythe, 1969, p. 228.
15. Blythe, 1969, p. 228.
16. Ng, Mar 1961, p. 94.


The information in this article is valid as at 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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